He's got a ticket to ride, finally

Cosmonaut: From a Russian bureaucrat with love - Dennis Tito gets his $20 million shot at space travel.

April 28, 2001|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Most laughed - it had to be a joke - when they heard he would take up cosmonaut training and fly into space. Of course, he had once worked for the space agency, and he had always dreamed of flying among the stars, and can't dreams come true?

Today, he will blast off, the laughter long since subsided. His name is Yuri Baturin, and he is part of the two-man Russian crew that is flying American Dennis Tito to the International Space Station. Tito may be the first tourist in space, but Baturin has already distinguished himself as the first bureaucrat there.

He was a 48-year-old aide to President Boris N. Yeltsin in 1998 when he announced his desire to become a cosmonaut and, by the end of that year, he was blasting off to the Mir space station.

NASA fiercely opposed Tito's trip. Russians feel otherwise - and not only because he paid them $20 million for the pleasure. They like people who find a way around officialdom to get what they want. And they don't like the United States to boss them around.

There's a treasured saying here: If it's forbidden, but you really feel like doing it, then you can.

Tito "looks puny and small, just an ordinary person," said Alexander Ivanchenko, a Soviet cosmonaut who first visited space in 1978, "but the fact that he is going there and giving so much money does him much credit."

Ivanchenko is 60, the same age as Tito.

Tito, who once worked as a rocket engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, later set up an investment firm and became a multimillionaire. He had been talking to Russia, which badly needs money for its space program, for years about a space trip. While Tito was accumulating the money for his chance, Baturin was storing political capital for his own launch. He was the secretary of Yeltsin's security council in 1998 when he became a cosmonaut.

Baturin's first flight, to the Mir space station in August 1998, was widely reported on by Russian media, which dwelled on the way political connections can get things done here. Space officials brushed aside all speculation that it was silly to send Baturin, who was 49 at the time.

"We can teach anyone to become a cosmonaut as long as he is not an idiot," Viktor Blagov, Mir's deputy flight director, said at the time. "Do people come out of their mothers as fliers? No. First they go to school, then to an institute. We show them how."

Russians are sympathetic to Tito because the United States is opposed to him. At first, the United States, one of the partners in the $95 billion station, said Russia couldn't send Tito without permission. NASA officials insisted it was dangerous to send an amateur.

They gave in to Russia's intransigence only after Tito promised to pay for anything he broke and signed a release.

"The new American administration doesn't approve of it," said Tatyana Skvortsova, a Moscow pensioner. "They want us to depend on them, even in space."

She said Russia was grateful for Tito's money and that a partnership with America was good as long as it avoided domination.

"Mankind has always been staring at the stars, intrigued," she said. "And the time will come when people will go into space free, without any special training."

Younger people, however, worried about Tito's age.

"The idea is not bad," said Larisa Zaitseva, a medical student, "but he is 60. Will he be all right with all the strain?"

Maybe, she said, he should spend the money on charity.

Dmitri Ryabov, a middle-aged businessman, said he admired Tito for pursuing his dream.

"For many people at age 60," he said, "life looks as if it's approaching its final and boring stage. What I like about that man is that he is not going to give in."

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