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Space Adventures circumlunar mission
Despite claiming to sign up tourists, a circumlunar mission proposed by Space Adventures more than a decade ago has failed to launch. (credit: Space Adventures)

And all my dreams, torn asunder: The (quiet) collapse of circumlunar tourism

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By 2003, space tourism was pretty much all that space enthusiasts could talk about on blogs, discussion groups, and conferences. The Ansari X PRIZE was in full swing, with numerous competitors—many of them with no funding or assets to speak of—all claiming to be in the running to win the prize. Once the prize was won, many people believed that regular, prolific suborbital space tourism was only a few years down the road.

Now, almost a decade and a half later, we’re learning a bit more about one of these efforts and why and how it flamed out before ever leaving the ground.

But suborbital vehicles were not the only ones gathering attention. Several wealthy individuals had booked flights aboard Soyuz rockets to the International Space Station and would continue to do so throughout the decade. And only a few years earlier, a company called MirCorp had sought to commercialize the tired Soviet-era Mir space station for various purposes, including as a tourist destination, and began talking about a MirCorp 2 station that would be a sort of space tourist hotel. In 2005, Bigelow Aerospace unveiled plans for a space hotel, and performed engineering test flights in 2006 and 2007. It was a heady time, and into this fevered atmosphere emerged several proposals for private tourist spaceflights around the Moon. Now, almost a decade and a half later, we’re learning a bit more about one of these efforts and why and how it flamed out before ever leaving the ground.

In summer 2004, a company called Constellation Services International (CSI) emerged with a proposal for a commercial tourist flight around the Moon using a converted Soyuz spacecraft (see “Soyuz to the Moon?”, The Space Review, August 2, 2004). The company’s leaders claimed that, because Soyuz was similar to a spacecraft that the Soviet Union developed to send cosmonauts around the Moon in the late 1960s, hardware development would be easier than using a brand new vehicle. CSI managed to get some media attention in those days, but never anything in the way of seed capital.

A year later, another company called Space Adventures, which had already booked several flights of wealthy tourists on Soyuz missions to the ISS, announced that it was now planning on sending tourists around the Moon on a modified Soyuz spacecraft. Space Adventures had a track record and contacts with Russian space industry and therefore a certain amount of credibility. But it was not until 2011 that Space Adventures announced that they had sold the first $150 million ticket for a 2015 circumlunar flight. Then, in May 2014, Space Adventures announced that they had signed up a second customer and planned to conduct their circumlunar flight in 2017 or 2018. After that, nothing happened. And after a long period of time, nothing continued to happen.

Late last year we suddenly learned a lot more about what had been going on when Harald McPike filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia against Zero-Gravity Holdings, the renamed Space Adventures. McPike, it turns out, was the first customer for the circumlunar flight, the one who signed up in 2011 to pay $150 million for the trip. Those who follow spaceflight news closely, particularly any news about space tourism, will probably respond to seeing McPike’s name by scratching their head in puzzlement. He is not somebody who was well known, or even known at all, in any of the space tourism discussions. He has not sponsored any space events or appeared as an investor. He is not famous. But, apparently, he is very, very rich.

McPike is, according to a district court document, “a private investor and adventurer who hails from Austria, but currently resides in the Bahamas. In the past, plaintiff has undertaken expeditions to the North and South Poles and has scaled many notable mountain peaks including Mt. Kilimanjaro. He now wishes to add space travel to his long list of adventures.” McPike was not one of the eight people who booked tickets aboard a Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS. But he certainly had ambition, wanting to fly around the Moon, and he had the bank account necessary to buy a ticket.

McPike certainly had ambition, wanting to fly around the Moon, and he had the bank account necessary to buy a ticket.

According to the court documents, McPike contracted to pay a non-refundable $30 million deposit in three installments, and then make additional payments of $120 million. Although Space Adventures claimed they had signed up their anonymous customer in 2011, McPike did not pay his first $7 million until March 2013. But, by summer 2014, he “effectively terminated the agreement by not making the second installment payment of the $30 million deposit.” He also sought a refund of his initial $7 million deposit “based on his belief that Space Adventures, contrary to its representations in the parties’ agreement, did not have the capacity to complete the spaceflight.” Space Adventures refused to return McPike’s $7 million, and as a result he sued.

