There are two especially dangerous types of people in the world: those with nothing to lose, and those with everything to lose. The former is desperate and, having little at stake, is often willing to do almost anything to survive. The latter often feels like he can do anything. This attitude can propel them to great heights – and to spectacular falls.
The themes of desperation and hubris run through Michael Potter’s film, Orphans of Apollo. The fascinating documentary recounts the briefly successful – but ultimately failed – effort to privatize the Russian space station Mir at the turn of the century. The film – which is now available on DVD and will screen at the Sacramento International Film Festival on March 30 – also chronicles the fall of early space entrepreneur Walt Anderson.
In this case, the desperate party was the Russian space program, which by the late 1990’s was in sickly shape. The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and economic chaos had left the once mighty program both broke and seemingly irrelevant. And yet, Russia’s version of economic privatization meant that old Soviet assets worth billions of rubles could be – and often were – had for a song. Opportunity knocked for anyone bold enough to seize it.
Enter Walt Anderson. The Washington, DC-based entrepreneur who had made a fortune (along with Potter) building a European long-distance telecommunications network with Esprit Telecom. A space enthusiast who was one of the earliest backers of the International Space University, Anderson was looking for somewhere to invest his millions. He decided that Russia was it.
Potter’s film recounts how Anderson formed Mir Corp. and flew to Moscow with an entourage of like-minded space entrepreneurs. Many of them like Rick Tumlinson, Jeffrey Manber and Gus Gardellini had came of age during the Apollo era; they felt “orphaned” when the the moon program was canceled. Instead of moving forward with lunar colonies, trips to Mars and PanAm space shuttles, the American space effort retrenched to low Earth orbit. By 1999, the aging 13-year-old Mir was the largest and most sophisticated object in space. And yet, it was a far cry from the giant space facility depicted in 2001.
Potter’s film is at its finest as it recounts the negotiations that with Russian space officials over commercial use of a station built by Soviet socialists. In addition to recollections from Gardellini, Tumlinson, Manber and others, there is rare video clips shot during trips to Moscow and negotiating sessions. It’s a nice behind-the-curtain look into how international deals get done. Potter does a good job of getting you caught up in the excitement of the quest.
Things went well at first. The Russians were won over by the ever candid Anderson, who thought nothing of spending 15 minutes haranguing the country over its military actions in Chechnya and then attacking the American government for what it was doing in Kosovo. Walt was an equal opportunity ranter; the Russians respected that.
He also delivered what they needed most – cold, hard cash. If Walt made a handshake deal and agreed to wire $7 million in cash into an account, he wired the cash. The Russians respected that as well.
The result is that MirCorp leased the abandoned Soviet space station and sold a space tourism ride on to former-NASA-engineer-turned-investment-guru Dennis Tito. It also began working deals for a Zero G reality show and other commercial ventures. The future seemed as boundless as space itself.
In April 2000, the company paid for a crew of cosmonauts to do a survey to determine what repairs and enhancements Mir required for commercial operations. During the flight, Anderson’s quest reached its figurative and literal heights. But soon afterward, the whole operation began to spiral downward.
The collapse of the effort is a classic lesson in political physics: new idea smashes into immovable object. The latter was the American government, more specifically NASA. By this time, Space Station Freedom – Ronald Reagan’s Cold War answer to the Soviet program – had morphed into the International Space Station, an effort to keep Russian scientists and engineers focused on peaceful space pursuits.
To NASA, anything that distracted attention and resources away from the new space station was trouble. The MirCorp partnership also posed a dilemma for the Russians: ISS was a large, high-profile technology partnership with the United States, Europe and Japan that could extend 20 years and lead to many other projects. Mir was an aging Soviet facility whose commercial prospects were uncertain. Limited resources. What to do? What to do?
Despite these obstacles, Potter’s film shows that they could have been overcome if MirCorp’s principals had been a bit smarter. For reasons no one can quite fathom (or perhaps, will state on camera), Anderson invited a female New York Times reporter out on the town during one of his evening visits to Amsterdam’s notorious Red Light District. (BAD IDEA!) The result was a not-all-together-complimentary story in the New York Times Magazine that attracted a lot of unwanted attention, particularly within the U.S. government.
