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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Millionaire Has a Ticket to Ride, But to Where?

STAR CITY, Moscow Region — For years, people have talked of traveling to space as tourists, but it has only been talk — until now.

Dennis Tito, who started dreaming of space flight when he watched Sputnik's launch as a teenager, who worked as a rocket scientist charting paths to planets, then switched to investing and became a multimillionaire, has a ticket to ride.

The fit, 60-year-old Californian has left his Pacific Palisades mansion for two rooms in the Star City cosmonaut training center outside Moscow to prepare for the launch, which could come early next year.

He has deposited millions of dollars in an escrow account, to be released to the cash-strapped Russian space authorities the moment he is launched as the first space tourist, but not a millisecond before. That's all in his contract, his ticket.

"The key is launch," Tito said recently during an interview in Star City. "All they have to do is light the rockets and the escrow opens up and they get all the money. And it's a lot of money. … There's a real strong incentive, I think, for the Russians to fly me."

But the question remains: Which space station will he fly to? There's a chance, however slight, it will be a turn-out-the-lights mission in January to the Russian Aviation and Space Agency's abandoned Mir. A suicide dive is planned for February and a crew will be sent beforehand only if a problem in preparations arises.

More likely it will be a taxi ride to the newly occupied, NASA-led international space station Alpha. In April, the attached Soyuz capsule, the crew's lifeboat, needs to be replaced. Tito says the pendulum has swung toward Alpha in light of Russia's recent decision to ditch Mir.

Either way, if he hasn't left Earth by June 30, 2001, the deal's off. That's also in his contract with the Russians.

"I just hope this doesn't become some kind of a political mess between the two agencies or the two countries," he says with a sigh.

A clash of titans, though, may be coming. Yury Semyonov, president and general designer of the KKK Energia corporation, says he's committed to honoring Tito's contract. He doesn't need NASA's or anyone else's permission to launch Tito on a Soyuz capsule to Mir, or to the international space station if Mir can be decommissioned by autopilot, Semyonov says huffily.

NASA administrator Daniel Goldin finds the whole matter distasteful. It's wrong, he contends, to peddle spaceship seats to rich guys looking for fun. "I can't tell the Russians what to do. They're a sovereign program, a sovereign nation," Goldin says. "But we do have a part to play in it because the lives, the safety of the astronauts are at stake," along with the future of the space station.

The NASA chief says spare seats on Russian Soyuz rockets should go to European or Japanese astronauts who have been training for years, not to wealthy "spectators."

The would-be space tourist insists he's more than a spectator. The oldest child of working-class Italian immigrants became smitten with space the same way many did: with the launch of the first space satellite, the Soviet Union's Sputnik, in 1957. "What I saw when I was 17 led me to enroll in aerospace engineering the next year," he said.

Tito ended up at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in 1964, plotting the flight paths for NASA's Mariner probes to Mars and Venus. During that time, he once called the space agency to get information on becoming an astronaut, but it never went beyond that single phone call.

Eventually, he put his dream on hold and changed course. Quitting his $15,000-a-year lab job to start his own investment business, he made his first million before he turned 40. His firm, Wilshire Associates, is a powerhouse that manages more than $10 billion in assets. At his quarters in the cosmonaut complex, a computer chirps constantly with e-mail messages from his home office in Santa Monica, California. Even as he built his business, though, the idea of space travel remained with him.

Earlier this year, he got a call from MirCorp, the Amsterdam-based firm trying to raise money to keep the space station going, with commercial applications in mind.

Would Tito be interested, MirCorp wondered, in flying to a resurrected Mir? In April, MirCorp's bigwigs went to his home in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles and, within 15 minutes, a deal was clinched. Tito, who's divorced with three children in their 20s, won't say how much he's paying for the one- to two-week space adventure. MirCorp's list price: $20 million.

Some at NASA worry about Tito's physical ability to handle a space trip. If anything goes wrong, the safety of the entire crew could be jeopardized by this cosmonaut-come-lately.

"He meets the parameters," Semyonov responds, noting Tito had to pass all the cosmonaut medical tests. Short, slim and bald, Tito looks years younger than 60.

Evidence of a healthy lifestyle is everywhere in his Star City apartment: worn running shoes, whole-wheat pasta, organic tomato sauce, soy protein.

Tito insists he won't be shattered if the Russians break their contract and he never makes it to space.

"The way I look at it is, every day counts and every day I'm learning about manned space flight. I'm learning about systems. I'm not sacrificing anything in terms of my business. My business is trucking along.

"I'm learning how to be alone. I'm learning how a different society works. I'm meeting astronauts and cosmonauts. I'm living in a spartan environment and learning that I don't need all this wealth and if I didn't have this wealth, I'd still be happy. Oh, I've already won." MirCorp Web Site Wilshire Associates NASA Space Flight Site