Millionaire Space Celebrity Dennis Tito Touches Down at Minden-Tahoe Airport

Posted By on February 7, 2015

by Scott Neuffer

MINDEN, Nev., February 9, 2015 — I didn’t see the film “Interstellar,” but I’m assuming Matthew McConaughey goes to Mars.

Wait a minute: A quick internet search has proven this assumption false. I don’t think Mars is in the movie.

PerlanDennisTito

Dennis Tito, photo provided by the Perlan Project

But there is a real-life man trying to get to Mars in the next six years. His name is Dennis Tito. He is a multimillionaire. He’s also the world’s first “space tourist.” And he has quietly been setting up shop at the Minden-Tahoe Airport for a fantastic project.

No, it’s not Mars, but we’ll talk about his Mars ambitions later.

Last year, Tito began leasing land on the west side of the airport with plans to build a 5,500-square-foot hangar and a 3,520-square-foot ramp area.

I’m not an aviation expert, but it sounds like he needs a lot of space for one big flying machine.

“The hangar is in design review and has not been constructed,” said airport manager Bobbi Thompson. “Not a large hangar, fairly typical size for a privately built hangar.”

Okay, I know very little about hangars and corresponding aircraft size. Nonetheless this hangar is of interest, as it’s somehow connected to the Perlan Mission II, of which Tito is a pilot and benefactor.

“That hangar will be used for Perlan and perhaps other aircraft,” Thompson said. “Records, training and testing will be done here prior to South America.”

So what is this mysterious mission with ties to our airport? Before we answer this question, let’s find out a little more about Mr. Tito himself.

 

Rocket Man

According to his own company’s website, Dennis Tito is the founder, chief executive officer and board chair of Wilshire Associates, an international investment firm. Although extremely successful financially, Tito’s early ambitions weren’t rooted in finance. He studied aeronautical engineering at NYU, earned his master’s in engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic. He literally began his career as a rocket scientist. During the 1960s, he spent five years at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, using early computing technologies to plot trajectories for the Mariner spacecraft mission to Mars.

After his work at NASA, Tito ostensibly left rockets behind, enrolling in UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and earning a Ph.D. in finance. He helped found Wilshire Associates in 1972. Apparently, the same kind of genius that marked his time at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory manifested itself in international finance. Tito created the Wilshire 5000 Total Market Index. According to his company’s website, this index is the broadest measure of U.S. securities markets. He further contributed to quantitative investment analysis by using mathematical tools to calculate market risks.

Needless to say, Tito’s accomplishments in finance helped him amass a vast fortune. But his love for space exploration really never waned. In 2001, he became the world’s first “space tourist,” the first private, paying space traveler. According to ABC News, he paid $20 million to hitch a ride with Russian cosmonauts to the International Space Station. The oldest child of Italian immigrants, Tito told news agencies at the time that he’d dreamed of space flight ever since seeing Sputnik launch when he was a teenager.

More than a decade after becoming the world’s first space tourist, Tito, now in his early seventies, is spearheading a manned mission to Mars. To this effect, he founded the Inspiration Mars Foundation in hopes of raising private funds for the voyage. In 2013, he testified before the U.S. Congressional House Subcommittee on Space, during which he made the case for a two-person “flyby” mission in 2018. Mars and Earth, he said, would be ideally aligned for a 501-day mission covering 314 million miles. Two astronauts would man the spacecraft and slingshot around the red planet before returning earthward. This mission would not include a landing.

In a 2014 statement to the press, however, Tito acknowledged the logistical limitations facing the 2018 mission. Although his foundation is raising private funds for parts of the voyage, the mission would still require NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, the latter of which is designed for deep space. Consequently, Tito has turned his attention to a Venus and Mars flyby mission, which would be possible in 2021 due to planetary alignment. But this mission, during which the spacecraft would slingshot around Venus and shoot back out towards Mars, would add an estimated 88 days to the original mission and might carry more risk of radiation exposure for the crew.

“I continue to believe, as do many Americans, that Mars is the logical destination to put human space exploration back on track and demonstrate the ‘can do’ spirit that seems to have faded over time. The window of opportunity in 2021 is challenging but achievable and waiting to be claimed,” Tito said.

Some in the space community called the revised mission a wake-up call. In a story appearing in the New Scientist, former Space Policy Institute contributor John Logsdon put it bluntly: “They can’t do it all by themselves, particularly this kind of ambitious mission … It’s a recognition of reality.”

Back to Earth

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While any Mars mission is rife with technical complications—how to sustain human life, and sanity, in deep space for 500-plus days—the Perlan Project is grounded in something simple and elemental: wind.

I do know enough about aviation to know that our small airport is famous for soaring. Glider pilots from all around the world come here to ride “the wave,” that supremely high, mountain-bent current that has taken sailplanes hundreds of miles at a time. There are only a few places in the world that produce the same kind of lift: New Zealand and the Andes.

The Airbus Perlan Mission II appears to be upping the ante. Besides breaking altitude records, the mission aims to collect data on the Earth’s upper atmosphere and ozone layer. To do this, the Perlan II will fly close to transonic speeds in a “near vacuum” with air density at less than 2 percent of that at sea level. In other words, this glider is being built like a spaceship. It has a pressurized cabin to allow sailplane pilots to reach the edge of space.

