A Space Tourist’s Itinerary

Check on the stem cells, call Nelson Mandela …

What will he do up there? 
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What will he do up there?

On Monday, American millionaire Gregory Olsen began an eight-day visit to the International Space Station. Like the two space tourists before him, Olsen paid a reported $20 million for the privilege. What do amateur astronauts do while they’re in space?

Light chores, some research, and a bit of photography. They also spend a fair amount of time kibitzing with folks back on Earth. Olsen will help out with day-to-day activities on the station “as needed.” That means his mission commander can ask him to clean the air filters, unload some equipment, or take care of other menial tasks. The world’s first space tourist, Dennis Tito, volunteered for pantry duty and got to select which food packets to reconstitute for space station meals.

Tito, who blasted off in 2001, spent the rest of his time listening to opera, gazing out the window, and taking pictures. Unlike his successors on the International Space Station—Olsen and South African Mark Shuttleworth—Tito didn’t have the run of the station. NASA was reluctant to have him onboard at all and made Tito promise not to venture into the American side of the ISS without an escort. (The American part of the space station has the science laboratory and other high-tech equipment; the living quarters are on the Russian side.) Tito also had to sign a contract saying that he’d pay for any equipment that he broke. Russia also agreed to reimburse NASA for lost research time.

Shuttleworth faced fewer restrictions during his 2002 trip. The Internet millionaire brought several science experiments designed by researchers at South African universities. He studied the effects of zero gravity on stem cells and protein crystallization and took pictures of the Earth for an environmental study. After working on these projects for about half the day, he spent his other waking hours on chores and stargazing.

Like Shuttleworth, Olsen plans to take on a strenuous research program during his weeklong space vacation. Calling himself a “private researcher” and not a space tourist, Olsen intends to carry out three experiments on behalf of the European Space Agency: one on motion sickness, another on lower back pain, and a third on bacteria in the human body.

In addition to cleaning and tending to science projects, the joyriding spacemen spend time communicating with friends and family. Shuttleworth also spoke with Nelson Mandela, contributed to a Web site, and answered questions from schoolchildren. Olsen plans to speak via radio with high schoolers in New Jersey.

Bonus Explainer: Not every would-be space tourist is a science nerd. ‘N Sync’s Lance Bass began training for a stint as a space tourist in 2002 before being kicked out of the program when he failed to pay for his ticket. If Bass had made it to the station, he would have spent the week producing footage for a reality TV show.

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