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Esther Dyson, Space Tourist in Training

The tech guru talks to IEEE Spectrum from Russia’s Star City, the “cosmonaut college” where would-be space tourists prepare for their journey

6 min read

This is part of IEEE Spectrum’s Special Report: Why Mars? Why Now?

Esther Dyson is an investor in, adviser to, and board member of about 20 companies, including consumer genome firm 23andMe, zeppelin operator Airship Ventures, and a variety of Internet-related businesses. Normally, she spends her time zipping around the world to meet with the management of those companies, as well as with aspiring entrepreneurs, policy makers, and venture capitalists.

When IEEE Spectrum caught up with Dyson a few months ago, however, she was wintering in Russia as she prepared for a possible visit to the International Space Station. Dyson was on deck as a backup in case Charles Simonyi, Microsoft’s former chief architect, was unable to make his second trip into space. The trip was being brokered by Space Adventures, a U.S. company that arranges flights for space tourists with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. Clients like Simonyi pay upwards of US $20 million for a 13-day flight. Via e-mail, Dyson explained what led her to take five months out of her hectic schedule, why she’s not afraid to go into space, and how she’s discovering muscles she never knew she had.

IEEE Spectrum: Where are you right now?

Esther Dyson: I’m sitting in my dorm at Star City. We’re 32 kilometers northeast of Moscow, and it’s like being back in college, though I do have my own bathroom. Every weekday I go to classes from 9 to 6, and I eat in a cafeteria. Today is a holiday, in honor of the Defenders of the Fatherland, and I just got back from a trip to the other side of Moscow where I met a friend to go swimming in an outdoor pool. Eighty-five-degree [29 °C] water and 15-degree [–9 °C] air…it was great!

Spectrum: How did you come to be training to go into space?

ED: Well, I’m an investor in Space Adventures, the only company that organizes trips to space for individuals. [It also offers "weightless flights" through its Zero-G subsidiary.] When Space Adventures asked me if I wanted to do the training as a backup (because I can’t quite afford the actual trip), I said I would love to…someday. But they said, “No, we mean now.” I wanted to do it, but I have commitments going out a year or so. Then my sister had a double mastectomy; she’s fine now, or I wouldn’t tell this story. A few weeks later, as I was juggling my schedule, I found myself thinking, “Now if I just had a double mastectomy, I could get out of these commitments.” Oops! I realized I would always be way too busy, unless I just stopped. So I said yes to Space Adventures and canceled most of the commitments…though in fact I have two board calls scheduled for this evening Moscow time.

That’s pretty much how I live: Swim in the morning—there’s a great pool here—go to class by day, and get on the phone at night. I don’t think I would be doing this without the Internet and Skype.

Spectrum: Had you always wanted to go into space, even as a little girl?

ED: I wanted to, but it wasn’t a big deal. It was just one more thing I expected to do as a grown-up. Back then, I assumed everyone would be going to space by now—just as I knew my parents had grown up before widespread use of airplanes but that flying had since become commonplace.

Spectrum: What would be the circumstances under which Charles Simonyi wouldn’t fly and you would?

ED: Basically, anything that would prohibit Charles from being a healthy, active participant would prevent him from going, from a fracture to a bad cold; the Russian space agency and its medical commission would make that decision.

Spectrum: If you do go, how will your trip be funded?

ED: The terms of my contract prohibit me from discussing the terms of my contract.

Spectrum: What were the medical qualifications that you had to meet?

ED: Extensive! Along with Charles and Space Adventures’ other clients and of course all the astronauts and cosmonauts, I am probably one of the most-examined healthy people in the world. EKGs, blood samples all the time, stress tests, ultrasounds, X-rays, and some specialty tests involving a centrifuge, up to 8 g’s, and a rotating chair. The psychological tests, on the other hand, were pretty minimal: A few “Do you mostly feel happy or sad?”–type questions. But of course you are with people all day…if you were really weird, it would be noticed.

Spectrum: What kinds of advice have you gotten from experienced space travelers?

ED: All kinds of things, starting with making sure everything has Velcro on it—so you can stick it to a wall and it won’t fly off somewhere. But mostly, it’s not so much advice as information: How long it takes to adjust to zero g—variable! What the food is like—not so bad, but it gets a bit old after six months. (If I go, it would be for only about 10 days.) How noisy it is—bring earplugs! And the space tourist has to sleep in the docking module, whereas the regular astronauts get private cabins.

Spectrum: What kinds of skills are you developing in training to go into space?

ED: I’m learning four sets of things:

  • Specifics about space travel, human life support, emergency situations and the like, that will just make me a better-informed person and certainly a better-informed investor in new space.
  • Specifics about the Soyuz and the space station that probably don’t have much application elsewhere but will be really handy if I do go up, this March or any other time.
  • I’m finally getting good at Russian, which I first studied in high school. I’m also getting immersion into the Russian space program and some contact with the extensive NASA operations here. It’s another world here, and a fascinating one.
  • And I’m becoming a better person, learning to deal with authority and chill out when things don’t go as fast as or in the direction I’d like.

Oh, and yes, I’m developing some muscles in the gym. I have always had great aerobic conditioning from swimming an hour a day, but I was a pathetic weakling on the workout-machine side.

Spectrum: What’s the coolest thing you’ve done in the training program so far?

ED: Probably the overnight wilderness training, where three of us spent two days and two nights overnight in the woods, in subzero temperatures. That was to simulate “an unexpected landing in forested and marshy terrain in winter.” The simulated helicopter rescue was also a lot of fun, but fairly brief. We were picked up, one by one, by a crane, from the side of a water tank and from within it (in our waterproof suits). And experiencing 4 g’s in the centrifuge was a lot of fun; I’ve done it twice so far and would love to do it again. Eight g’s, however, was a bit unpleasant. And of course all the weightless flights, both here and, before I was training, with Zero-G in the United States.

Spectrum: Any personal experiments you’d like to conduct in space?

ED: Fortunately, the experiment-slash-research I do most want to do doesn’t actually require me to be in space. That would be to get all the cosmonauts and astronauts (with their governments’ support, of course) to donate their genetic information and their health records to a medical database. As I said, all of them, plus us “space tourists,” are probably the healthiest people on the planet to have such extensive medical records. Most people with good medical records are sick, one way or another (with the possible exception of some rich hypochondriacs and perhaps some sports figures). So we would make an excellent control group and could be quite useful to medical research. Also, I’d like to see if it’s possible to find genetic markers for adaptation to motion sickness, bone-density variations, and other kinds of space-related issues.

Spectrum: Why is space tourism a good thing?

ED: It builds a constituency for space exploration, brings money into the space program, helps publicize it, and excites kids about math and science. Already, it is one more sector of the modern economy. Also, it will lead to more productive things such as solar energy capture and asteroid mining, as well as more effective crystal and pharmaceutical production.

Spectrum: If you do go into space, are you worried about the bad stuff that might happen?

ED: To be honest, I’m more scared day to day of slipping on the ice here and breaking my leg. Statistically, that’s far more likely, though of course the consequences of something going wrong in space could be more serious! I have had a long, full life and hope to continue it, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life worrying about dying; I want to spend it doing interesting, useful things. There are unpleasant parts to it: the adjustment to 0 g, constipation, noise…but they’re trivial compared to the overall experience.

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