`Afronaut' counting down to trip


Voyage: Mark Shuttleworth, a 28-year-old multimillionaire, is about to become the first African to travel to space.

April 21, 2002|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - On Thursday morning, a Russian Soyuz rocket is scheduled to blast off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakstan bound for the International Space Station. On board will be Russian Commander Yuri Gidzenko, Italian Flight Engineer Roberto Vittori and one paying passenger who describes himself as a "geek" - a South African named Mark Shuttleworth.

Shuttleworth's ticket for his 10-day journey into space comes at a high-flying price: $20 million.

But Shuttleworth can afford it. At the tender age of 28, Shuttleworth is a millionaire, an Internet tycoon and venture capitalist who says he likes pursuing "slightly crazy projects." His latest endeavor is to become the first African in space - an "Afronaut," as some of the local media have dubbed him.

He will be following the space trail blazed by Dennis Tito, the 60-year-old California businessman who became the world's first space tourist last April when he paid about $20 million to fly with the Russian cosmonauts to the space station.

A queue of other would-be tourists are waiting behind Shuttleworth, ready to pack their bags for a trip to the stars. Lance Bass, the 22-year-old member of the boy band `N Sync, is inquiring about booking a space flight, as is a 40-year-old Washington, D.C.-based space consultant and mother of two. A Polish entrepreneur and Hollywood actors also have expressed interest in space journeys.

Shuttleworth insists he is not just a tourist. During his journey, he will conduct a number of experiments designed by South African scientists.

He will be looking at the development of stem cells in weightlessness, monitoring the effect of space travel on his muscles and heart, photographing parts of the ocean and Earth, and working with fruit flies.

The most meaningful experiment for South Africa is a plan to crystallize HIV proteins in microgravity in hopes of enabling researchers to better understand the structure of the virus and perhaps someday help them find a cure. South Africa, where 4.7 million people - or about 11 percent of the population - are HIV positive, has more people infected with AIDS than any other nation.

"I'm not a professional astronaut, but I'm not going just for a ride," Shuttleworth says in a telephone interview from Russia's Space City, about one hour outside Moscow, where he has been undergoing eight months of training.

His studies have included Russian - which he says he speaks well enough to understand cockpit talk, but not read Tolstoy.

For Russia, opening the door to space travelers has brought much-needed cash to keep its space program running. Its decision drew criticism from NASA, which objected to Tito's flight, claiming it would be a disruption for the space station crew.

But during the past year, NASA officials have grown more comfortable with the idea of nonprofessional space travelers. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe announced recently that he would send teachers into space again - a program that ended after Christa McAuliffe died during the shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.

"I don't like the term `space tourist,'" says Robert Cabana, director of NASA Manned Missions in Russia, who spoke this month during a news conference on Russian-American space cooperation. "If you look at Mark Shuttleworth's flight program ... you'll find that he's not just being a tourist up there."

Here in South Africa, Shuttleworth is using his flight as the focus of a major education program, including planned conversations with school children by ham radio once he arrives at the space station. Shuttleworth has also kicked off an advertising campaign advising kids that it is "hip" to pursue studies in science and mathematics.

He employs a team of assistants who handle the educational programs and run a Web site, www.firstafricaninspace. com, where students can learn about his flight and the challenges of space travel, and keep up to date on his training journal.

One entry answers the most frequent question he receives about space travel: "How do you go to the bathroom?" (Astronauts are usually hooked up to a tube for that.)

Born in the gold-mining town of Welkom in what is now South Africa's Free State, Shuttleworth describes himself as a "bookworm" who, as a boy, played with model rockets and computer games. He first discovered the Internet at the University of Cape Town, where he was studying finance.

As a senior in 1995, he founded Thawte Consulting, a company specializing in Internet security technology. Four years later, Shuttleworth's company had cornered about 40 percent of the worldwide Internet security market and was bought by the U.S.-based company VeriSign, its main competitor.

The deal was worth about $600 million, turning Shuttleworth, an unknown 26-year-old with less than $2,500 in the bank, into one of South Africa's richest residents.

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