The Rediff US Special/Som Chivukula
'We Are Going to Colonise Space'
Chirinjeev Kathuria vividly remembers his first encounter with Dennis Tito.
"The first thing I noticed about him was how short he was," Kathuria, the Chicago-based medical doctor-turned-telecom businessman, recalls with a chuckle.
Kathuria also remembers "a crazy idea" Tito, who is five feet and four inches tall, floated that day.
April 2000, at a NASA base in southern California. Kathuria was attending a dinner party commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 13 flight.
Among the bigwigs seated at the same table as Kathuria and Tito at the black tie gala were director James Cameron [Titanic] and Tom Hanks, star of the Ron Howard film Apollo 13.
Kathuria was familiar with Tito and his firm Wilshire Associates, a Santa Monica, California-based investment management company Tito founded after his days as an engineer for the US space programme.
Kathuria, who made his fortune in the telecom business investing in companies in India and Nigeria and in ISPs in Britain and Japan, will never forget what Tito told him that evening.
"I had no idea that he was so fascinated with space," he said. "Dennis told me he would love to go to space. I knew who he was since he developed the Wilshire index and I was in financing, but this was [much more] fascinating.
"I told Dennis that his idea was crazy because there's a lot of bureaucracy with the space agencies," Kathuria continued.
The "crazy idea" made front-page news across the world when Tito, 60, blasted off to the International Space Station last Saturday, becoming the first space tourist. He did so through MirCorp, founded by Kathuria and Walt Anderson, another telecom baron.
Though Tito's revelation seemed crazy then, Kathuria had taken it to heart. He gave it careful thought with Anderson.
Sending Tito into space could be the first step to commercialize space, they felt. The project had to be successful for more than one reason. After all, Kathuria's own dreams of being an astronaut ended due to poor eyesight at age 13.
"Space is the last frontier, and everyone is fascinated by it," he had said in an earlier interview. "We were going to colonize space. We felt we were like the Wright Brothers."
The duo flew to Russia to discuss business possibilities of leasing the Mir space station for media, entertainment and science purposes.
Russia's space programme was cash-strapped and had to find a way of saving the aging space station, so a few months later, a deal was struck with the company Anderson and Kathuria had started in Amsterdam.
It was called MirCorp and was partly owned by Energia, a Russia-based private company that operated Mir.
"Not many people realize that Energia owns 60 per cent of MirCorp," Kathuria notes. "People may wonder if we are operating a monopoly, but the reality is that Russia is allowing us portions of the company for space commercialization."
Kathuria and Anderson poured in nearly $40 million into MirCorp. Soon they struck a $20 million deal with Tito to send him to the Mir space station. The launch was scheduled for January 18.
But those plans went awry when Russia, impatient with MirCorp's reluctance to pump more money into the project, decided in January to down Mir.
Though he fought hard to save the historic space station, Kathuria now talks philosophically about its demise: "Walt and I realized that keeping Mir was a dream. But it was expensive and old, and there were no other options."
With the help of Russia, an alternate deal was struck for Tito's journey: He was to travel to the International Space Station, funded by over a dozen countries, including America.
But NASA, which is actively involved in the ISS, was reluctant, and cited safety concerns. Besides, it felt Tito was not adequately trained for the mission.
But when Tito agreed to sign waivers about his safety and to pay for any damages he causes, NASA relented.
"He's having the time of his life," Kathuria noted. "But, at first, I was quite worried because it's not easy going up there."
Tito's orbit as a space tourist has now resulted in nearly 20 customers for MirCorp, Kathuria said. Among the interested parties is Cameron, who may make a space movie. An announcement will be made soon about his journey.
"There are a lot of people between 40 and 60 who are worth more than $100 million," Kathuria noted. "They want to find something exciting to do. Space is the ultimate thrill."
Tito's maiden orbit will also result in a television show to be broadcast on NBC, he added.
Now that Tito has had his dream come true, will he go back for seconds?
"He'd like to go again, but it costs too much," Kathuria said. "Maybe he'd find something more interesting. But then again, I wouldn't put it past him!"
Reluctant NASA Clears First Space Tourist
Transcript of the Chirinjeev Kathuria Chat
Mir Backer's Space Dreams Stay Alive
'We Are the Wright Brothers of Our Age'
'The Russian Space Programme Is the Safest'
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