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Past and future of 'New Space'

NASA
The documentary "Orphans of Apollo" focuses on the effort to privatize Russia's Mir
space station, shown here during a 1995 space shuttle mission to the outpost. The
effort helped prolong Mir's life but ultimately failed, leading to its demise in 2001.

A behind-the-scenes documentary on the unsuccessful effort to turn Russia's Mir space station into a money-making operation serves as a cautionary tale for the private sector's present-day space ambitions.

"Orphans of Apollo," a movie that tells the story of the masterminds and millionaires behind MirCorp, has been making the film-festival circuit for months and is already on DVD. It's getting its London premiere on Friday, according to the documentary's director and executive producer, Michael Potter.

A decade ago, when the dot-com boom was going strong, a well-connected group of space enthusiasts and entrepreneurs laid plans to set up their own commercial beachhead in outer space. The title of the movie refers to the fact that many of these self-described revolutionaries were inspired by the Apollo moon landings that began 40 years ago - and then stopped 37 years ago.

"It was over in the government's minds, but a lot of young kids there, myself included, were ready for what was next," Peter Diamandis, the head of the X Prize Foundation, says in the film. "We drank the Kool-Aid."

Diamandis and many others anticipated an age when they themselves could follow Apollo's pioneers to the final frontier, and felt profoundly let down by what they saw as NASA's retreat. "We, as Apollo's children, felt we were Apollo's orphans. We had been left out in the cold," said Rick Tumlinson, co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation.

So when Russia's space officials began thinking about getting rid of Mir and turning their attention to the international space station, the revolutionaries began thinking about the opportunities. The central figure in the fight to save Mir turned out to be Walt Anderson, an "anarcho-capitalist" telecom millionaire with a penchant for supporting space causes.

"I had approached Walt earlier and said to him, 'Would you like a space station, because I think we can get it,'" Tumlinson recalls in the movie. "And he said, 'Yeah.'"

"Orphans of Apollo" chronicles the rise and fall of MirCorp, the venture created to turn Mir into an orbiting commercial paradise, through present-day interviews as well as extraordinary home video shot during Anderson's business dealings.

One sequence of shots shows Anderson and his buddies feasting on take-out pizza and wine and playing Risk while they fly on the millionaire's private jet for a crucial round of talks in Russia. During the year 2000, MirCorp's team spun out grand plans to refurbish the space station as a tourist destination and the setting for a reality-TV show. At one point NBC, one of the partners in the msnbc.com joint venture, had a deal with MirCorp and "Survivor" creator Mark Burnett to use Mir as the centerpiece of a prime-time series.

Thanks to Anderson's millions, MirCorp got their Russian "landlords" to send one more crew up to the space station in mid-2000 and keep the place running. But that was the venture's high point. The grand ambitions of Apollo's orphans ran up against a perfect storm of personality clashes, politics and economics.

On the personality front, Anderson didn't even bother to hide his contempt for governments, particularly his own. The video shows him telling the Russians at one point during their negotiations, "We're dealing with some of the stupidest bureaucrats in Washington at the State Department."

Unfortunately for Anderson, those bureaucrats would turn his life into a special kind of hell. NASA and other government agencies were worried that keeping Mir in operation would siphon off Russian resources that were needed by the infant international space station.

"Our concern was that it was an old vehicle and was costing more and more to maintain," Leon Fuerth, Al Gore's former national security adviser, says of Mir in the film. "And we wanted the Russians, if they had to choose which way to put their money, to put the money on what was coming rather than keep it going to what was clearly no longer useful."

The veterans of MirCorp suggest that NASA pushed hard on the Russians, the State Department and anyone else who mattered to kill Mir off. "I put a reward out for $1,000 for the person who can come up with the smoking gun," Potter, the film's director, told me. "From the MirCorp side of things, they always felt there was this conspiracy."

It didn't help that Anderson was often portrayed as an eccentric space nut. One famous New York Times article was accompanied by a cartoon tracing the adventures of "Wacky Walt."

