Dennis Tito's Space Vacation is GO

2001In the film "2001: A space Odyssey" tourists travelled effortlessly to and fro between Earth, space stations, and the Moon in First Class airliner-like accommodations. Everyone was smiling - the flight attendants, pilots - and even (gasp) the passengers - some people even managed to doze off. Only the bathrooms seem to require any serious button pushing on the passenger's part. Ah, how sedate and civilized space tourism was going to be.

Alas, 2001 is not at all like "2001" when it comes to space tourism.

Today, if you want to buy a ticket - you can, but then you have endure what amounts to an international political campaign complete with political standoffs and angry threats in order to hold onto that seat on a spaceship and then prove that you are qualified to make the trip. Hardly the civilized egalitarian future we all hoped for.

Given the events of the past few days, Dennis Tito can now climb into his Soyuz seat on Saturday morning safe in the knowledge that nothing except hardware problems will prevent him from going into space and visiting the International Space Station.

After months of posturing, speculation, and stubbornness, a final series of events over the past weekend culminated with a short NASA Advisory Council Task Force report which laid out the way in which this would come to pass. The on-again off-again stalemate was over.

To many space observers, it is clear that Russia prevailed in its determination to fly anyone it pleases - and the other nations who comprise the ISS program had little to do but make the inevitable trip of Dennis Tito as safe as possible. It is important to note how this all came to be by looking back at how this all started.

Any Space Station Will Do

In the Fall of 2000 American millionaire and former rocket scientist Dennis Tito began the path towards realizing a long held dream - to fly in space. He did so by purchasing a ticket to visit Russia's Mir Space Station. A lack of sufficient business (and other space tourists) forced Russia to reluctantly abandon Mir. Last month it was crashed into the Pacific Ocean.

Tito still had a ticket and a desire to fly - but his original space accommodations were gone. With the demise of Mir more or less a certainty for several months, Tito was able to get the destination altered on his ticket - this time to the only space station likely to be around - the International Space Station (ISS). Since the systems used on Soyuz spacecraft and Mir were very similar (often identical) to those he'd see by visiting the Russian portion of the ISS (via Soyuz) his multi-month training on those systems was easily transferable.

Space Resort Under Construction

But there is more to the International Space Station than Russian hardware - and the other partners in the ISS program all agreed that Dennis Tito - and anyone else visiting for that matter - had to have a certain level of basic proficiency before they could be allowed to visit the ISS. This issue is all the more pressing given that the ISS is still under construction and far from complete.

Many at NASA admit that they knew the day would come (almost certainly involving Russia) when a paying passenger would set off for the ISS. What caught NASA by surprise was how soon it happened - and how ill prepared they were to deal with it when it was time to make decisions.

Dennis TitoThe Right Stuff - ISS Style

The ISS program has an organization composed of boards that are specified in one way or another by the international agreements which underlie the ISS program. One such entity is the MCOP - the Multilateral Crew Operations Panel. This panel is the means whereby all of the partners participate in and agree to procedures that affect all crew operations on all parts of the ISS. In some cases, the interactions need not involved everyone. Another group - the Bilateral Crew Operations Panel (BCOP) was established to work out crew and hardware issues between the U.S. and Russia.

Between the BCOP and the MCOP a draft collection of criteria that would be expected of people flying to the ISS was developed. The document has the ponderous title of "Principles Regarding Processes and Criteria for Selection, Assessment, Training, and Certification of ISS (Expedition and Visiting) Crew Members". This document is still in draft form and has not been formally approved ("baselined") by the ISS program.

None the less, this collection of ISS crew selection and acceptance criteria does go a long way towards describing what skills the International Partners (Russia included) think an ISS visitor should have. Despite that the fact that this document has been elevated to de facto acceptance it is unlikely that it will be released to the public. NASA's paranoia regarding the release of draft documents is shared by other space agencies as well. We'll get back to this document in a moment.

