MirCorp, the first New Space Company

For this new Space Legal Issues article, let us have a look at MirCorp, the first New Space company. August 28, 1999. Viktor Afanasyev and Sergei Avdeyev, Russian cosmonauts, and Jean-Pierre Haigneré, French spationaut, leave the Mir space station, during a mission supposed to be the last on board the Russian space station. But a final mission will be organized eight months later. This little-known episode reveals a plan that seemed insane at the time: to privatize Mir.

We are leaving the station with no hope of another crew replacing us”. Russian cosmonaut Viktor Afanasyev utters this sentence at the end of August 1999, as he prepares to leave the Russian Mir space station. He is with Sergei Avdeyev, another Russian cosmonaut, and their French colleague Jean-Pierre Haigneré. They have just completed their last mission aboard these facilities in orbit around the Earth. And on August 28, 1999, a little more than twenty years ago, their capsule landed in the steppes of Kazakhstan. At the time, in the collective imagination, Mir was living its last months. The station launched in 1986 is aging. Russia has invested in the International Space Station (ISS) project, and does not have the funds to finance both.

In seven months, the Russian station will have ceased to exist”, wrote the Belgian daily Le Soir, when the three men returned. “Empty, Mir can rest in peace”, headlines the French daily Libération. Their mission is billed as the last of the trips to the Russian station.

Return aboard Mir

But space station Mir will not die until March 23, 2001, disintegrating in the atmosphere above the waters of the southern Pacific Ocean. And before the station disappears, two Russian cosmonauts will return aboard. They will spend seventy-three days carrying out work to keep it functional, as part of a private mission. This little-known mission highlights a project that, at the time, was presented as totally crazy: to privatize, in a way, the Mir space station.

Objective: to keep Mir in working order

This final mission really started on April 4, 2000, again in the steppes of Central Asia. Two Russian cosmonauts take off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan: Sergei Zalyotin and Aleksandr Kaleri. Their objective is “to do everything necessary so that the space station is not condemned at short notice”. According to the American daily The New York Times, it is about fixing leaks, replacing deteriorating batteries… The two men are also working on several components outside the space station Mir.

This mission, called Soyuz TM-30, must also allow the space station Mir to always be able to be controlled from Earth if the station were to be deorbited. “Operationally, it was a success, the objective was met”. Although “it would have taken other missions” of repair and maintenance to keep the space station alive for the long term. And this final mission, which ended with the return of the cosmonauts in June 2000, marks a turning point in the history of the conquest of space: “It is estimated that this is the first manned space flight financed by private funds”.

The privatization of space station Mir

The company that is funding this spaceflight is called MirCorp. MirCorp was a commercial space company created in 1999 by space entrepreneurs and involving the Russian space program that successfully undertook a number of firsts in the business of space exploration by using the aging Russian space station Mir as a commercial platform. Its actions were highly controversial as it created a roadblock to the International Space Station (ISS) in creating a viable, low cost alternative. This structure based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, was then sixty per cent owned by Energia (a Russian manufacturer of ballistic missile, spacecraft and space station components), the powerful Russian public company in the aerospace sector, which notably designed the Soyuz vessels and… the Mir space station. The remaining forty per cent the shareholding is held by investors, especially Americans.

MirCorp has one objective: “to operate the space station in a private way”. And the company has a lot of projects. In June 2000, The New York Times, tells that the American millionaire Dennis Tito, a former engineer of NASA, the American space agency, spent twenty million dollars at the time to afford a stay of ten days at Mir station. According to information from the American daily, the departure is then scheduled for the first half of 2001.

Reality TV in orbit

A few months later, on September 12, 2000, the American television network NBC announced that it would produce a program called Destination Mir. The idea? About fifteen candidates undergo rigorous Russian cosmonaut training and the winner, “an ordinary American”, according to NBC, will win a trip to orbit on Mir, obviously under the watchful eye of television cameras. And that’s not all. “My impression is that space tourism is what we put forward because it is the most spectacular”. But there are a lot of other things you can do with a space station, like scientific research. In particular, it is possible to “sell laboratory time” so that researchers can conduct experiments in orbit.

At the time, the idea of ​​financing manned space missions with private funds met with strong opposition: “some had almost ethical reservations”. Then-NASA administrator Daniel Goldin is strongly against MirCorp‘s plans. And the U.S. space agency “gives the show of what’s going on in space”. When the Russian space station disintegrated in Earth’s atmosphere in 2001, no television shows were filmed in Mir, and Dennis Tito never set foot there. The idea of “privatizing” the machine was never really implemented. Was the station out of order? Did NASA’s position scare American investors away? Was MirCorp running out of funds?

Unanswered questions, twenty years later

Today, several questions still surround MirCorp‘s plans. The main unknown is the state of the space station itself. How long Mir could still have evolved in orbit around the Earth? The fate of MirCorp after the disappearance of the space station is unclear. The company continued its research into space flights, sometime before closing its doors. On the other hand, the company’s heritage is very much present. MirCorp has, in a way, paved the way for another structure, Space Adventures. It was this specialist company that sent the first “space tourist” to the International Space Station (ISS), a certain… Dennis Tito. It was April 2001, and he spent seven days in orbit.

The legacy of MirCorp

And that’s not all. Other space tourists have since followed. NASA, which was so opposed to private manned missions, works a lot with the private sector today. Thus, the companies Boeing and SpaceX are developing vehicles for the American space agency. In June 2019, Jeffrey DeWit, NASA’s chief financial officer, announced that the agency was “opening up the International Space Station to business opportunities”. Tourists and private companies can now use the facilities. All these projects, MirCorp had already imagined them twenty years ago. And even if it did not carry them out, the company has “initiated a change in mentalities”. The MirCorp experiment “was not for nothing”. It has “started to infuse the idea that you can do private exploitation of the human space segment”.