The Galactic Purchase of a Russian Space Station

by William Watson on April 1, 2009

By Rebecca Villaneda

Palos Verdes resident Michael Potter recently showed his first documentary at the Sacramento International Film Festival. “Orphans of Apollo” is a true story about five space entrepreneurs behind the purchase of Russia’s Mir Space Station. Here, at the festival, Potter stands in front of a projected image of the actual station orbiting over Earth. It was a true tale straight out of a science fiction novel — five entrepreneurs who were behind the first-ever privately funded space mission.

First-time filmmaker Michael Potter captured the ground-breaking venture in the documentary “Orphans of Apollo,” which he showed at the Sacramento International Film Festival on March 30.

It was 1999 and the Russians were being pressured by NASA to de-orbit the Mir Space Station to make room for the International Space Station.

Construction of the Mir, which means “peace” in Russia, began in 1986.

“The Russians after the collapse of Communism ran out of money and so they were going to crash this space station into Earth,” said Potter, a Palos Verdes resident. “That’s when these guys stepped into the picture and said, ‘We’re going to fly over there and save this thing.’”

The five Americans, all with various roles, including Walt Anderson who was the financier, created MirCorp to eventually use the station as a hotel, and other entertainment-type prospects.

“The real drama was that the U.S. didn’t want these entrepreneurs, these anarchists to buy the Russian space station, because they wanted to have the monopoly on everything in space,” Potter said.

The 76-minute documentary features firsthand accounts of the men involved, plus actual footage of the meeting in Moscow when the deal was made to “lease” the Mir.

Russia would maintain technological domain over the Mir, while MirCorp essentially would be the tenants.

“As someone growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, I would have never imagined that some day I would be visiting Moscow, let alone working with the Russians, side by side, to save a national treasure, on a capitalist, for-profit, commercial project. This was truly future shock, redux,” said Gus Gardellini, MirCorp’s technical consultant who did a “due diligence” feasibility analysis of the project.

The others behind MirCorp were Rick Tumilson, John Jacobson and Jeff Manber, who was CEO.

Manber formed the management team for the company, gained Russian political support and scouted customers.

Among possible clients, which raked in more than $100 million in potential revenue, were multimillionaire Dennis Tito, NBC and Mark Burnett of “Survivor,” the Murdoch family and film director James Cameron.

But plans didn’t fly…

After continued pressure from the United States, and according to the film, some bad publicity, Russia gave the order to crash the Mir before MirCorp could set up shop. The documentary features footage of the space station breaking off into pieces right before plunging into the South Pacific Ocean on March 23, 2001.

“Some people are calling this the ultimate start-up story, and other people are saying it’s the greatest space story that’s never been told,” Potter said. “Even experts in space haven’t heard this story and so I think that’s what got me switched on and inspired to do it, because it was such an unbelievable story.

“But at the end of the day, it was about a very small group of people making a tremendous impact, and it’s one of those things that seem to resonate with people nowadays,” he added.

Future Voyages

The film’s title is a clear message of how these five men felt watching the first space explorations as kids, then watching their dream mission aborted.

“I think all Americans of a certain age are very much orphans of Apollo. We all share the experience of Neil [Armstrong’s] first step, but even more so, we share the promise, never fulfilled, of that science fiction future. ‘Where’s my jet pack? Where’s my flying car? Where’s the lunar-base-producing power stations that provide limitless, clean and essentially free energy?’” Gardellini said.

“The American space program had been decades of dreams never realized, decades of false expectations, decades of government interference in what the private sector does best: opening up a new frontier. That’s what the title means to me,” Manber added.

Yet both men have faith that the space revolution they started will continue.

“My young son, when he’s my age, will have lifestyle options, which are science fiction now,” Gardellini said. “Right now reusable space ships are being commercially built. [Soon] thousands and thousands of private astronauts will earn their wings, and after just a decade or so, many will even be able to stay in private hotels. These are also being built, privately, right now, and prototypes have already flown,” he added.

Said Potter, “The big question for Americans and tax payers and the question for political leadership is, How do you make a bureaucracy that is going to have the results, the leadership, the impact and the efficiency that some of these [space revolution] entrepreneurs are having?”

For more information about the documentary that is now available on DVD, visit the Orphans of Apollo homepage.

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