Topic 15: First African tourist in space

Debate Question: Who is right in this debate - the Russian Space Agency or NASA? Should 'space tourists' be allowed in space missions?

Source: Associated Press

First African tourist in space
Associated Press

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - A South African space tourist received a warm welcome aboard the international space station on Saturday and settled in for an eight-day, seven-night stay that cost him $20 million.

Internet entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth is only the second person to pay his own way into space, and by the look of it, he considers the money well spent.

The 28-year-old smiled broadly as he floated into the space station and was embraced by its three occupants. One orbit, or 1 hours later, South African President Thabo Mbeki called to congratulate the first African citizen in space.

"It's amazingly roomy," Shuttleworth told the president. "Although it's very, very large, we have to move very carefully. As you can see around us, there are tons of very precious and very sophisticated equipment. We hope that we will be good guests."

As for his liftoff two days earlier from Kazakhstan, "I had moments of terror, moments of sheer upliftment and exhilaration," Shuttleworth said. "I have truly never seen anything as beautiful as the Earth from space. I can't imagine anything that could surpass that."

The world's latest space tourist - dubbed an Afronaut back home - has generated huge excitement in South Africa.

"The whole continent is proud that, at last, we have one of our own people from Africa up in space," said Mbeki, taking part in celebrations for Freedom Day, marking the 1994 elections that ended Apartheid. "It's a proud Freedom Day because of what you've done."

Shuttleworth's parents were relieved to see their adventure-seeking son, an entrepreneur who made his fortune off the Internet, safely aboard space station Alpha. They watched from Russian Mission Control outside Moscow as the Soyuz capsule smoothly docked with the space station 250 miles up.

"It was one of the dangerous procedures and my stomach was in a real knot before it started. But I'm feeling much better now," said his mother, Ronelle Shuttleworth.

The three men who have been living on the orbiting outpost since December, and won't return to Earth until June, were delighted to have company. "It's always great to see new faces," said American astronaut Carl Walz.

Shuttleworth and his Soyuz crewmates, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gidzenko and Italian astronaut Roberto Vittori, accomplished their primary job with the successful docking of their spacecraft. It will now serve as the space station's lifeboat. When the three leave next Saturday night, they will use the Soyuz that has been attached to the station for the past six months.

One year ago on Sunday, California money manager Dennis Tito became the world's first paying space tourist, courtesy of the Russians.

NASA opposed Tito's trip, saying he would interfere with space station work and possibly even endanger the crew. The Russians prevailed, however, and the rift between the two countries' space programs lasted for months.

To avoid further conflict, NASA and the space agencies of Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan established criteria for future space station visitors. Shuttleworth met all the guidelines and went through eight months of cosmonaut training in Russia and one week of instruction at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Because of his U.S. training, Shuttleworth will have more leeway aboard the space station than Tito did.

Shuttleworth, who negotiated his ride with the Russians, is flying several science experiments, including one for AIDS research. He wore a white patch with an embroidered red ribbon on his blue cosmonaut uniform to symbolize the fight against AIDS.

He also plans to chat with South African schoolchildren via ham radio over the next week. Long before his flight, he created the "Hip To Be Square" campaign - or Hip2B2 - to promote science and math education in South Africa.

Shuttleworth, who is among the world's younger space travelers, joined his country's president on Saturday in calling for "a need for Africans to embrace the future and the importance of education, and especially science and mathematics."

"I hope that our first steps into space will influence the generation to make that part of their lives, too," he said.

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Last modified: Wed Sep 13 14:57:24 EDT 2000