Shuttled to the stars

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DREAM RUN Mark Shuttleworth
DREAM RUN Mark Shuttleworth

Mark Shuttleworth, the world's second space tourist, on his most exciting trip

Space travel is no longer the stuff of science fiction. You can actually buy yourself a ticket to space with a few tens of millions. That was exactly what Mark Shuttleworth, the South African businessman, did. He became the world's second space tourist in April 2002. (The first space tourist was Dennis Tito, a Californian billionaire.) An open-source software entrepreneur by profession, Shuttleworth was in Bangalore to attend a discussion with Linux developers.

The boyhood dream...

"Since I was this high, space has been my absolute dream. Growing up in South Africa, you can see a lot of stars in the Southern hemisphere. I asked myself what is the one thing I want to do before I die. Immediately, the answer came to me: fly in space." Thus began a trip to Star City in Russia, where the world's first astronaut trained. One has to pass every test that a cosmonaut has to go through. "The first thing was the medical test, which was very painful. It was very interesting for me to learn that the body is something that responds to training. We are physically more capable than we think we are."The second shock had to do with technology. For someone who was used to the latest in computer equipment, the Russian spacecrafts seemed to be from the Stone Age. "In Star City, we had to learn to fly a spaceship. It was an amazing machine with an eight-bit processor, which we had to learn to program in octal. You go like memory location, value... Then execute." In addition to the training at the city, there was the survival training, which was designed to help them survive a crash landing. Seven months after arriving in Star City, it was time for the launch. It was time to board the Soyuz, which Shuttleworth described as "three men squeezed into the front of a Volkswagen beetle," and blast off. "It is difficult to capture in a photograph the beauty of the earth. The most beautiful things are the jungles and the mountain-desserts, like the Tibetan plateau. You can see the rippling of the crust that is the Himalayas and the rich green of northern India."Shuttleworth spent eight days aboard the ISS, during which he did many experiments in micro-gravity and crucial research on drugs for HIV. But soon it was time to come back to earth. "Re-entry is unbelievable. You are doing 25 times the speed of sound and the earth is just whizzing by. You are seriously moving. Then you have fireworks. You see molten bits from the spacecraft flowing out. At one stage you even have molten metal running across the windows and you see the plasma stream outside. While all this is happening you are experiencing five gees and rotating continuously to lose heat. You wait and wait for the parachutes to open, if they open. Fifty seconds before touchdown the chutes deploy violently. Then you brace for the crash, and, whack, it is all over!"ANAND SANKAR




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