Twenty-one years after becoming the first paying passenger to visit the International Space Station, California financial analyst Dennis Tito and his wife, Akiko Tito, are taking on a new space adventure: a trip on SpaceX’s Starship super-rocket around the moon and back.
The Titos are the first customers to be named as crew members for what’s slated to be SpaceX’s second crewed round-the-moon mission. A time frame for that flight hasn’t been announced, but it’s due to come after the Polaris Program’s first flight of Starship in Earth orbit and the “dearMoon” lunar mission planned by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. If the Starship development program proceeds as SpaceX hopes, those first two flights could lift off by the mid-2020s.
Dennis Tito, an 82-year-old former NASA engineer who made his fortune in finance, would be in line to become the oldest human to go into orbit. He would beat the record set by senator-astronaut John Glenn when he flew on the shuttle Discovery at the age of 77. (Star Trek actor William Shatner, who rode a Blue Origin spaceship last year at the age of 90, holds the record for suborbital spacefliers.)
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Tito is already in the history books by virtue of his flight to the ISS in 2001. Russia’s Roscosmos space agency had previously flown privately funded travelers to the Mir space station, but Tito was the first American to buy his own ticket for a spaceflight, and the first commercial passenger to visit the ISS.
Most private-sector spacefliers would bristle at the term “space tourist,” but Tito’s status during the 2001 flight comes closest to fitting that description. “I spent most of my time in Zvezda, the service module, where I listened to opera, shot video and stereographic photos of the Earth out of the porthole, helped prepare food and talked with the crew during meals,” he recalled at a congressional hearing.
The thrill of that journey stuck with Tito. “I’ve been thinking about it every day since,” he said today on “CBS Mornings.”
Tito said he reached out to SpaceX about the idea of going on a round-the-moon flight — and bringing along his wife, Akiko, a 57-year-old commercial pilot. The two were married two years ago, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, and Dennis Tito told CBS that “maybe this is our honeymoon.”
SpaceX says that the round-the-moon trip would unfold over the course of a week. The crew — including the Titos and as many as 10 fellow travelers to be named later — would fly within 125 miles (200 kilometers) of the lunar surface and complete a full orbit around the moon before returning to Earth.
The price of the Titos’ tickets has not been disclosed, but it’s certain to be much more than the $20 million per person that Dennis Tito was said to have paid for his ISS trip.
When CBS asked Tito when he expected to fly, he replied, “I take the worst case: five years.” He said he feels as if he’s in better physical shape than he was for his 2001 spaceflight — and has no qualms about taking on the stresses of orbital spaceflight as an octogenarian.
Akiko Tito said she had “no hesitation” about taking a ride on Starship. And Dennis Tito said he hoped the round-the-moon adventure could serve as an inspiration for senior citizens around the world.
“They’ll now be able to start to think about their golden years,” he told CBS, “and maybe it’s not going to be a rocking chair — maybe it’s going to be a rocket chair.”