The Final Standoff Begins

After simmering on NASA's back burner for a few months the Dennis Tito issue finally came to a quick boil in March. On the morning of 19 March 2001 cosmonauts Yuri Baturin and Talgat Musabayev, and their commercial passenger Dennis Tito, along with their back up crew, arrived at NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) to begin training for the upcoming Soyuz TM-32 (aka "Soyuz 2") taxi mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Tito was promptly denied access to any training by NASA until matters of liability could be resolved - and the extent of Tito's Russian training could be more fully understood.

The Russian cosmonauts returned the next day and commenced their training - without Dennis Tito. Tito has not since received any of the training on U.S. hardware that is required of all visitors to the ISS. When NASA suggested that Tito wait until October when things would be less hectic in space (and to get the additional training in the mean time) Tito replied that he was adamant that he'd be on the April flight - and that he had other things (a business) to get back to.

NASA had been dodging this issue for months. Other than some less than charitable remarks by NASA Administrator Dan Goldin about rich people flying in space, NASA had not taken a firm public stand on Mr. Tito's flight to the ISS. After the standoff at JSC, NASA issued a press release later that day which laid out its position on the matter.

In the statement, NASA said that it "fully supports the commercialization of the International Space Station, provided that the safety and operational integrity of the vehicle and crew are maintained at all times. To that end, NASA and the other international partners are in the process of establishing criteria for selection, training and certification of non-professional station crewmembers on the International Space Station on a commercial basis. However, based on incomplete crew criteria and unresolved operational and legal considerations, there is not enough time to prepare Tito for a safe Soyuz flight to the station in April." Thus the gauntlet was tossed down.

Tom Stafford to the Rescue - Once Again

Shortly thereafter NASA Administrator Dan Goldin and RSA Director Yuri Koptev gave the NASA Advisory Council Task Force on International Space Station Operational Readiness a task: "to assess the safety and operational issues associated with flying a non-professional astronaut/cosmonaut to the International Space Station during the upcoming April 2001 Soyuz 2 taxi flight." This effort resulted in a meeting between 27-30 March in Moscow.

This task force is chaired by veteran astronaut Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Stafford, USAF (Ret.) and has looked into a number of issues relating to Russian and American space activities. His presence on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission in 1975 has given him some unique insight - and long standing relationships with Russian upon which to work towards formulating his committee's analysis and recommendations.

After spending a month looking into the extent of Mr. Tito's training - and the safety issues that might arise from a visit by someone with Mr. Tito's skill mix, Stafford's team came back with their recommendations. What they announced is what everyone already knew - Dennis Tito was going to fly to the ISS and NASA was going to let him (or rather, not try and stop him). Indeed, a NASA Astronaut had already gotten Mr. Tito to sign liability waivers over the weekend in Russia.

A meeting of the Task Force was held by teleconference on 24 April 2001. Stafford made his presentation by telephone. Task Force members joined in by phone. Michael Greenfield, Deputy Associate Administrator of the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance (Code Q) handled reporters question at NASA Headquarters after the presentation was completed.

Tito's Skill Mix - or Lack Thereof

Stafford's team concluded (Letter from Gen. Stafford, Chairman, Stafford Task Force, and Academician Anfimov, Chairman, Utkin Advisory Expert Council Regarding The Flying of Dennis Tito to the ISS) that the workload for the ISS crew between April and June 2001 was complex enough to warrant visits only by trained cosmonauts and astronauts. The Russians have trained Tito to a level of proficiency on Russian systems such that Russia will certify that he is qualified to fly. However, Stafford's team was concerned with Tito's minimal Russian language skills. Tito also lacks training on any of the systems operating in the U.S. Segment of the ISS making his presence in that part of the station problematical.

Stafford's team felt that Russia needs to address these shortfalls in Tito's training immediately. Stafford added that his task Force "does not feel that it has sufficient information to judge whether or not Mr. Tito is qualified to fly to the ISS."

This entire situation has been compounded by the fact that no formal ISS crew proficiency document has been baselined. However, as mentioned above, one is under development by the BCOP and the MCOP and does capture the bulk of what the ISS partners feel is required for people flying to the ISS either as crew - or visitors. Stafford's team felt that this document should be adopted as interim requirements until such time as a formal set can be baselined.

