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Public Eye

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OK, I've started saving my pennies. After a day and a half of fundraising, I'm only $19,999,999.43 shy of my ticket to the International Space Station. But with all the good press millionaire investor Dennis Tito is getting from the zero-gravity press corps back on Earth, I'm pretty sure that in short order, the public will support my own quest for weightlessness. (Send non-refundable checks, money orders or gold fillings to Malcolm Howard, c/o the Independent).

After some initial public hand-wringing by NASA -- that Tito would not be properly trained for his venture -- the space agency accepted the fact that Russia would fly the trim, balding fat cat up to the ISS for a mere $20 million.

Despite their public chagrin, however, I suspect NASA officials and private space contractors are now secretly wetting their flight suits with delight over the whole Tito affair. For years, the agency, its private partners and certain politicians friendly to the space-commuter business have been trying to win public support for more spending on things such as "space ports" and "re-usable-re-entry vehicles" (think mini-shuttle). Such things promise to make access to space more affordable to telecommunications companies and, possibly, rich tourists.

While many upstart space tour companies have been shouting to anyone who will listen about the possibility of things like floating space resorts, NASA has been relatively low-key about such schemes, lest its image of pure scientific pursuit and public-interest commercialism be degraded.

Now, NASA has to realize the incredible PR coup the rich Californian space buff has landed on Space Inc. Barring any orbital screwups (a collision with a Japanese satellite with the guest stock-trader at the controls, for example), the Tito episode has completely smashed the space-tourism barrier in one giant (if not completely tacky) step for the rich and famous.

With the help of the golly-gee-Will-Robinson press corps, Tito has become an incredible spokesperson for the notion of space flight being available for the "general public." Never mind that most of us haven't even seen a Concord, let alone flown in one, the media is touting Tito's line as if price wars will break out any day now.

"I love space," Tito told journalists via a Russian downlink. His comments touting future space tourism were broadcast globally via every major wire service and network. You can't buy advertising like that. For NASA, it was free publicity with no risk: anything goes wrong, they blame the Russkies.

Meanwhile, numerous preflight interviews have been equally soft, labelling Tito a "pioneer," and crafting headlines such as "Dennis Tito: A Passion for Space (CNN.Com)."

While some articles did question Tito's qualifications, they completely avoided any scrutiny of the millionaire's assertions that he was "paying his way" to visit the $95 billion-with-a-B space station. (For quick reference: $20 million is about two-one-hundredths of one percent of just the space station's construction cost. To those who say this isn't a free ride on the taxpayers, I ask you: Why then didn't Tito just build his own damn rocket?)

Instead of picking apart numbers, however, most journalists lobbed such weightless queries as "What was the hardest part of the [training] program? (CBS News)."

In my favorite of the many mindless, "inter-active" E-journalism fads to hit cyberspace of late, CNN posted a graphic on its Web site that suggests 86 percent of the public would follow Tito's lead if they had the dough. Duh! A disclaimer in very small print at the bottom of the chart tells us what we should already know: the poll is totally bogus because it only tracks people who've opted to visit the Web site and answer the question du jour (as many times as they wanted!).

I have yet to find a media outlet that didn't ignore a more challenging issue: Has a program developed over decades for the public good, with huge public investment from taxpayers in North America, Europe, Asia and Russia, devolved into floating Fantasy Island for the Forbes and People magazine set?

What message does that send to all the budding scientists whom the space program claims to inspire? Forget algorithms, start dribbling. Forget the Air Force Academy, start day trading. Your best shot at space travel isn't rigorous scientific study, it's I Want to be a Millionaire.

In that spirit, here are my picks for next dozen oligarchs and big egos to head into space: Donald Trump, Tom Hanks, Don King, Bill Gates, Ronald McDonald, Ted Turner, Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, Dick Cheney, Madonna and Malcolm Howard (don't forget to sign those checks people!).

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