How does one decide to visit space? Until recently, no one had faced such a decision. Rare people with the "right stuff" could dedicate their lives to becoming astronauts and cosmonauts and compete for the crew assignments, but the decision of who would fly always rested, rightfully, with the respective space organizations. Then along came Eric Anderson, a young, visionary aerospace engineer who cofounded Space Adventures, making it possible for nonastronauts to buy "taxi" seats aboard Russian spacecraft and travel to the International Space Station. Three cheers for Eric—and hats off to Dennis Tito, the California businessman who in 2001 became Space Adventures' first Spaceflight Participant—or, as most people call it, "space tourist."
I was just an earthbound tourist, visiting Baikonur, the Russian spaceport, when I met Eric in 2004. I was amazed by the openness of the Russian space program—we could practically touch the fully fueled rocket on the launchpad as we saw the cosmonauts off to space. I was even more amazed when Eric, ever so gently, suggested that one day I might want to be on the departure platform where the cosmonauts were standing.
The trip would cost $25 million, which I considered money well spent for the cash-strapped Russian space program. I was intrigued enough to make the first exploratory steps and deal with the uncertainties: What about my health? (I'm 59.) Was I strong enough, physically and mentally, for spaceflight? The good news is that for Spaceflight Participants, the standards aren't as strict as they are for the professionals. But even those minimum standards are too high for most of us. And, frankly, the space doctors have not had much experience working with people without the "right stuff" to know what the real minimums are. I had to visit more than 50 doctors, including psychiatrists, some American and some Russian.
One of the strangest tests was the "vestibular chair," where I had to sit with eyes closed in a rotating seat and bob my head in a steady rhythm. This creates some unusual sensations in the inner ear that are thought by the Russians to be similar to the "space sickness" many spacefarers experience during their first days in orbit. I did not like the chair at all at the time, and although I smiled broadly, inside I was unsure if I could take much more.
To my surprise I kept passing the tests, even the unpleasant ones, and one day in Moscow I was declared fit for "special training." Eric was the first to congratulate me. He also said that, as opposed to what we had planned, the Russians wanted me to enter training as soon as possible and fly on the next spacecraft. I had to decide then and there. It actually wasn't as hard as it seems in the abstract. I felt incredibly lucky and privileged just to have been asked. The answer had to be yes, come what may.
Canceling all appointments for the next 10 months and moving into a dorm room on the Russian military base where cosmonauts are trained was quite a change for me. (After spending two decades at Microsoft, where I oversaw the creation of Word and Excel, I cofounded Intentional Software Corp. in 2002.) I had tutors in many interesting subjects, including the wonderful Russian language. I ate at the officers' mess, where one of the regular dishes was called, simply, myaso—that is, meat. I had a regular exercise program and swam more than I ever have before. I made lots of new friends, including many American astronauts who also train there.
There were many tests, each one harder and harder. I learned how to don and doff my spacesuit even while wearing a gas mask against fire. I spent two hours motionless in the suit in a vacuum chamber. I was spun around in a giant centrifuge to experience the G-loads of the rocket. I was flown in a transport plane to exercise in a state of weightlessness.
Finally, launch day arrived: April 7, 2007. My Russian crewmates and I met with our families—speaking through glass, since we were in quarantine (lest we carry some bugs to the space station). The launch preparation itself is full of traditions: for example, before we climbed the stairs to the elevator, the chief designer himself kicked us firmly in the behind to get us going. Once ensconced in the capsule, we could feel a powerful quiet and peace, which ended with the rumble of the launch. In just eight minutes we were in orbit, weightless.
The window blinds remained drawn for the first few hours: just seeing the Earth go by below could make us sick. But my training worked well. I did not get spacesick at all: any unease I felt reminded me of the chair and how I could tolerate it.
The arrival to the space station at sunset, when the most incredible colors appear, was the high point of my trip. Framed by the empty blackness of the sky and the brilliant blue of Earth, the first permanently settled outpost of humanity in space is an incredible view—at once unexpected and inviting.
Working in space for the next two weeks and watching the Earth from that vantage point filled me with a new sense of hope and pride. From our low orbit, the Earth looked like the most beautiful blue sky I have ever seen—it is big, it is peaceful and it is adorned with white clouds. Traveling around the globe over the years, I have seen many beautiful places. But only as a space tourist did I discover just how beautiful the world truly is.