Spaceman in Jail

Walter Anderson, who probably has spent more than anyone on trying to develop a private spaceship, is in jail in Washington for allegedly evading hundreds of millions of dollars in federal taxes. One of the conundrums about Anderson is that, unless you’re a real space junkie, you’re not very likely to have heard of him. Over the past 20 years, he quietly became very wealthy by starting and selling telecommunications companies. Then he turned around and ploughed tens of miillions into private space research, including a spectacularly unsuccessful venture called Rotary Rocket that tried to build a vehicle that would blast off from an airstrip like a rocket and land helicopter-style, but back end first. He also got behind an outfit called MirCorp that hoped to take over the historic and scary Soviet/Russian space station and send tourists there. Anderson’s space ambitions came wrapped with an unpleasant, somewhat paranoid grandiosity that’s profiled in an exceptionally well-done story Elizabeth Weil wrote for The New York Times Magazine in July 2000, and is touched upon in her exceptionally poorly executed book, “They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus.”

After all that, Anderson’s in jail. The government alleges he’s hidden hundreds of millions of dollars in off-shore shell companies and other dubious tax shelters to avoid paying taxes. Anderson says his plan all along was to give his money away to space ventures; but all bets are off on that plan, he says, because he’s broke now. In any case, Anderson might be realizing his long-expected martyrdom. In Weil’s magazine story, he makes no secret of his dislike of the feds and concludes: “In my life, if the U.S. government doesn’t try to kill me, I probably won’t have succeeded in meeting my long-term goals.”

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