A man with a visceral hatred of bureaucracy, Anderson had few friends within the American government. When MirCorp tried to get an export license for a tether it needed to boost Mir into a higher orbit, the application became entangled in red tape.
The final blow to MirCorp came when the tech bubble burst, a collapse that hit Anderson’s interests hard. As his paper profits went kablooey and rich friends began to back out of promised investments, the fate of Mir was sealed.
On March 23, 2001, the Russians sent the space station to a watery grave in the Pacific. Roskosmos began selling Soyuz seats to the International Space Station to wealthy billionauts through a rival company, Space Adventures. This resulted in bitter charges from Anderson of client poaching after Dennis Tito signed up for an orbital vacation. But, not much else.
Anderson took a far more spectacular fall five years after Mir met its demise. In September 2005, the U.S. charged him with evading taxes on more than $365 million in income in what is the largest tax evasion case in American history. Anderson was sentenced to nine years in federal prison in 2007 as part of a plea bargain agreement.
The movie makes a brief mention of this outcome at its very end. There’s a photo of the South Jersey prison where Anderson is serving his term along with a caption proclaiming his innocence. There’s also audio of a phone interview he conducted while in prison in which he vows to return to the space community once he’s released.
This is one of the weaker aspects of the film. This story is as much – or more – about the fall of the man as the machine. How a man falls that far – from jet-setting millionaire to prison inmate – is a Greek tragedy. It’s also got everything that makes a Shakespeare play great – human striving and boldness, hubris and arrogance, jealousy and political intrigue.
By focusing so much on the space station, Potter has likely limited his audience to space enthusiasts who want to know the real story behind the Mir saga. The broader public – most of whom will probably view the station as little more than a footnote in history – may not be nearly as entranced.
My sense is that Potter is simply too close to a man who helped make him a millionaire to explore the issue fully. This trait is admirable, an essential one in a friend and business partner. Documentary film makers need a bit more distance from their subjects, however.
Potter’s film strongly hints that the government was out to get Anderson for his involvement in MirCorp., that his conviction was payback for all the trouble he had caused. There are those who believe with all their heart that Walt did absolutely nothing wrong and has been made a scapegoat by the government.
This view is not universally held, however. I had a conversation with a friend who had worked with Walt back in the day. Any doubt about his guilt? Nope. Nine years in jail? “Not nearly long enough, if you ask me,” my friend answered.
In his phone interview from jail, Anderson vows to be back stronger than ever. No doubt. And he will be welcomed back by his supporters in the space community. He may have money to spend as well. Due to a typographical error in the plea agreement, he did not have to pay back more than $100 million in back taxes and penalties to the federal government. The feds have the right to sue him for it, however.
The man who was ahead of his time will emerge into a world that has caught up to him – and possibly passed him by. Space commercialization and tourism has gone mainstream now. Anderson’s nemesis, the U.S. government, is actually funding start-up companies like SpaceX to build commercial space transports. Suborbital tourism flights could become a reality by the end of the year.
Potter sees this as the real contribution of Anderson and MirCorp: opening up the possibilities of commercial space, pioneering business models, and demonstrating – through its missteps – what pitfalls to avoid. He’s probably right.
In a way, MirCorp is not dissimilar to the old North American Soccer League, the first attempt to establish futbol as a major American sport. The league collapsed due to a combination of hubris and financial setbacks. Yet, it helped to create a new generation of American soccer players and fans. And it gave the founders of Major League Soccer a solid lesson on how not to create a new sports league here.
Potter’s message resonates well with the space crowd; the film received a very loud ovation at the end when I saw a screening of it at NASA Ames in California. Of course, a space audience already knows the basic outlines of the story,Â and many of them are frustrated with NASA’s lack of progress in opening up the space frontier. They want to vacation in orbit, live on the moon, and send explorers off to Mars.
But will Potter’s film find a larger audience? For the majority of people who don’t follow space closely, Mir would likely generates a vague recognition and a shrug. Oh yeah, that Russian thing. Wasn’t there some sort of collision? Was someone sucked out of it? No, wait, that was on Galactica…
The station wasn’t very important to most people. And the era of commercial spaceflight that Anderson and MirCorp helped to inspire has not yet arrived. We are still flying through a void – much as Mir did during its lonely last year in orbit.