Dennis Tito was the world’s first space tourist, paying $20 million to join a Russian cosmonaut crew on a Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station in 2001. Tito, founder of Santa Monica investment advisory Wilshire Associates, wasn’t just a well-heeled businessman with a space obsession. Before entering the finance world, he earned degrees in astronautics, aeronautics, and engineering science, then worked for five years at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena helping plot trajectories for the Mariner IV, V, and IX trips to Mars. He orbited Earth 128 times in eight days on the ISS. Tito recently reflected at his Santa Monica office on his experience in space and what the future might hold for space tourism.

STATS

NAME: Dennis Tito

AGE: 76

HOMETOWN: New York

COMPANY: Wilshire Associates Inc.

TITLE: Chairman and chief executive

Why were you so determined to go into space?

By the time I was 21, I was studying to become a rocket scientist. At that point I said, “Boy, I really want to go in space when I grow up.” I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I certainly wasn’t as qualified as the original Mercury astronauts. I thought, over time maybe regular people would be able to go into space. I waited and waited and watched, and decades went by and it didn’t seem like anything was going to happen.

So then you found a way with the Russians. Were you ever worried about safety or did you have second thoughts?

I had a lot of thoughts about it. I had my own way of evaluating risks. I was 60 then. I had a 1 percent chance of not being alive in 12 months. I came up with about a 1 percent estimate of not surviving (the trip). So it came down to one year of expected life for a life goal.

What’s it like up there?

It went well beyond my expectations. And the ability to achieve a lifelong goal that I set 40 years earlier is awesome. Being in space, circling the Earth and knowing that all of humanity is below you is just the most thrilling experience I think anyone can have.

What surprised you most?

My biggest concern was that I might end up being ill or jetlagged or exhausted or I wouldn’t adapt to weightlessness. The big surprise was that everything went right. Just a euphoric experience from beginning to end. Just the greatest experience of my life.

Did you expect your trip to have an impact?

I’m not sure I thought a lot about it. I knew it would have some impact, but I was more focused on just getting there. NASA did not support me going.

What do you think about the new space race for tourism and other commercial enterprises?

I was at the launch of SpaceShipOne. So I am a little surprised it’s taken so long. That was 12 years ago. I’m looking forward to seeing people flying (Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo). What I’m uncertain of is how many people will be interested in the experience once you have several hundred people do it. So I’m uncertain of the business model, whether they will have enough people do it.

If the only option when you went into space had been the four minutes Virgin Galactic is going to offer, would you have done it?

Oh, I would have done that because at least I would have achieved my goal of getting to space.

What advice would you give aerospace companies to improve the space tourism experience?

I think one thing is that they’re going to have to have a perfect safety record. And they already have one failure with Virgin Galactic.

One company’s accident could impact the entire industry.

Yes. The thing is they’re going to have to have a risk assessment. I had 30 years to look back at Soyuz, the Russian rocket. We’ve had 14 U.S. (space-related deaths) in flight and the Russians four. That’s about 4 percent of the total (space missions). If you’re going to fly on Virgin Galactic, you have to ask yourself, what’s the chance of something going wrong? And then you have to ask, am I willing to take that risk? When you risk your life, that’s a big decision.

Would you go back to space when space tourism companies start taking regular trips?

Definitely not. If I were younger, and it were a trip around the moon, something I haven’t done before. But that’s not in the cards.

No trip back to the space station?

I wasn’t married at the time. If I wanted to go now, I don’t think my wife would let me.

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