They laughed when he said that one day he would fly in space, but Dennis Tito has proved them wrong.
Single-minded pursuit of his objective and years of stubborn resolve paid off for the Californian multi-millionaire Saturday as he achieved a life's dream, blasting off from the steppes of central Asia for the orbiting International Space Station (ISS).
The 60-year-old businessman and former engineer thereby secured a niche in history as the first space tourist, paying his way and travelling purely for fun.
As befits any self-respecting tourist, he took along with him on his space trip a video-camera, plus a collection of opera CDs and some photographs of his extended family.
Tito got a ticket to ride with the Russians to the ISS not because of his qualifications as a budding cosmonaut but because he was able to pay the 20 million-dollar price tag.
"I've always wanted to fly into space and hopefully that will be my opportunity to realize my life's dream," he said a few weeks ago, while the outcome of negotiations between Russian and US space officials over the trip remained uncertain.
Physically, his stature is small, only 1.64 meters (5 feet, 4 inches) tall and weighing 63 kilograms (138 pounds).
The son of Italian immigrants, he has shown enormous determination and has managed to pay his way into one of the world's most exclusive clubs -- the fewer than 400 men and women who have flown in space.
For Tito, ambition comes as second nature.
"We have only one life to live, and my commitment is to fulfil all of my dreams which are healthy and legitimate," he told reporters last year.
His love affair with the stars started when he was a teenager, when he saw the 1957 launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik.
"What I saw when I was 17 led me to enroll in aerospace engineering the next year," he said.
In 1964, he joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the NASA research center in Pasadena, California, where he was responsible for calculating the trajectories for the Mariner 4 and 5 probes, which went to Mars and Venus.
He asked NASA about becoming an astronaut, but aware of the slight odds, put his dream on hold, quit his low-paying job and launched himself into business.
In 1972, he founded his own investment company. Before his 40th birthday, Tito was a millionaire.
His firm, Wilshire Associates, is today one of the largest in the United States, with some 500 billion dollars in assets.
Despite his fortune, Tito never forgot his first love.
In 1991, on a business trip to the Soviet Union, he contacted the Russians about a program that would have let guests visit the Mir Space Station, then the pride of the Russian space program.
His dream was put on hold with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and then again last year when the Mir orbiter was destroyed for lack of funds to keep it going.
But the hard work paid off when Russia finally promised him a spot on the ISS.
The divorced father of three denied he was "just a wealthy guy who's looking for kicks."
"It means a tremendous amount to be on this Earth for 60 years and finally have the chance to look back and see the entire globe. That has to be one of mankind's greatest adventures," he said -- BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan (AFP)
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)