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The World’s First ‘Space Tourist’ Was an Italian-American

Dennis Tito used his millions to fulfill a lifelong dream of visiting space.

Outer space used to be a vast expanse of unexplored territory that only astronauts could navigate. The rest of the population had to enjoy the view from a television screen. However, in 2001, a man named Dennis Tito paid $20 million to become the world’s first space tourist. 

@aeronauthub/Instagram

This pioneering traveler, the oldest son of Italian immigrants, had dreamed of space travel since he saw Sputnik launch in 1957. This dream is what propelled him to pursue a career as a rocket scientist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. During his career, he helped plan missions to Mars and Venus. 

Eventually, Tito put his space dreams aside and become an investor, which in turn made him a millionaire. This money ultimately made his journey to space possible, as he paid the cash-strapped Russian Space Agency for his passage. He also signed a deal stating he would pay for anything he damages or breaks during the mission. Additionally, if anything were to happen to him, his heirs will not sue the space station.

Despite these safeguards, NASA adamantly opposed Tito’s attendance. They believed he wasn’t fit for space travel and that his presence would be a distraction to the crew members on the International Space Station. Russia argued they could fly whoever they wanted to on their spacecraft. The back and forth continued, while Tito spent seven months in a Russian training camp, not knowing whether he would fly or not. 

@novellapenza/Instagram

With only days left before takeoff, NASA relented, and Tito, age 60, was allowed to travel to space. 

The rocket launched from the same pad that Sputnik had, which was a particular treat for Tito. Overall, the trip lasted six days, and Tito became the third American to be launched on a Russian rocket and the third oldest person to go to space. 

When asked about his experience, Tito explained that a childhood dream was fulfilled. He said his life felt complete by this accomplishment. 

@ederandresballesterosortiz/Instagram

Despite Tito’s positive experience, NASA doubled down on its anti-space tourism stance and said there would be no more visits like Tito’s. However, in recent years NASA has backtracked on this statement and has become more open to the idea of commercial space travel. There are plans for more space tourism expeditions in the coming years. 

It is safe to say, Dennis Tito’s pursuit of a lifelong dream has paved the way for future space travelers. 

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