Movie review: Orphans of Apollo.


I've mentioned before that I grew up in a family that was fairly captivated by the U.S. space program, especially the Apollo program that brought humans to the Moon. But as impressive as those manned missions to the Moon were, what did the Apollo program accomplish? Where are our moon-bases?

Orphans of Apollo, a documentary film by Michael Potter, explores what one group of space exploration enthusiasts did when NASA's commitment to the space age seemed to falter. By the mid-1970s, the Apollo program that put Americans on the moon was done, with two planned Apollo missions cancelled. The U.S. had beaten the U.S.S.R. to the moon and brought back some moon rocks for study but what, really, had been accomplished? Had the moon landings left a lasting impact on human culture that was more than superficial?

The impact was anything but superficial on a generation of kids whose imagination was captured by the Apollo program. As these kids grew up, dreaming of a human future in space, NASA's visions and priorities shifted. This generation that assumed space travel and exploration almost as an American birthright felt orphaned by the American space agency.

But, as Orphans of Apollo tells it, a group of them found each other and started figuring out how to get a foothold in space. If NASA couldn't establish colonies on the moon or manned space stations, maybe the private sector could.

The cast of characters includes scientists and engineers, entrepreneurs and space enthusiasts, frustrated by NASA's trajectory ("We've stopped taking the risks that could enable breakthroughs!") and looking for another way to get a foothold in space. The foothold that presented itself was the Russian space station Mir.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Soviet Union was starting to come unraveled politically, and the Soviet space program was not immune to instability. Still, the Mir space station represented humans' longest continued presence in space. Though "designed with slide-rules" and "kept together with sweat, imagination, and duct tape," Mir impressed the group of would-be spacemen. Here was an operating space station that was already in orbit, and the Russians were in desperate need of funds to maintain it. It was the perfect opportunity for an infusion of private funds.

Enter Walt Anderson, who made his buckets of money in telecommunications but wanted to spend them in space. Anderson seemed the perfect leader for the group of anarcho-libertarian-utopians trying to break into space; he believed that government's role in human endeavors should be extremely limited, and that space ought to be the province of the private sector, and he was willing to put his own substantial resources to work to make it happen. In his negotiations with Yuri Semenov, head of Energia (the Russian space program), Anderson showed equal contempt for the Russian and U.S. bureaucrats. As well, he showed a startling confidence that his group could handle the technical side of keeping Mir going. The negotiations resulted in what resembled an elaborate rental agreement, with Energia as the landlord responsible for the exterior of Mir (and the political maneuvers involved in keeping it in orbit) and the newly established MirCorp responsible for running the space station -- and finding a way to keep the funding flowing to pay the rest.

This film is an enthralling glimpse into space, and into the minds and hearts of people trying to get into it. Footage of rocket launches and of life on Mir are interspersed with interviews with the key players about the technical challenges, political wrangling, and business plans. We feel the excitement (and fear) of their project and get a sense of the mood in Russia and the U.S. after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

We also get a view of NASA as a player bent on thwarting the plans of the plucky space explorers. Indeed, just as we start to believe that MirCorp will succeed in its space dreams, NASA, a journalist, and the bursting of an economic bubble end up knocking the project out of orbit.

Captivating both visually and intellectually, Orphans of Apollo presents an inside look at the challenge of conquering space from outside the context of a governmental space agency. It shows that political and financial influences can reach far beyond the Earth's atmosphere, but that imagination and determination are as powerful as any rocket fuel.

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I was going to review this, but after watching it with someone who had experience working with NASA on space issues, I couldn't review it - I didn't have much nice to say. It starts out well, but really oversimplifies the story of MirCorp and ignores the concerns of NASA and State. I'm not saying what happened with MirCorp was the best outcome, but it was a lot more complicated than the film makes it look. . . and how hilarious was the last quote from the telecom financier, who was, um, inaccessible to filmmakers? :)