U.S. Backs Off Over Tycoon's $20M Space Joyride

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Dennis Tito looks on during practice maneuvers in a Soyuz training capsule

A bitter battle between the U.S. and Russia ended Thursday night when the U.S. space agency agreed to allow American millionaire Dennis Tito aboard the International Space Station next week, according to sources close to negotiations. NASA officials in Washington would neither confirm nor deny the move; however, NASA chief Daniel Goldin, in Cape Canaveral for the launch of the space shuttle Endeavour on Thursday told reporters, "I expect before the launch of Mr. Tito, all the issues will be resolved." The response — he refused follow-up questions — would seem to indicate that Tito, who reportedly paid $20 million for the trip aboard a Russian Soyuz vehicle, will launch next Saturday and become the first "joy-riding" astronaut to rocket into space.    

The U.S. has tried to stop Tito's trip since January. That's when the Russian Space Agency informed NASA that Tito would be aboard the April taxi mission scheduled to replace a Soyuz rescue vehicle now on orbit at the space station with a fresh one. NASA officials claimed that an untrained tourist would present a danger aboard the space station. They were also anxious about the precedent of one of the station partners' launching a unilateral commercial venture. But the cash-strapped Russians insisted. Eventually, the fight involved the other 14 countries who are partners in the space station. To space experts it all boiled down to a battle of egos — who controlled the keys to the station?    

On Thursday, say the sources, NASA conceded it could not dictate Russia's budget, and NASA representative Bill MacArthur brought legal documents to Tito, who is now in Moscow training with his fellow cosmonauts. Essentially, the deal pledged that Tito or his survivors would not sue NASA if anything goes wrong. "It also requires that he pay for anything he breaks," says a source close to the millionaire. The founder of the Wilshire Fund quickly scribbled his name. Now with his ticket to ride, Tito appears assured of a seat atop a flaming cylinder of explosives as it rockets him into space history.