There are a lot of interesting details in the court document, such as the fact that McPike claims to have discovered in July 2014 an English-language article in the Moscow Times reporting that Space Adventures had not consulted with the Russian space agency Roscosmos about the circumlunar mission and had no contractual relationship with Roscosmos. The Roscosmos statement came only a couple of months after Space Adventures had announced that they signed up a second customer for the circumlunar flight. McPike stopped making payments and Space Adventures terminated their agreement with him. In 2016, he contacted Roscosmos about securing with them a circumlunar mission, and at that time Roscosmos stated that there were “no legal obligations of Roscosmos to SA.” Given McPike’s eagerness to fly around the Moon, he is probably one of the people who talked to SpaceX about such a flight. If he is, he’s undoubtedly unhappy that SpaceX’s Elon Musk recently said there are no plans to carry out such a mission on the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket, contrary to plans the company announced less than a year earlier.

The vast majority of civil lawsuits are settled out of court and we may ultimately learn very little more about the arrangement between McPike and the company, or how Space Adventures planned on getting the hardware developed and accomplishing the circumlunar flight. But the recent revelations are a reminder that during the last decade, space tourism was all anybody could talk about in space enthusiast circles, and there was so much hype that it even spread into the larger culture. There was “Astromom” and singer Lance Bass’ planned flights to the space station (see “AstroMom and Basstronaut, revisited”, The Space Review, November 19, 2007). There was much talk about a reality TV-show with a space tourism theme (see “The reality space race”, The Space Review, June 21, 2004). A 2010 episode of CSI Miami even featured a murder on a tourist spaceplane (see “Space cops”, The Space Review, March 1, 2010).

This has not been the decade of space tourism that many people hoped and expected it to be, but now is a good time to find out a little more about why that is, and maybe to learn some lessons that can be applied to the current cycle of rhetorical extravagance.

Throughout the decade lots of people made lots of assertions: about MirCorp, about regular (even dedicated standalone) Soyuz tourist flights, about space hotels, but mostly about the nascent suborbital space tourist trade. Although some people claimed that suborbital space tourism would take off by 2008 at the latest, most of the enthusiasts conservatively envisioned it happening in the early 2010s, and predicted that the fleet of space vehicles that would be flying only a few years in the future would revolutionize the entire space industry. Among space enthusiasts, there was a lot of talk about how spaceflight was about to become available to the masses (at least that portion of the masses with disposable income.) We know how that has all turned out, with most of the companies folded or simply vanished, and the few remaining ones not promising revenue operations anytime soon. There’s a lesson to be learned there about not getting overly excited about things that do not currently exist, and not getting stuck in an echo chamber of unrealistic promises. Don’t expect anybody to learn it, however.

Last decade’s space enthusiasts were always much less energized about the circumlunar tourist flight than the other things, in part because it would be accomplished using Russian hardware, and in part because it seemed to be rather ambitious at a time when most of the talk was about suborbital flights. The circumlunar plans had some inherent hurdles to overcome. One was that the Soviet Union never sent a crewed Zond spacecraft around the Moon in the first place, and it was difficult to believe that the present-day Soyuz could be easily adapted to the task. Would it require a test flight? Would two high-net-worth individuals really want to climb aboard a vehicle that had never flown before? They might not asphyxiate during the journey, but reentry at lunar return velocity might be a bit dicey. There was also the funding question: the mission would require new hardware, and that would require a major up-front capital investment for something that might not happen. If you’re super rich, $150 million will buy a nice yacht, or a very large private plane. Would two people hand over $300 million to a foreign company (in Russia, where foreign investors often have iffy legal protection) without high confidence that they would ever get to the Moon?

McPike’s lawsuit now provides an answer to that last question. He began to have doubts a year after making his initial payment, even after Space Adventures claimed to have signed up a second customer. Maybe, if the lawsuit continues a little longer, we’ll learn more, like who that second customer is.

This has not been the decade of space tourism that many people hoped and expected it to be, but now is a good time to find out a little more about why that is, and maybe to learn some lessons that can be applied to the current cycle of rhetorical extravagance that threatens to consume almost every discussion of human spaceflight these days. New promises are currently being made, and maybe it’s a good idea to question them as well.