But the nail in MirCorp's coffin was the dot-com bust that started in 2000 and gathered momentum as the months went on. Anderson had anticipated adding to his fortune and bringing in new investors, but the money troubles worsened instead. The Russians lost patience, and in April 2001, Mir was deep-sixed for good.

MirCorp tried to carry on, working on a reality-TV deal that called for pop singer Lance Bass to fly to the international space station in 2002. But Anderson eventually soured on the whole enterprise. And that wasn't the worst of it: In 2005, federal authorities arrested Anderson in what was then called the "biggest personal tax evasion case ever." Today, Anderson is serving a nine-year prison sentence and facing a $184 million tax bill.

Most of this seems like ancient history to those of us who covered MirCorp's rise and fall, but the movie clearly shows that Apollo's orphans have learned their lessons.

"This stuff really is rocket science," Potter said, "and it's not just the physics. It's the business model: How do you handle the risk assessment? How do you handle the insurance? It's really complicated - but it's not as complicated as NASA makes it."

The biggest lesson is that you want to have the government as your customer, not your enemy. "I think the slightly more commercial and realistic and politically savvy entrepreneurs who are now investing in private space understood where Walt went wrong," David Chambers, who was MirCorp's vice president of strategic planning, says in the movie. "And they're prepared to play nice with the various governments that they need to play nice with."

The examples are legion: SpaceX's Elon Musk has received millions from NASA to develop a new rocket and spaceship (with a crucial Falcon 9 launch planned this year). Scaled Composites' Burt Rutan has benefited from government contracts as well as investments from billionaires such as Paul Allen and Richard Branson. Robert Bigelow, a billionaire himself, is hoping government business will eventually help sustain his own privately funded space station program. XCOR Aerospace, Armadillo Aerospace and many other "New Space" companies rely on government contracts to keep the money coming in while they work on their rocket revolution.

Potter said he's applying the lessons from "Orphans of Apollo" in his own work with Odyssey Moon, one of the teams entered in the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize competition.

"We don't view ourselves as competing with NASA," he said. "We're just a gear in the cog. You want FedEx to the moon? We'll take care of that. ... We're pretty typical, if you compare us with a lot of Silicon Valley tech ventures."

And it's pretty typical that some ventures fade away while others keep going. To conclude, here's a quick rundown on how some of the space revolutionaries have fared since MirCorp faded:

  • One of MirCorp's founding directors, Indian-American tech entrepreneur Chirinjeev Kathuria, is now chairman of PlanetSpace, a launch venture that competed unsuccessfully for some of NASA's spaceship development funds. PlanetSpace recently lost an appeal of NASA's decision.
  • MirCorp's president and chief executive officer, Jeffrey Manber, went on to found Yuzoz, a space-themed company producing random-number generator software. Yuzoz has officially gone under, but Manber is now working on a book about Russia's space overtures to the West (including the MirCorp saga).
  • Tumlinson has founded business ventures to create flight suits for commercial space shots and offer "space diving" for thrill-seekers on the final frontier. (If you need help imagining what space diving would be like, check out the latest "Star Trek" movie.)
  • While MirCorp's principals were struggling to keep their rented space station alive, Diamandis was pushing ahead with the X Prize Foundation and Zero Gravity Corp. Zero G was sold to Space Adventures last year, but the X Prize Foundation has branched out into genetics, automotive innovation, health care and other fields as well as space. The foundation is still best-known for putting together the $10 million Ansari X Prize, which Rutan's SpaceShipOne captured almost five years ago. The next big thing on Diamandis' schedule is next month's Incentive2Innovate conference at the United Nations.

Update for 10:45 p.m. ET: By the way, Potter had these comments about reports indicating that former astronaut and retired Marine Charles Bolden is likely to be nominated to head NASA:

"Charles Bolden should be selected as NASA administrator because of his qualifications primarily as a battle-hardened warrior, not because of his outstanding record as astronaut. If Charlie ever forgets for a moment that he is locked into hand-to-hand combat with the goal of bringing humanity to the heavens, he will be crushed by bureaucracy and politics. Let's wish the man Godspeed, our future may depend on it."


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