Letter: Shuttle Flew First Paying Passenger

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The May 2 story by Denise Chow related an important footnote to Dennis Tito’s milestone accomplishment as the first space tourist [“Before Tito, Russia Flew 2 Paying Passengers to Space,” page 16]. But the story’s account of those “who have paid to journey into low Earth orbit” lacked one fact and an important historical point.

Almost two decades before Tito launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome, and more than five years before journalist Toyohiro Akiyama and chemist Helen Sharman flew to the Mir space station, NASA launched a commercial astronaut aboard the 12th space shuttle mission.

A U.S. corporation paid NASA to fly a private industry engineer aboard that 1984 shuttle mission solely to perform biotechnical research. I was that engineer. The corporation was the McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Co.

Our company-funded commercial project was being flown to orbit under the first NASA-private business Joint Endeavor Agreement. However, the original 1979 agreement did not accommodate the flight of a non-NASA researcher-operator with the payload. So when NASA agreed to train and fly me, along with that third trip of our electrophoresis system payload, McDonnell Douglas was invoiced for the agency’s effort in doing so. The charge was $40,000.

The point I wish to make is that while the Space News article is keyed to Russia flying paying, and working, passengers, the United States did so first.

 

Charles Walker

Tucson , Ariz.