Internet Tycoon, 28, Heads Aloft as "Space Tourist"

April 16, 2002

At the age of 22, South African Mark Shuttleworth founded Thawte Consulting, the first non-U.S. company to help improve the security of business transactions on the Internet. Four years later, the Cape Town native sold his company for 400 million dollars.

Today, Shuttleworth is using the earnings for a lofty goal: to become the first African citizen in space.

Shuttleworth was inspired by a successful flight to the International Space Station a year ago by Californian multimillionaire Dennis Tito, the world's first "space tourist." So the young South African contacted Space Adventures, a Virginia-based space tourism company, which succeeded in booking Shuttleworth a seat aboard the Soyuz, the Russian space capsule that will take him to the International Space Station as part of an eight-day mission to replace an emergency re-entry capsule.

Unlike NASA, the Russian Aviation and Space Agency is increasingly dependent on the private sector for funding. Engineering contracts, private satellite launches, and paying passengers represent an important source of revenue. Shuttleworth is reported to have paid about 20 million dollars for his seat—the same amount as Tito.

Unlike his predecesor, however, Shuttleworth has been working closely with NASA prior to his take off—he even spent five days training at Houston's Johnson Space Center. By the time he signed a contract with RASA last December, Shuttleworth had met a preliminary draft of space travel requirements the international partners of the ISS have since officially set to gauge a space tourist's physical and psychological condition and language abilities.

For the past nine months, Shuttleworth has worked with interpreters, flight instructors, and scientists at the Russian training facility in Star City, 43 miles (70 kilometers) north of Moscow. National Geographic Adventure talked with him as he prepared for his slated launch on April 25.

How did you get the opportunity to go to the International Space Station?

I remember discussing the idea of going with my parents in 1996. I knew that if I wanted to get into space without becoming an astronaut, I would have to go to Russia. When Dennis Tito signed a contract to go to the ISS, I was very interested and approached the Russian Aviation and Space Agency. In May of 2001 they responded to my inquiry, and gave me some initial physical tests. Once I passed, we entered contract negotiations and then I began training for the flight.

In July 2001, you began cosmonaut training in Star City. Since then, you've gone from being known as an Internet tycoon to becoming the world's second space tourist. What has the transition been like?

I am amused when people call me a space tourist. For me, working very hard here in Russia hardly qualifies as a holiday, and I expect the ten days on this mission will be busy as well. Training in Star City is from 9 a.m. till 6 p.m., five days a week. I attend very detailed lectures on the oxygen, water, waste disposal, and communications systems aboard the Soyuz [the Russian space capsule] and the ISS, as well as the scientific experiments I'll be performing. Then I undergo physical training to prepare myself for the unique environment of weightlessness and space flight.

I'm also learning Russian. I can follow about 70 percent of the cockpit conversation between Yuri Gidzenko, the commander on this mission, and the ground crew. There are also things I never imagined learning, like how to take a good photograph on the space station. I'm used to firing an instant camera in whichever direction, so for me it's like starting from square one.

After hours, I work out and try to digest all the material I'm learning. Some days I'm up until 2 a.m. and stagger out of bed just in time to catch a lecture. It's a very busy time. I am conscious of every last day before the flight.

What will your time aboard the ISS be like?

Continued on Next Page >>


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