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

Cliff Ransom
National Geographic Adventure
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?

If everything goes according to plan, the majority of my day will be spent on science. Normally it takes six years for scientists to get experiments going aboard the ISS because there are so many experiments in the queue and such limited flight opportunities. I recognized that I had a unique opportunity and approached the African academic community for possible experiments to conduct. I had a flutter of proposals, which I whittled down to four flight experiments. The Russians have also asked me if I have time on the mission to do an additional two, so I may end up doing as many as six experiments.

One involves stem cells in human embryos. The team at the University of Stellenbosch and I hope to further our understanding of their development in a different environment. Performing the experiment successfully will require a lot of precision. Every second day I will spend a couple of hours working with needles and syringes to feed the embryos with nutrients and keep them alive for the ten-day mission, making sure not to contaminate one test tube from the other. I'll probably go through 240 needles in total. And I may have to start the experiment on the Soyuz during the flight up to the ISS, where there is very little space. That will be quite challenging. I will also have to exercise on the bicycle and the treadmill to conduct another experiment on muscle development and atrophy designed by the University of Cape Town.

How do you run on the treadmill if you're weightless?

The treadmill has elastic bands on the sides of it and a harness attached, which creates 80 kilograms of force from your waist down, so your legs are carrying a similar kind of force as the one generated by your weight. But it's not as though I'll be running for hours on end. The scientists at Cape Town really just want to get a trace of the heart's performance as you start and stop exercising, and that doesn't require heavy-duty exercise. Unlike me, long-term crew members experience quite significant physiological effects from the weightlessness, so they need a very active daily exercise regimen to counteract them.

Will you have any free time aboard the ISS?

Well, officially, we are allowed to rest from 9:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. In practice, I think the astronauts use some of that time for looking out a window, catching up on e-mail, and preparing for the next day.

On this mission, there will be six people on the station. We each have sleeping bags and the station commander will tell each crew member where he wants us to sleep, which means finding some place to clip your sleeping bag so it doesn't drift around. You can sleep on the roof—there is no "floor" or "ceiling" up there. But you do want to be near fans and ventilation systems that will circulate fresh air past you because carbon dioxide and oxygen don't disperse naturally in space. And you also want to be in a place where you can have some quiet. There are quite a lot of valves and things that go on and off all the time in the station, so it can be quite disruptive.

What will you do when you return?

I have an education foundation, The Shuttleworth Foundation, which is creating software to aid school administrations in developing countries. The project should be moving faster, so I'd like to invest some time in it. Aside from that, we'll see what other ideas catch my fancy when the dust settles. I trust that something interesting will come along when this is all done.

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