Here’s a quick break-down of the two-person glider from the project’s official website. The plane is 1,100 pounds, 32.8 feet long, 10.7 feet wide, 6 feet tall, and has a wingspan of 84 feet. High-altitude mechanical altimeters and radar transponder? Check. Dual-redundant oxygen rebreathers? Check. Ballistic chute for low-altitude emergency bailout? Check. Drogue chute for high-altitude emergency bailout? Check.

This may all sound far-fetched, but know this about the Perlan Project: the Perlan Mission I hit an altitude of 50, 671 feet, breaking previous records for unpowered aircraft. The year was 2006. You might have heard of one of the pilots—Steve Fossett.

Fossett, you’ll remember, was also an aviation legend, having been the first person to solo a balloon trip around the world. In 2007, his plane disappeared after taking off from Smith Valley. A massive air search ensued, as well as a media frenzy based out of the Minden-Tahoe Airport. Despite these efforts, it was a hiker who eventually found Steve’s wreckage about a year later in the forested mountains around Mammoth.

The other pilot was Einar Enevoldson. A NASA test pilot and the original founder of the Perlan Project, Enevoldson is credited with discovering stratospheric mountain waves in the 1990s. He’s still very much the public face of the project. The death of his copilot, however, was not only a blow to the international aviation community, but to the Perlan missions–for Fossett had been the primary benefactor.

But the project eventually found other contributors, including Mr. Tito and a major corporate sponsor.

In July of last year, Perlan directors announced that Airbus Group had become the title sponsor of the second mission. The sponsorship is significant: Airbus is a cutting-edge aeronautical company with revenues in the tens of billions of dollars and with a workforce of around 139,000 employees.

So what will the new mission accomplish besides trying to set a new altitude record of around 90,000 feet?

Elizabeth Austin, Photo provided by the Perlan Project

Elizabeth Austin, Photo provided by the Perlan Project

Well, the first Perlan mission teamed up with meteorologist Elizabeth Austin and gathered new scientific data about the polar vortex, which generated five articles for the American Meteorological Society.

The polar what? According to the Perlan Project, this phenomenon occurs when warm air from the equator spirals north or south toward each pole. In big mountain ranges like the Andes or the Sierra Nevada, the polar vortex causes wind currents to reach stratospheric heights.

Dr. Austin is onboard for the second mission—figuratively, not literally. The Airbus Perlan II will be equipped with state-of-the-art instrumentation to measure a variety of things, including how stratospheric waves and the polar vortex affect the ozone layer and climate change.

Beside implications for Earth’s inhabitants, the mission will also provide insight into flying in thin atmospheres. Remember all that talk about Mars?

Jim Payne, photo provided by the Perlan Project

Jim Payne, photo provided by the Perlan Project

“We’ll be at the edge of space,” said the project’s chief pilot, Jim Payne. “We’ll be above 98 percent of the rest of the atmosphere. The atmosphere of Mars is very thin, actually thinner than 90,000 feet, closer to 100,000 feet. Our airfoils, the thickness and contour of the wings, have applications to building a machine to fly on Mars.”

Payne said construction of the Perlan II is currently finishing up in Oregon. He expects the sailplane to arrive at Tito’s new hangar at the Minden-Tahoe Airport by this October. Test flights from the airport will begin in spring 2016, possibly earlier. Although Minden is famous for “pretty frequent and regular mountain waves,” the crew will be heading to Argentina in the summer of 2016 for the actual record attempts.

“We’ll fly the Minden waves as high as we can to verify the pressurized system, but really the winds above 45,000 feet are not suitable here,” Payne said. “We got to go far south or far north, and Argentina, all the scientists say, has the conditions.”

Payne will be the primary test pilot during the Minden trials. His own personal record for soaring stands at a little more than 42,000 feet. I asked him what it’s like to see the heavens open up from that height.

“It’s pretty fantastic,” he answered. “The distances are unbelievable. You can see so far.”

Of Space and Daring

Testifying before Congress in 2013, Tito made some rather strong statements about America’s decline in terms of space missions.

“In recent years, the most notable movements of American spacecraft have been powered by trucks and barges in the direction of museums, as if all we can afford and aspire to is a careful preservation of past glories.”

Tito’s vision for space travel may be described as Romantic in the way it conjures a sense of daring and grandeur. In fact, some in the space community have questioned his starry-eyed ambitions. NASA itself had a hard time signing on to the man’s first private space mission in 2001, expressing concerns for his safety. Yet conducting research for this article, I discovered that behind the celebrity’s inspiring words is a man who has devoted an enormous amount of money, time and energy to the cause of space exploration.

It’s easy to forget the amount of science and research that goes into any mission. Payne, a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base, reminded me of this fact:

“We’re following the same processes for the Perlan we use at Edwards,” he said. “Flight testing is a very methodical process.”

To put it another way, every dream of flying is grounded in some hard-won methodology. This is something I want to remember the next time I see a plane sailing through the blue sky, glinting in the sunlight.

“If I may offer a frank word of caution to this subcommittee,” Tito warned back in 2013, “the United States will carry out a Mars flyby mission, or we will watch as others do it – leaving us to applaud their skill and their daring.”

Scott Neuffer is a freelance writer who lives in Gardnerville with his wife Maria and son Andres. He recently published his first book, “Scars of the New Order,” which is available in local bookstores and on Barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com. Besides reading and writing obsessively, he enjoys long walks on the beach, any beach, and poorly scripted romantic comedies. He can be reached at scott.neuffer@outlook.com. You can read his monthly “Cornered” columns here.

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