HIGHTOWER: The First Tourist in Space

Time for another trip into the Far, Far, Far-Out Frontiers of Free Enterprise.

Today, Spaceship Hightower takes you deep into the rarely-traveled realm of Extreme Tourism, where "too far" is never far enough. This is tourism for the select few -- those with money to burn and a burning desire to say, "I've been someplace you'll never go." Sure, you've climbed Mount Everest, you've had dinner with a cannibalistic tribe in a faraway jungle, you've traveled as a tourist to war zones just to witness the heat of battle ... but have you been to Mir?

Yes, the rickety old Russian space station! Only now it's under the operation of MirCorp, which has been refurbishing the 130-ton unit to turn it into a sort of orbiting space spa for the rich. The New York Times reports that astronauts have been up to repair air leaks, replace batteries, and revitalize the life support systems, and MirCorp has declared the renovated Mir "ready for commercial flights."

But who would go? Dennis Tito, for one. He's a 59-year-old Californian who's made millions as a money manager, and he's ready to get his ticket punched for the first 10-day tourist jaunt into space. Before you pack your bags, be warned that it's a pretty pricey ticket -- Dennis is paying $20 million to fulfill his fantasy. "For me, it's a life's dream" he told the Times in a call from Moscow, where he was undergoing medical and psychological testing to see if he's fit for the trip. Excuse me, but doesn't paying $20 million to fly to Mir prove you're not psychologically fit?

Nonetheless, Mr. Tito hopes to lift off in 2001, and MirCorp says six other presumably sane rich people are interested in joining him.

This is Jim Hightower saying ... I wonder if there's a coach section for us less-than-millionaire tourists?

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