Making Tito's Trip Less Risky

Stafford's Team was also asked to come up with ways to mitigate the risk posed by having someone aboard the ISS with a less than desirable skill mix during a time when the ISS is still under construction. (Letter From Lt. Gen Stafford to OSF AA Rothenberg regarding safety issues associated with Dennis Tito's ISS visit).

According to Stafford "To further reduce risk, it should be made clear to Mr. Tito that his activities are limited to the Russian Modules, due to his lack of adequate training on the U.S. Modules, unless escorted by an Expedition 2 crewmember for the identification of emergency equipment and any required safety briefing." This would include familiarizing Tito with various safety systems in the Lab and Node 1 - and emergency procedures than require a working knowledge of the ISS as a whole. It was also deemed prudent "that Mr. Tito should sleep in his designated Soyuz return vehicle in the event that an emergency should occur during his sleep cycle."

Given that more attention needs to be paid to Tito's presence on the ISS, Stafford's team agreed with recommendations made by NASA JSC as to limiting some previously scheduled payload operations including the Human Research Facility, Crew Health and Checkout System, and Express Rack 2 Activations, postponing repairs to the Treadmill, and putting a halt to all checkout procedures for the recently-installed Canadarm2.

Stafford added that he understood that "Tito has been briefed on the ISS Crew Code of Conduct (CCoC), but NASA has not received written confirmation from Rosaviakosmos that he has signed it. I strongly recommend that Rosaviakosmos meet its commitments in accordance with the CCoC and confirm in writing that Mr. Tito has signed and will adhere to the CCoC."

What if Russia Just Ignores All of This?

In closing, Stafford was rather blunt in his admonition to Russia: "Rosaviakosmos must guarantee to all of the ISS partners that it is fully liable for the flying of Mr. Tito, and that in the future, this type of unilateral decision will never happen again."

Whether Mr. Tito and Russia chose to devote attention to these concerns (in light of their steadfast refusal to delay Mr. Tito's flight or allow other nations to affect their decision) is open to question.

With regard to whether Russia agrees to the conditions specified by Stafford's team, Task Force member Ronald Merrel from Virginia Commonwealth University asked Stafford to clarify things saying "if people in Russia don't agree that this won't happen again - (does this mean that) there should not be a launch on the 28th of April?" Stafford answered indirectly by saying "there will be no more unilateral decisions again." Merrel replied that he felt that the U.S. may be "setting ourselves up for a problem in the future."

Reporter Questions

When asked by several reporters - in several ways - what the U.S. would do if Russia did not agree to the items spelled out by the Task force (i.e. would the U.S. formally oppose the launch or try and stop it), Michael Greenfield could not give a specific answer other than to say that he thought such a situation would require action at the heads of state level.

Another reporter asked if all of the delayed or deferred work on payloads and the Canadarm2 amounted to a work slowdown. Greenfield responded partially by saying that clearly the Operations "tempo' was such that a change will be required to accommodate Tito's presence but that NASA would "prefer to be working with the Arm."

A question was then asked if Tito would be required to adhere to all aspects of the ISS Crew Code of Conduct (CCoC) which includes provisions that state;

"ISS crewmembers shall refrain from any use of the position of ISS crewmember that is motivated, or has the appearance of being motivated, by private gain, including financial gain, for himself or herself or other persons or entities. Performance of ISS duties shall not be considered to be motivated by private gain. Furthermore, no ISS crewmember shall use the position of ISS crewmember in any way to coerce, or give the appearance of coercing, another person to provide any financial benefit to himself or herself or other persons or entities."

and

"Each ISS crewmember may carry and store mementos, including flags, patches, insignia, and similar small items of minor value, onboard the ISS, for his or her private use, subject to the following: (1) mementos are permitted as a courtesy, not an entitlement; as such they shall be considered as ballast as opposed to a payload or mission requirement and are subject to manifest limitations, on- orbit stowage allocations, and safety considerations; (2) mementos may not be sold, transferred for sale, used or transferred for personal gain, or used or transferred for any commercial or fundraising purpose. Mementos which, by their nature, lend themselves to exploitation by the recipients, or which, in the opinion of the Cooperating Agency providing the ISS crewmember, engender questions as to good taste, will not be permitted."

