Few people had heard of aerospace engineer and financial analyst Dennis Tito before 2001. That was the year Tito, then 60, became the first paying space tourist, cutting a $20 million check to Russia to fly aboard a Soyuz spacecraft and spend a week aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Since then, Tito has remained Earthbound, but has never quite shaken the adventuring bug. Now, he is planning to return to space—this time traveling to the moon, a route nobody but the Apollo astronauts have ever flown.
As SpaceNews, CNN, and others report, Tito, now 82, and his wife Akiko, have both inked a deal to travel on a one-week journey aboard SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft, along with up to 10 other paying passengers. They will be flying a path that will take them around the far side of the moon and slingshot them back home. The amount Tito and his wife are paying for their seats aboard the ship has not been disclosed.
The Starship is a 50 m (164 ft.) tall stainless steel spacecraft that launches atop SpaceX’s 69 m (226 ft.) Super Heavy booster. While the the rocket has never flown before, SpaceX hopes to launch it on its first, uncrewed Earth-orbital mission as early as next month. Following that, the Starship-Super Heavy pair will make its first crewed flight—also Earth orbital—in 2024 or 2025. Tito’s circumlunar flight would come sometime after that.
Just this week, SpaceX rolled the Super Heavy booster out to the launch pad at its Boca Chica, Texas, launch base, and stacked the Starship spacecraft on top. It was the first time the two segments of the giant machine had been mated. Together they make a formidable sight, towering 120 m (394 ft.) high—or a good seven stories taller than NASA’s mega moon rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). Starship is also significantly more powerful than the SLS. Starship’s 33, methane-fueled engines put out 7.2 million kg (16 million lb.) of thrust, nearly double that of NASA’s 6-engine rocket, which produces 4 million kg (8.8 million lb.).
Tito will make his journey aboard an identical machine—indeed, it could be the exact same one, since both the Starship and Super Heavy are designed to be reusable. In some respects, he surprised himself by deciding to make the trip at all. Until recently, he said in a call with reporter, he had hadn’t been planning to return to space, but, “over time, watching the developments of SpaceX and just what they were doing fascinated me.”
Last year, he began discussions with SpaceX, and told the company he would like to fly again, though not merely to the ISS. “‘I would be interested in going to the moon,'” he recalls saying. “And then I looked over to Akiko, and we had a little eye contact, and she goes, ‘Yeah, me too.’”
For the record, Tito says that after this mission, he really, truly will be retiring from the spaceflight game.
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