Space squabble: Astro-tourist causes rift between Russia, US

American paid Russia to visit the International Space Station. NASA has balked at plans to send him up in April.

Countless children lay awake at night, staring out at the stars and dreaming of floating weightlessly among them. But what may have started as a dream for Dennis Tito over half a century ago became reality when this California investment tycoon paid Russia $20 million to become history's first space tourist.

What Mr. Tito probably never imagined is that the realization of his dream would send US-Russian space relations into orbit.

Last week, NASA officials denied Tito access to the Johnson Space Center - and the further training he needs to make it to the International Space Station (ISS) next month. In response, Tito's fellow Russian cosmonauts boycotted their first day of training at the center out of solidarity.

While just one of a string of blows to US- Russian relations in recent weeks, the spat over Tito's desire to be the first astro-tourist points up the differences between the astronaut and cosmonaut mentality, particularly in their differing visions of the purpose of space exploration.

"Can this create conflict? Well, it already has to a degree," says Charles Vick, a Soviet space expert and senior research associate at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington "But I think those in the industry have learned that ISS is where their future lies."

The question of who should decide how the ISS should be used is a sticky one - and not likely to be resolved soon - despite the two countries' avowed desire to create a true partnership.

And while experts say one millionaire would-be explorer is unlikely to prove a source of lasting tension, the underlying cultural differences that led to the clash may prove more difficult to overcome, as the multibillion-dollar project moves ahead with a multitude of countries.

"I don't see it as a Russia vs. USA battle, as some have tried to characterize it," says Michael Hawes, NASA's deputy associate administrator for the International Space Station. "It's not a turf battle, but it is a hard test of how well these partnering agreements will work. And we haven't had many of these tests yet."

NASA officials say it is not their intention to keep citizens out of space; they simply want more time to work out the details. Russia's plan to send Tito to the space station in April comes too soon, they say, especially during such a critical phase of the station's assembly. And they question Russia's taking unilateral action, without consulting its partners.

"This is an international space station with an international crew," says Mr. Hawes.

Both sides are continuing discussions, Hawes says, but so far it remains unresolved. NASA is proposing an October flight for Tito.

Tito had initially paid for a trip to the Mir Space Station, something that did not require international approval.

But when Russia agreed to scrap the 15-year-old station late last year, the cash-strapped country needed another solution. It was then that the idea of sending a civilian to the International Space Station was first proposed.

A meeting between Russian and US officials took place in February, but no consensus was reached.

NASA officials warned Tito that he would not be allowed access to the Johnson Space Center if he showed up with his fellow cosmonauts in March. He showed up anyway, with five bodyguards in tow. "It was pure theater," says Mr. Vick, who admits he was disappointed with NASA's actions.

"This is not the way you do business with the Russians. They are very proud, prickly, sensitive people, and we don't need to be adding to their natural xenophobic attitudes and fear of the West," he says. "This sets a very dangerous precedent."

Also, Tito does have some qualifications: The investment capitalist and son of an Italian immigrant is a former rocket scientist. In fact, before he quit to start his Wilshire Associates investment firm, he worked for NASA - at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California.

He reportedly first considered the possibility of paying his way into space 10 years ago after hearing about Russia's "guest cosmonaut" program. That was put on hold after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Tito was unavailable for comment, having returned to Star City, Russia, to resume training on Russian equipment. But in an interview with The Associated Press, he said:

"I'm not a spoiler here. I'm not trying to screw up the relationship between the partners. I just have a different view of the direction of our space program, and maybe when I get back I'll be able to have some influence, politically, to help change it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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