Review: Orphans of Apollo (DVD)


We open with a launch of a Saturn V, forever an emblem of the Apollo program. Space activist Rick Tumlinson provides his view of why it ended, and author Tom Clancy notes what we’ve foregone. A whole host of individuals in space business and activism were interviewed for this documentary, from James Muncy to Dr. Chirinjeev Kathuria.

We’re introduced to the Rocket and Space Corporation Energia (RSC Energia), which has been operating the Russian space program since the beginning, and we learn of the precarious position of the Mir space station subsequent to NASA’s practice runs for ISS in the 1990s. (which, admittedly, had left NASA a bit spooked about the aging Russian station)

Russia was still recovering from the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a small group of entrepreneurs shows up on the doorstep with a basket of cash. Their goal – commercialize the Russian space station and save a tremendous asset that’s already in orbit. Thus is born MirCorp.

We get an inside view of what happened – the negotiations, the politics, and the power players. Not everyone in the USA believes that the business of America is business, and sometimes people will go to great ends to further their agenda, even if it means crushing opposition. Still, entrepreneurs are the value creators of society, and they’re always looking for opportunity.

There are plenty of research opportunities that were poorly served by the Shuttle architecture. It’s tough to get much science done when you can only get to the lab once every 3+ years, and you only have a couple of days at best to do your research. Private companies can’t afford to keep research scientists on staff when they’re not producing any research results, which is why most of the private sector efforts eventually disappeared after Challenger, and again highlights the risk of relying solely on a ‘National Space Transportation System’. There’s a great deal of untapped potential in microgravity research, we just need to get scientists up there regularly and frequently to sit at the lab bench day after day doing research.

So I certainly applauded efforts to ensure that we had not one, but two stations in orbit serving as a stepping stone to beyond. It’s interesting seeing the story from the perspective of this documentary, as the end-story played out during my year of studies at International Space University, and I still remember the death watch with my fellow students in the computer lab. The demise of Mir remains a tragedy of commercial efforts to open the high frontier, but it also sparked a legacy for the Orphans of Apollo that shapes the nature of efforts to open the high frontier by both citizens and their government. That’s where the documentary leaves off, highlighting some of the New Space efforts that have forever changed the idea of just who it is exactly that gets to go into space.

I won’t presume to speak on the merits of the case of U.S. vs. Walt Anderson. I recognize that I haven’t mentioned his name yet, and that’s by design. The only reason that this bit of history even exists is because a man who made his money in technology decided to roll the dice and take a chance with creating a whole new business that had never existed before (irrespective of NASA protestations to the contrary), throwing $7 million in cash on the table to close a deal. Walt let the beauty of “The Deal” seduce him, and he failed to adequately consider the geopolitical context. Probably, and rightly so, because once his company became responsible for the asset by virtue of its lease then it was no longer a geopolitical asset, it was a commercial asset operating under contract. Not everyone saw it that way, folks who conveniently happened to be in positions of government that allowed them to exercise control over the implementation of the business plan. Government authority also allows individuals to make decisions that destroy the lives of citizens and Mr. Anderson is currently in prison on tax charges. There is more information about this at

The DVD also features an extended version of the film, as well as some featurettes of miscellaneous space tidbits like a McDonnell Douglas ad.

I’m sort of hoping that this will become a bit of an underground classic at entrepreneurial programs. It captures that feeling of events rushing ahead of you as you try to figure out how to make it work, a seductive feeling beloved by entrepreneurs, and when they start hitting their stride. It’s a shame that the road of private space efforts is littered with far more roadkill than successes, but the same has been true of most frontiers. Entrepreneurs, like cutting edge scientists, know that not every effort is going to pan out, but you can count on them being in there swinging until the end, and then recycling the lessons of failure into the even better efforts of tomorrow.

An important documentary about an important part of space history, I’m going with a strong L-4 rating on this one.

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