Seventeen years ago two humans blasted off to a space station, paid for by a private company.
The company was the Dutch MirCorp; and in a critical milestone in our march to realize a more robust, commercial exploration of outer space, two Russian cosmonauts rode a Soyuz to the Mir space station and brought the aging station back to life. The mission was paid for by my investors, principally the American Walt Anderson.
The mission was not easy. The Mir had been empty for seven months and was in poor shape when shut down. But Sergei Zalyotin and Alexander Kaleri were well trained both for the technical aspects of the mission and the underlying tension: at that time NASA was opposed to our mission to save the Mir space station.
The launch was April 4th. I remember the moment clearly. Standing in the TSUP Mission Control Center, with the other major investor Chirnjeev Kathuria, surrounded by the world’s media, I watched as the Soyuz lifted off flawlessly and began their journey to the world’s first station now owned by a private company (RKK Energia) and leased for use to a private company (MirCorp).
Two days later, at 12:05 in the morning Moscow time, the crew arrived. But I recall they were out of reach with the ground, and we had to wait to talk to the crew about 2 in the morning. The crew reported that all was well, and that they had come “with the support of MirCorp” to resume operations of the world’s only space station.
At that moment the Russians declared our lease operational and asked for my instructions. It was extraordinary moment for me personally. Captain of a orbiting space ship! We had a choice: look for the mysterious leak that has beguiled the station or undertake scientific experiments to show all was good on the station. My answer cut it down the middle: start the experiments, announce the experiments and then find the damn leak.
It is hard to imagine the tensions. NASA was opposed to our commercial mission. So too Rosaviacosmos (as the Russian space agency was referred to at the time.) Over and over they informed the public that Russia was spending no federal funds to support this manned expedition.
So our mission was a first in space history.
With no government funding we launched two humans to a privately owned space station. Indeed, for many years, there was no mention of the Soyuz launch in the United Nations date base. The Russian government refused to pay the nominal fee and do the paperwork. We had no idea it needed to be done. So it was for a decade the forgotten human expedition.
But the public knew and supported us. Thousands of emails came in, many pointing out the irony that it took a Russian company to promote capitalism and free markets in space over the strong objections of the American space agency.
The mission was scheduled for 45 days. All seemed fine. We were in space. Now we just needed to find customers and more capital. That wouldn’t be so hard, would it?
As the former CEO of MirCorp I’m writing a occasional series of blogs looking back on MirCorp and its historic mission as we stand poised to begin a new era of commercial utilization of low-earth orbit and beyond, this time to stay private sector for good!