Geek Trivia: Fare play

Who was the first fare-paying civilian passenger on a spaceflight, and how much was the fare?

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Science fiction, make room for "science fact." No less than three major television producers are working on separate reality programs that will bestow a trip to outer space on their eventual winners. Moreover, the idea isn't new (which should come as no surprise, since we're talking about television)—TV has been down this road before.

"Survivor" creator Mark Burnett first envisioned an astronaut-themed reality show in 2001, but his "Destination: Mir" concept—which would have pitted aspiring space travelers against each other in a made-for-TV version of cosmonaut training—fell apart when Russia decided to shut down the Mir space station and crash it into the atmosphere.

Burnett still plans to produce a space-themed reality show, but he's remained mum on details, possibly preferring not to commit to using any space technology that could be mothballed (or fireballed) before the show is ready.

Nipping at Burnett's heels are fellow reality TV developer Craig Piligian and producer Phil Gurin. Piligian's take on a space race show would pit millionaires against one another for a seat on a flight to space, similar to the trip made by wealthy American and former engineer Dennis Tito in April 2001.

Gurin, who made his name in space tourism circles by attempting to send pop star Lance Bass into space in 2002 (a trip the Trivia Geek was in favor of until learning that the Russians intended to bring Bass back from space when they were done), is also developing a space reality show. Gurin's version would offer ordinary citizens, rather than the wealthy, a shot at spaceflight.

Let's hope Gurin has his finances straight this time. The Bass project fell through when no one could guarantee that the Russian space agency would receive its $20 million fare for the pop star's flight.

Publicity is fine, but money comes first, which brings us to perhaps the most interesting element of any spaceflight reality show—the value of the prize. At roughly $20 million per seat, a free trip to space likely represents the most expensive reward ever bestowed on a reality show victor.

Of course, the cost of spaceflight has risen in the last few years, which is probably why the first fare-paying civilian passenger on a spaceflight paid significantly less than $20 million—and flew more than a decade before Dennis Tito made his famous trip.


Who was the first fare-paying civilian passenger on a spaceflight, and how much did the trip cost?

On Dec. 2, 1990, Japanese journalist Toyohiro Akiyama journeyed into space as the third member of a Russian Soyuz crew headed to the Mir space station. Akiyama's employer, Tokyo Broadcast System (TBS), paid for his trip, which ran the company an estimated $12 million.

While accounts vary on how much cost TBS incurred on the voyage and how much profit the Russian space agency made, suffice it to say, this was a multimillion-dollar expedition. As such, Akiyama became the first paying civilian passenger on a spaceflight.

The Akiyama mission was a publicity stunt for TBS and a new revenue stream for Russia's ailing space program. But by most accounts, Akiyama's trip into space was a disappointment.

Though he successfully made several live television and radio broadcasts from Mir during his seven-day stint aboard the station, Akiyama was noticeably ill for most of the trip, and his correspondence suffered for it. By the time he returned to Earth, there was little talk of another journalist heading to Mir, especially considering how much Akiyama's mission had cost.

Ironically, Akiyama's spaceflight wasn't Russia's first attempt at selling fares on orbital missions. Musician John Denver seriously pursued a trip to Mir in 1989—even going so far as to have NASA perform a medical exam to determine his fitness for the voyage—but the $12 million price tag was nonetheless too high.

And Akiyama wasn't the only journalist offered a shot at space. In 1997, CNN reportedly negotiated with Russia to send the late reporter John Holliman—known for his live Baghdad reports during the first Gulf War—to Mir, but CNN never finalized the terms of the deal.

Moreover, the "success" of the Akiyama flight didn't carry over to Russia's next high-profile passenger flight. Britain's first person in space, food scientist Helen Sharman (who got the job by answering a radio ad), was promised a trip into space that would be sponsored by British businesses.

When no sponsors came through, a Russian national bank had to make good on Sharman's fare, marking the venture a Russian financial loss, but a great boon for Geek Trivia.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble is more of a clarification, and it comes from the June 29 edition of Geek Trivia, "Grand old snag," which discussed the origins of the American flag.

TechRepublic member Mark Clark quotes R. Buckminster Fuller at length, whose 1981 Critical Path describes the U.S. flag's striking resemblance to one of several flags used by the East India Company—well before the formation of the United States of America.

To verify the claim, I tracked it down on the Flags Of The World Web page, which offers images of several flags used by the East India Company, all of which are noticeably similar to the modern American stars and stripes. Thanks for the extra bit of trivia, Mark Clark, and keep on geekin'!

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.