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An oral history of space tourism

Posted by Christopher Shea  January 27, 2009 11:37 AM

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0109-SpaceA2_x220.jpg
"Space tourist" Charles Simonyi returns to Earth, April 2007

Since 2001, six men have paid from $20 million to $35 million each to ride a Russian rocket into space and spend time on the International Space Station. The M.I.T. magazine Technology Review has compiled an oral history of the experiences of these lucky, plutocratic few, and offers a condensed, edited version in its latest issue.

The adventure begins with intense training (and intense mandatory Russian lessons) at Star City, outside Moscow -- idyllic in some ways, primitive in others: rusty water flows from the taps, hot water is a sometime thing. And Russian spacecraft are hardly gleaming: One private cosmonaut compares the equipment onboard to something out of Jules Verne. (The Russian space program is steampunk!) There are other surprises. During the bus drive to the launch pad, following a precedent set by Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, it's now de rigueur to stop the vehicle and have the cosmonauts exit -- whereupon they pee on one of the rear tires. For some first-timers, the absurdity of this exercise calms the nerves.

The South African Internet magnate Mark Shuttleworth provides the most sensuous experience of what it's like when the spacecraft finally slips Earth's bonds:

The thing I remember as being quite striking was this collection of very domestic sounds that kicks in after the main-engine cutoff. Mechanical sounds, like the air circulation and the conditioning, and then bits and pieces are kind of kicking in. You've got alarm clocks and fans, and you've got a big device called the "globus." It's a ball -- your map, basically -- that turns, and it starts going tick, tick, tick, like a cuckoo clock. You've just gone through this extraordinary experience of getting up into space, and then suddenly it's like waking up inside the workshop of an old Swiss clockmaker or something … this amazing contrast between what you might expect -- which should involve special effects and background music -- and the very mechanical physical reality of it.

(Photo: Reuters / Sergei Remezov)

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