Cosmonauts, U.S. businessman ready for blastoff to space station

Wednesday, April 25th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BAIKONUR, Kazakstan (AP) _ U.S. businessman Dennis Tito said Wednesday that NASA would someday be glad that he was included on a Russian rocket to the international space station, saying his paid trip would be good publicity.

The investment firm founder, set to blast off Saturday with two cosmonauts, said he was baffled over why U.S. space officials had lobbied against his trip for so long. Tito reportedly paid the Russian space agency some $20 million for the ride. NASA grudgingly dropped its objections Tuesday.

``It's hard for me to understand why,'' he said during preflight rituals that included the raising of Russian, Kazak and U.S. flags at the cosmonaut hotel near the Baikonur launch facility Russian rents from Kazakstan.

``I think this flight will be very good for NASA. I think NASA ultimately will be happy that I took the flight.''

A Russian government commission on Wednesday approved the Soyuz TM rocket for its Saturday launch, after engineers and space experts reported that all systems were functioning properly, said commission secretary Alexei Strelnikov.

``The safety level is 99 percent,'' said Vladimir Serdyuk, an engineer in charge of the assembly. ``But even if something should go wrong, there is an emergency escape system that would allow the crew to descend safely.''

Tito, a trim, soft-spoken 60-year-old, said his flight would be good publicity for the international space station, and denied being simply a high-paying passenger.

NASA had said that Tito could get in the way of the crew's work because he doesn't have adequate training, urging postponement of his flight until a program of training and medical clearances could be agreed to.

Tito, who briefly worked as an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory before founding investment firm Wilshire Associates, joked that while he would not participate in the space station's research program, he will work on his own experiments involving stereo photography from space.

U.S. officials have barred Tito from American parts of the station unless he has an astronaut escort and have stressed that Russia is responsible if he breaks anything.

Dressed in a blue jumpsuit, Tito hoisted the U.S. flag while cosmonaut Yury Baturin raised the Kazak flag and cosmonaut Talgat Musabayev raised the Russian flag.

The crew is to deliver a fresh Soyuz vehicle to the station and return after a week or so. A Soyuz is kept docked at the station as an escape vehicle, but must be replaced every six months.