The Space Tourist Who Wasn't: Welcome to Star City [2]

Japanese dot com mogul Dice-K spent $20 million to become a space tourist. But he barely made it out of Russia's cosmonaut training camp, Star City.

This story, which originally appeared in Wired, is part two of my feature story about Russia’s cosmonaut training town, Star City. I went first in 2006 to chronicle Dice-K’s adventure, and then returned in 2008 to write about computer game designer Richard Garriott’s training.

I met Daisuke "Dice-K" Enomoto in Star City, Russia, in August 2006. Enomoto, 37, is slight with tired eyes and a shock of bleach-blond dyed hair. His idea of space travel comes from comic books and Star Wars. He grew up as a self-described otaku, coding his own computer games and dreaming of space—or, at least, space as it was portrayed in Star Wars and manga. His favorite anime show, Gundam, chronicles a future full of giant robots in which humans are abandoning this planet for the stars. "People who live on Earth, their souls is tied up by gravity, you understand?" Enomoto says. "I sympathize with this idea. Maybe in the future people should live in the space."

Enomoto applied his programming skills to building Internet companies, making millions. He bought a swanky wraparound penthouse loft overlooking Tokyo's famous electronics district, Akihabara. He tooled around in Porsches and Segways, and threw raves. He redecorated the moon-age pad himself, tricking it out with sinuous white walls modeled after the International Space Station. But life was bearing down on him. He married and divorced, had a couple of kids. One of his former companies, Livedoor, was embroiled in criminal lawsuits over stock and accounting issues. He needed to get away from the money, the demands, the scandal. And what better place to go than space? "I just want to go up there," he says, "and chill."

This giddy club kid paid $20 million (the price of a trip to the International Space Station at the time) to Space Adventures. He left behind his sci-fi penthouse and moved into a tiny two-room apartment in Star City to train for his 10-day space trip. He bunked with a Russian translator named Sergei, who stayed up every night shoving wads of newspaper into the window cracks to keep out the freezing winds.

The longer Enomoto stayed at Star City, however, the more he came to enjoy the simple life there. Gone were the pressures of life in Japan. "I realize life is more than just money," he says. The broadband access in his cramped Star City apartment and several seasons of 24 on DVD didn't hurt.

Enomoto had big plans for his ride into space—and not just the ultimate iPod playlist he put together for the trip, a meticulously arranged mix of techno and trance. He also intended to take cosplay to a whole new level. He would dress like his favorite anime character—the mighty Char Aznable from Gundam. He had his assistant make a custom space suit, an orange and black number complete with a homemade Dice-K patch stitched on the front.

Every Space Adventures client can do experiments during his or her trip to space—most have chosen to conduct scientific research. Enomoto decided to see if he could assemble Gundam toys in weightlessness. Enomoto explains, "I make robots in these bags!" as he reaches his hands inside what looks like an elaborate Ziploc filled with robot parts, "just because it's fun!"

Enomoto show me a couple of toy Gundam robots, an example of the sort of toys he wanted to see if he could assemble in the weightlessness of space. Photo: David Kushner

Enomoto's space dreams came crashing down one August morning shortly after my arrival in Star City. The discovery of a kidney stone means he can't fly. Enomoto's backup, Anousheh Ansari, a 41-year-old Iranian woman living in the US, will be taking his seat in the next Soyuz launch. After a visit to the hospital, he's sitting in his apartment with a steaming cup of tea. Enomoto's phone rings off the hook from friends just getting the news. But Enomoto is all smiles.

"My flight isn't canceled," he tells his friend on the phone, "it's just postponed." With his training complete and his condition treatable by a blast of ultrasound, Enomoto is in even better shape. He'll be up in space in no time. Best of all, he says, now he can work out some final details like getting the space station manuals translated into Japanese. And, he says, maybe he'll use the extra time to negotiate a spacewalk outside the ISS.

In the meantime, he's happy Anousheh is getting her crack at the flight.

Any chance he'll let her assemble one of his robot toys in space when she goes? "I don't think so!" he says, with a nerdy laugh and a snort. He spent $20 million, and the robots are coming with him.

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