Top of the world
A meeting with Vasily Klyukin, the Russian magnate heading for the stars.
— “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.” While Blaise Pascal’s words might resonate with the awe–stricken dreamers craning their necks towards the Milky Way, in reality the cosmos ceased to be silent a long time ago. Granted, sound still doesn’t carry in space, but by launching colonies of geostationary satellites for telecommunications ( television, internet, mobile phones, etc. ), monitoring weather conditions or military use, we’ve made space a very chatty place. And these platforms, which are virtually within arm’s reach of life here on Earth, are nothing compared with the intergalactic depths probed by the most advanced telescopes in search of new and potentially inhabited planets. The possibility of extraterrestrial life isn’t just the figment of a film–maker’s imagination or a sci–fi novelist’s fantasy. Not when we have already counted hundreds of billions of galaxies which can contain anything upwards of a hundred billion stars, each with their planets!
That Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity should gross more than half a billion worldwide shows the extent to which we are simultaneously fascinated and repelled by the zero–gravity world that stretches beyond any known limit above our heads. To see Sandra Bullock stranded in space pulled us to the edge of the physical and mental black hole which the cosmos epitomises better than anything else, much like the expanses of white on erstwhile explorers’ maps. The uncharted territory in which to lose ourselves.
Space travel continues to lure the adventurers among us. Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, will offer passengers the experience of zero gravity inside SpaceShipTwo, a spaceplane that will travel to the vacuum of space. Virgin Galactic is believed to have sold some 650 tickets, whose price has increased from $200,000 to $250,000 each. At the end of 2013, newcomer World View, an Arizona–based start–up, began selling flights in a capsule lifted by a helium balloon for $75,000. “Passengers will be among the few to have seen the curvature of the Earth with their own eyes. They will be able to gaze at the astounding views, the blackness of space, the brilliance of stars and the thin veil of atmosphere enveloping our planet,” promises the company which anticipates the first voyages will take place within the next three years. Meanwhile, multimillionaire Dennis Tito, who became the first space tourist in 2001 when he bought himself a seat on a Soyuz spacecraft, has announced he is working with a team of engineers at Inspiration Mars to send a privately–funded mission to Mars in January 2018: a 500–day round trip for Tito and two astronauts.
By signing a cheque for $1.5 million at the amfAR gala in May 2013, the Russian magnate Vasily Klyukin put himself in the enviable position of travel companion to the actor Leonardo DiCaprio on a journey to the stars. In the early 2000s, Klyukin co–founded Sovcombank, which rapidly became one of Russia’s leading banks. Ten years later his fortune was made. Klyukin now lives in Monaco where, between two globetrotting adventures, he designs futuristic skyscrapers. For the more affluent in search of new sensations, space has become the next frontier to overcome. And 2014 could be the year this exciting new space tourism gets off the ground.
You’ll travel into space with Leonardo DiCaprio, probably the biggest male star in the world. Have the two of you had a chance to discuss the flight?
We chatted for maybe ten minutes in Cannes. We smiled at each other and shook hands. I invited him to a game of poker in space. I wish we could have talked for longer, but we’ll have our training sessions together soon anyway. I don’t know Leo that well but I do know the characters he’s played. My favourite is conman Frank Abagnale in Spielberg’s
Catch Me If You Can. What kind of technical, physical, even mental preparation does the flight involve?
We won’t be leaving the craft, which is actually a good thing as I already know why I’ll go back into space. I’m in the final stages of negotiation with the Dutch firm SXC, the second company to send tourists into space. What tempted me was the possibility of sitting in the pilot’s cabin under a four–metre–high glass ceiling. I should be in good company, with co–passengers DJ Armin van Buuren and model Doutzen Kroes. So I’ll be making at least two trips into space.
Which sci–fi films or novels most stick in your mind?
I’m a thinker and a dreamer. Books are more important to me than films, maybe because I can imagine much more than the movie industry can put on–screen. I’ve read hundreds of fantasy novels, from Ray Bradbury’s philosophical works to Harry Harrison’s cosmic sci–fi, but Jules Verne is still my favourite author. From being a child, I’ve loved all forms of adventure. Generally speaking, I believe science fiction is forecasting the future. I don’t doubt for one second that everything described in these books will happen one
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo spaceplane willboldly go where no one hasgone before.
Vasily Klyukin, 38, made his fortune in the banking businessand now designs futuristichigh– rises.