Greenfield replied that it was NASA's position that Tito sign and adhere to the CCoC. According to news reports issued after this meeting NASA has confirmed that Mr. Tito has indeed signed the CCoC.

The question arose as to whether any of the income Russia derives for this - or any other paid ride aboard a Soyuz would be shared with the US or other partners - especially given that previously scheduled work has to be delayed. Greenfield was not sure.

Is Yuri Baturin Qualified to Fly?

Discussion also arose about whether there were indeed two qualified cosmonauts on this Soyuz mission - with a suggestion that there are some inconsistencies in how Russia qualifies people for flight.

Although not mentioned by name, the reference was clearly to Soyuz TM-32 cosmonaut Yuri Baturin. Baturin (who has already made one spaceflight - to Mir) is a lawyer and was the Secretary of former President Yeltsin's policy-making Defence Council. Yelstin fired Baturin in August 1997. Several days later the prospect of Baturin travelling to Mir emerged. In February 1998 RIA Novosti noted that "Yuri Baturin, a former adviser to the Russian president, today received a diploma on completing the general space training course, RIA Novosti was told at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center. Baturin began training nearly a year ago." In September 1998 the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS said " ... "Baturin, a lawyer who says his one-time stint as an astronaut might be his last..."

According to a representative from the Astronaut Office at NASA JSC, the cosmonaut in question was someone who had received training and was "considered a cosmonaut" by Russia - and that his political activities were not important. It should be noted that U.S. astronauts are regularly used by NASA to perform managerial activities - and that the U.S. flew two U.S. Senators and one Congressman (now also a Senator) and elected several former Astronauts to Congress.

Greenfield noted that Tito's training was an example of a new expedited or "streamlined" training process being used by Russia and that NASA did not feel that Tito was as qualified as were other individuals who had flown to Mir.

What This All Means

In summary, all of NASA's concerns, as well as those of the International Partners in the ISS program aside, the launch of Dennis Tito to the International Space Station was a fait accompli some time ago. What happened today was simply a formal acceptance of that fact. It will be very interesting to see if General Stafford's terse statement that "there will be no more unilateral decisions again" sticks.

Moreover it remains to be seen whether Mr. Tito's activities in space - and after his return to Earth will serve (as many hope) to make it easier for people to follow the trail he has blazed - or (because of all of the blood shed in the process) make it more difficult.

Related Links

  • 10 December 2000: Earth's First Self-Financed Astronaut, (Interview with Dennis Tito) SpaceRef

  • 16 April 2001: Letter From Lt. Gen Stafford to OSF AA Rothenberg regarding safety issues associated with Dennis Tito's ISS visit

  • 30 March 2001: Letter from Gen. Stafford, Chairman, Stafford Task Force, and Academician Anfimov, Chairman, Utkin Advisory Expert Council Regarding The Flying of Dennis Tito (and Visitors) to the ISS

  • 24 April 2001: Decision Paper on Russian Aviation and Space Agency (Rosaviakosmos) request for MCB approval of exemption to fly Mr. Dennis Tito aboard the April 2001 Soyuz 2 taxi flight to the International Space Station (ISS), Multilateral Coordination Board (MCB) Meeting of April 24, 2001

  • 14 CFR Part 1214 Code of Conduct for the International Space Station Crew

  • 24 April 2001: NSS Statement on Launch of Dennis Tito to Space Station

  • 24 April 2001: Rep. Sensenbrenner's Statement on Mr. Dennis Tito's Trip to the Space Station

  • 24 April 2001: Photo Report: Final Inspection of Soyuz TM-32 Spacecraft at Baikonur, RSC Energia

  • 24 April 2001: Photo Report: Shroud Roll-On Over Soyuz TM-32 Spacecraft, RSC Energia

  • 18 April 2001: RSC Energia Photo Report: Soyuz TM-32 Crew Spacesuit Fit Check in the Assembly and Testing Facility

  • 19 March 2001: Dennis Tito's Flight to Space Station Hits Major Snag - with NASA, SpaceRef

  • 28 September 2000: Sending "Average" People into Space is Suddenly VERY Popular, SpaceRef


    Please follow SpaceRef on Twitter and Like us on Facebook.