by Douglas Messier
It’s been one of the most intriguing on-the-books-but-never-executed space missions of the 21st century: two tourists paying $150 million each would fly around the moon in a modified Russian Soyuz spacecraft before landing back on Earth. It would be humanity’s first trip to the moon since Apollo 17, which landed there 45 years ago this month.
Space Adventures said it had signed two wealthy tourists to go years ago. There was much speculation about the identities of these individuals. Was it Google Founder Sergey Brin? Titanic director James Cameron? Brin and Cameron? Cameron and a seat full of camera equipment?
The answer is none of the above. One prospective lunar tourist is someone few people have ever heard of. The other is a well known figure in the space community who was hiding in plain sight. The reason they didn’t fly to the moon together might surprise you.
The details are included in a lawsuit now winding its way through U.S. District Court in Virginia. Harald McPike, a wealth Austrian investor and adventurer who resides in the Bahamas, has sued Space Adventures, its chairman and CEO Eric Anderson, and its president Thomas Shelley seeking to recover the $7 million down payment he put down on the flight in March 2013.
The other lunar tourist? The lawsuit says Space Adventures told McPike that it was Anousheh Ansari, who flew to the International Space Station (ISS) as a tourist in 2006 on a Soyuz in a deal the company brokered with the Russians. Ansari’s family also sponsored the $10 million Ansari X Prize won by Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne in 2004.
McPike claims Space Adventures made made false assertions about having reserved and owned the rights to provide a circum-lunar flight through agreements with the Russian space agency Roscosmos and RSC Energia, the company that builds the Soyuz spacecraft. The specific claims are breach of contract, fraud, unjust enrichment, conversion and violations of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act.
Space Adventures argues that although it did not have formal agreements with RSC Energia and Roscosmos, it could have, in fact, provided the circum-lunar flight. In addition to Ansari’s flight to ISS, the company has brokered seven other trips to the station for six space tourists. (One traveled there twice.)
McPike claims he stopped making additional installments toward the full $30 million down payment due to doubts about the company’s ability to deliver the promised flight. Space Adventures counters that the payments stopped after McPike wanted to make changes in the signed agreement related to putting the money into escrow.
Space Adventures says that it terminated the agreement with McPike due to his failure to make the payments. The company says that under the contract, the $7 million was non-refundable under any circumstances. Space Adventures also claims the statute of limitations had run out by the time McPike filed the lawsuit.
Space Adventures asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit. In a ruling last month, District Court Judge Thomas Selby Ellis III dismissed some of McPike’s claims while letting others stand.
The judge ruled the plaintiff had alleged sufficient facts to proceed with discovery on his breach of contract claim. The ruling also stated the statute of limitations issue would need to be settled at a later time.