On Sunday, Dennis Tito was reborn as a citizen of the cosmos.
It was a first, naturally, and an important one. Maybe as important as the first space walk, first orbital rendezvous, first footsteps on the moon.
Sure, others had been reborn in space. I've interviewed most of the Apollo moonwalkers, and they told me a story of men who soared to the moon as spit-and-polish military pilots and engineers, but who voyaged home to become prophets and poets. Several returned to Earth to paint pictures, write books and--in the case of Ed Mitchell, to found a religion of sorts--all based on the experience of beholding Earth as a shiny blue entity against the infinite blackness of space.
Tito was the first to see it through unfiltered eyes of an amateur, however.
"I've lived two lives now," he told CNN shortly after disembarking from a Soyuz space capsule that had taken him to the other side of the sky. One life was as a man on planet Earth. The other was as a space being.
No thanks to NASA, who wanted no part of this particular "first."
In fact, after hugging Russian cosmonauts goodbye, on Sunday, the space station's American commander could only muster a cool handshake for Tito as he left the station. Too bad. For Tito was the true pioneer, the true visionary in that particular scene. His name will echo farther and long after the name... hmmm, what was that commander's name?... is forgotten.
For some reason--jealousy? snobbery?--our buttoned down, elitist space program wanted nothing to do with Tito's joyous quest. No, rather than studying the transforming power of bringing Everyman into space, NASA would rather study the effects of weightlessness on asparagus... of radiation on white mice.
It's amazing. Those who scoff most loudly at the Russians and belittle them most for selling a $20 million ticket to "paradise" (Tito's word) utter nary a complaint when our president pledges to spend $60 billion filling the heavens with lasers guns and smart bombs.
Yet the Russians' use of the International Space Station is not only visionary, it's a logical extension of their previous space program. After all, their space station Mir, which flamed to earth six weeks ago, had provided safe harbor to 125 cosmonauts and astronauts from 12 countries and dozens of spacecraft over a period of 15 years. Russia planned to bring lots of private citizens to Mir, had it survived long enough.
Russia had learned the hard way what the United States--this capitalist bazaar--should have known all along. That is, the settlement of the space frontier, like all frontiers, eventually will depend on showing a profit. And that depends on showing people the promise of the heavens. And that means taking average Joes and Joannes into space.
Not that Tito is average. A former space scientist, he struck it rich only after re-inventing himself as an investment financier. He's hardly typical of the thousands now clamoring for a ride into orbit. Still, the Russian program is less elitist than ours. Already there's talk of a lottery, with the winner getting a ride to the space station, courtesy of Russia. And there's talk of a "Survivor" type game involving astronaut training, with an actual rocket ride to the heavens as the final payoff. There's been talk of a feature Hollywood movie being made in space.
Space tourism is the future. Space industry, generally, is the future. The Russians know that. It's a shame that, to prove it, they had to call our bluff.
We invited the Russians to take part in the International Space Stations as "partners" in order to show the world how broad-minded we are about space travel. But NASA was determined to run the show. The Russians would quietly do things our way, we let them know. They would be good little comrades. Russians have their own proud history as space-faring people, however, and they were having none of NASA's patronizing attitude.
The Russians as much as said, "You want a space partner, Comrade? We'll give you a space partner. Go ahead. Study your white mice and asparagus over there in your American sector. Study your weather patterns and smart bombs and lasers. Meanwhile, we'll bring space travel to the masses, even if it means starting with a foremost capitalist American millionaire. We'll found a new species. Citizen of the Universe."
We were miffed that someone else copped to the obvious.
Typical isn't it? For a fraction of what we the taxpayers have paid to watch NASA chase its own tail in low earth orbit for nearly a quarter-century, we could have had a permanent moon base by now, complete with a Hyatt Regency for journalists, artists and spiritual leaders. We had the gear and hardware to make it happen as long ago as the sixties.
Not to worry. It'll happen yet. The only question is who will lead the way? So far the answer is a handful of practical Russian visionaries in league with an American millionaire. His name is Tito. Study that smiling face in all the clips and photos. Such enthusiasm, such bliss, will not long be denied.