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NewSpace 2008 panel
Executive producer Michael Potter (second from left) discusses his film, Orphans of Apollo, during a post-screening panel with moderator Roger Launius (far left) and three subjects of the film: Jeff Manber, Gus Gardellini, and Rick Tumlinson. (credit: J. Foust)

Preview: Orphans of Apollo

To many in the entrepreneurial NewSpace community, Walt Anderson is something of a folk hero. A self-made multimillionaire who built his fortune in the telecom industry, he invested much of that wealth in a variety of space ventures in the 1990s, from Rotary Rocket to LunaCorp. His highest-profile venture, though, was an audacious plan to take over the Russian space station Mir—which was being abandoned by the Russian space agency so it could focus on the International Space Station—and turn it into a commercial outpost in orbit. That effort ultimately failed, as everyone in the industry knows, but that seems to have done little to dim Anderson’s reputation among those who seek to commercialize space and are impatient with the progress to date. After all, some of them argue, MirCorp was done in by a US government that wanted to squelch any potential competition to the ISS.

The saga of MirCorp is the subject of a new, and largely sympathetic, documentary, Orphans of Apollo, which got its world premiere July 18th at the NewSpace 2008 conference in Crystal City, Virginia. The film’s title refers to those people who came of age during the early years of the Space Age and expected to see progress continue at the rate seen in those heady early days, only to be disappointed—orphaned—by events of the last few decades. If they were going to have the kind of bold future they once envisioned, they would have to build it themselves. And, with MirCorp, that’s what they tried to do.

“It is a misnomer that we were trying to create a ‘playground for billionaires,’” said Tumlinson of MirCorp’s apparent emphasis on space tourism. “That was our fallback when we realized that the ITAR was going to block the tether.”

Producer Michael Potter was able to interview most of the principal people involved with MirCorp, including company president Jeff Manber, Rick Tumlinson, Gus Gardellini, Chirinjeev Kathuria, as well as Yuri Semonov, the head of RSC Energia at the time and a major shareholder in MirCorp. They tell how Anderson, hearing that Energia might be interested in selling the station, assembled a team, flew to Russia, and won over the Russians with his straightforward negotiating style—and checkbook. What followed, of course, was—briefly—the first commercial space station, temporarily occupied by two Russian cosmonauts as MirCorp worked to line up customers and additional financing, as well as struggled to win approval to export from the US a tether that would be used to reboost the station.

The documentary, as well as a panel session that followed the screening featuring Potter, Manber, Gardellini, and Tumlinson, helped dispel a number of myths about MirCorp. Among them was the perception that MirCorp was a space tourism company that planned on turning Mir into a space hotel. While MirCorp had signed up Dennis Tito to fly to the station as a paying passenger in 2000, that was not meant to be a core part of the business. “The concept was not about space tourism,” sand Manber. “Walt was very reluctant to go down the space tourism path.”

“It is a misnomer that we were trying to create a ‘playground for billionaires,’” said Tumlinson. “That was our fallback when we realized that the ITAR was going to block the tether.”

Manber added in the panel that, by the time Mir was deorbited in March 2001, MirCorp had built up a backlog of business worth $100 million. That included not just Tito but also a deal with Mark Burnett of “Survivor” fame, who was planning a reality TV show with a trip to Mir for the winner, as well as filmmaker James Cameron, who was interested in doing an IMAX movie on Mir. Manber surprised many in the audience when he claimed that “several” unspecified national space agencies had expressed an interest in abandoning the ISS in favor of a commercialized Mir. “We had one governmental space agency, a member of ISS, saying, ‘if you last x period of time, we’ll pull out of ISS and go with you guys,’” Manber said.

So why did MirCorp fail? The standard bogeyman has been the US government, but the documentary offers a more nuanced view. Clearly NASA was not fond of having Mir in operation, in part because of concerns that it would have to compete with MirCorp for resources like Progress and Soyuz spacecraft. (Potter mentioned during the panel that former NASA administrator Dan Goldin declined to be interviewed for the documentary.) There was also problems winning approval from the State Department for an export license for the US-designed tether intended to be installed on the station to boost it to a higher orbit, where it could be kept in stasis until markets, and vehicles to service the station, emerged.

However, the documentary points to a deeper problem: money. Anderson had leveraged much of his money investing in dot-com companies at the peak of the boom, hoping to multiply his wealth to further MirCorp. Unfortunately, just as MirCorp was ramping up in 2000, the dot-com boom went bust, taking with it much of his money. The State Department delays and NASA opposition could have been overcome over time, arguably, with sufficient funding. The export license was eventually granted—on the same day the Russian government decided to deorbit the station. As for debates with NASA over access to Russian-built spacecraft and launchers, Manber said that MirCorp was offered control of the Soyuz/Progress production line for $10 million, an amount the company could no longer afford given the state of the markets. “The most extraordinary thing is that we failed for about $10 million,” Manber said. “We came very, very close, and if the stock market hadn’t tanked…”

Had the markets not tanked, or if their timing had been a little different, it’s an interesting exercise to wonder what would have happened to the company and the station. With funding in place, MirCorp could have held on long enough to get the tether to the station which—assuming it worked—would have raised the station’s orbit and bought the company some time. Perhaps Mir, and not the ISS, would have become the destination of choice for space tourists like Tito. Or, perhaps, some other financial, political, or technical pitfall would have befallen the station and company.

Then there is the case of Anderson himself. He is the central character in Orphans of Apollo, and seen in a variety of archival footage in the film, but unlike other principals of MirCorp is not interviewed other than a brief statement provided via telephone at the end. And with good reason: Anderson was arrested in early 2005 on tax evasion charges; he pled guilty a year and a half later and was sentenced to nine years in prison. (Anderson professes his innocence, and there is a “Justice for Walt” movement by some NewSpacers.) Had MirCorp survived its early struggles, would this still have done the company in at some point?

“The most extraordinary thing is that we failed for about $10 million,” Manber said. “We came very, very close, and if the stock market hadn’t tanked…”

Potter said it made sense to have the premiere of Orphans of Apollo at the NewSpace conference rather than in some Hollywood setting, given the audience (which included not just conference attendees but friends and family, including the parents of Walt Anderson.) Another screening of the documentary (which runs a little under one hour) is tentatively planned for Los Angeles in mid-October, in conjunction with the next Space Investment Summit there, with a broader distribution planned for around Christmas. When it does become available, it is worth seeing as it provides a detailed examination of one of the most audacious, if unsuccessful, efforts to commercialize space.

On the panel, Manber recalled running into Semonov at a Moscow restaurant earlier this year. “He just looked at me and said, ‘We almost did it.’” Orphans of Apollo is about that “almost”.