April 28, 2001 -- Dennis Tito, a 61-year-old California millionaire and former NASA engineer, became the world's first paying space tourist when the Russian space agency launched him and two Russian cosmonauts aboard a rocket today.
Tito and tthe crew blasted off from the Kazakstan cosmodrome on time this morning. Tito appeared calm, wearing a space suit and a smile.
The trip by the Russian crew was almost delayed due to concerns from NASA that the space station would get too crowded while an American crew did some necessary computer repairs.
Fortunately for Tito, NASA said Friday that it struck a deal with the Russian Space Agency, allowing him to launch on time without interrupting the American crew's work on the ailing International Space Station.
Despite reservations that he wasn't qualified to join professional astronauts in space, the nations that run the international space station agreed to allow Tito's visit after Russia insisted that it would go ahead with the mission.
Tito paid the Russian space agency $20 million to fly in space, but Russia's partners in the space station — especially NASA — objected, saying his lack of training would require additional safety measures.
Russia also said it had been unwilling to postpone the Soyuz mission because the cosmonauts must replace the space station's escape craft, whose service lifetime expires at the end of the month. The Soyuz capsule, which is considered the space station's lifeboat, needs to be replaced every six months.
Fit to Fly?
The oldest child of Italian immigrants, Tito says he dreamed of space flight when he saw Sputnik launch as a teenager in 1957. As an adult, he spent years as a rocket scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., planning spacecraft missions to Mars and Venus.
Eventually, he switched to investing and amassed a fortune at his own investment firm.
Tito has been training at the Star City, Russia space center for a year, learning the details of a Soyuz spacecraft and practicing how to survive a landing in Siberia. To prepare for the launch, he trained in a centrifuge that exposed him to eight times the force of gravity. He's also learned his way around the mock Soyuz capsule.
Just days before the launch, he proclaimed that he well prepared. "The training is what counts and I've had a significant amount of training. And that, coupled with my aerospace engineering background, I think puts me in a very strong position, as far as being able to function in space," he told ABCNEWS.
Tito has no duties during the mission.
"I'm not a fighter pilot, I'm a businessman, and I want to be able to absorb as much of this experience and relate it to as many people as I can," he said. He said he would take pictures and tell people about the experience upon his return.
The American crew on the space station says they welcome Tito's visit to orbiting spacecraft.
"We'll welcome anyone who shows up at our hatch, and we'll invite them inside and treat them like we would any spacefarer," said U.S. astronaut James Voss in an interview transmitted from the station.
ABCNEWS' Jim Slade and Willow Lawson contributed to this report.