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First Space Tourist Practices for Lift-Off

MOSCOW — If Dennis Tito fulfills his dream of becoming the world's first space tourist, it will not be the first time that he has raised eyebrows back home in California.

The billionaire investor first stunned celebrities living in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, ten years ago, when he flattened the top of a 900 feet hill to make way for a mansion.

His home has 50 telephones, an eight-car garage, a quarter-mile jogging track and an un-rivaled view of the ocean and the San Bernardino Mountains. Now he wants to swap it for the cramped and tense conditions of the Mir space station.

The contrast that he is enduring outside Moscow in preparation for the expedition must be hell. Sequestered for 14 hours a day in the Soviet-era Cosmonaut Training Center, Mr. Tito is undergoing tests to see whether he has what it takes to blast off from central Kazakhstan next year and spend a week on board Mir. "These are only preliminary tests," a spokesman for the center said yesterday. Even so, Mr. Tito has agreed in principle to foot the bill.

The Mircorp consortium, which bought the rights to keep Mir alive after it was condemned to crash into the Pacific, put the cost of a return trip at 13 million ($20 million) earlier this year. Lean, close-cropped and alert, Mr. Tito looked the part as he floated above central Russia earlier this week in the local version of the "vomit comet" — the NASA phrase for a converted jet that flies arch-shaped trajectories to simulate weightlessness for astronauts in training.

"I hope I have the right stuff," Mr. Tito told a press conference aimed as much at Mircorp investors as the public.

At 59, his health could be an issue. The right blood pressure and general fitness is as vital in space as it has always been. As space tourism comes closer to reality, however, the "right stuff" has boiled down to one overwhelming need. "If the good Lord had meant for us to be space tourists, we would have been born with more money," John Pike, of the Federation of American Scientists, told the Los Angeles Times recently.

Mr. Tito has plenty of it. After an early career as a rocket scientist designing flight trajectories for unmanned NASA expeditions to Mars and Venus, he has thrived throughout the 1990s as head of his own financial consulting firm.

Until now, his chief trophy has been his house, overlooking Sullivan Canyon and a plot where President Clinton was said to be considering a retirement home. As the Tito residence was going up, one neighbour complained that it made "everybody else's house look like a serf's cottage."

Mir is likely to seem just that, if he ever squeezes through its entry hatch. Mircorp announced his candidacy for the honor of being its first "citizen explorer" after the return of two cosmonauts over the weekend. Their main task had been to seal an oxygen leak that threatened to make the station uninhabitable.

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