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.”

How to Get Me …

… to quit reading a book.

You could argue that it’s not that hard. In one of my many guilt-ridden dimensions, the guilt grows out of not getting through as many books as I’d like to. Last one completed (a couple weeks ago): “To Conquer the Air,” by James Tobin (the Wright Brothers’ saga). As soon as I’d finished Tobin, picked up a book called “They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus,” published in 2002 by Elizabeth Weil, a writer I’ve respected (used to see her stuff in Fast Company magazine, and in one of my former incarnations, as an editor at Wired News, I tried to get her to write some stuff for us, but she said she was too busy).

“They All Laughed” is the story of a failed space start-up called Rotary Rocket. The company tried to build a reusable launch vehicle to go to orbit and back. It turns out it’s not as easy as it looks, and the effort just barely got off the ground, in a literal sense, while burning tens of millions of dollars. On forums like Amazon’s reader reviews, “They All Laughed” got a mixed reception. Insiders from the new private-space launch community felt she’d caricatured their efforts, to some extent. But worse, in their eyes, she’d just gotten important facts wrong. I thought the comments sounded like sour grapes. So I bought a used copy online for about five bucks.

I got to page 47 (of 230, including two “acknowledgements” pages). I may get farther, but I’ve found reading the book to be disspiriting. It’s just deflating to see something so ambitious and promising so full of simple factual errors. I actually outlined a few of the simple space-related ones on Amazon. But what makes me feel like quitting is the appearance of errors on workaday details such as the names of roads. We’re told that there’s an exit off Interstate 5 for Mercy Springs Road — no, actually, it’s Mercey Springs Road; or that the town of Mojave, very colorfully described as permeated by “a mood of repressed violence,” is on Highway 57; well, no, it’s actually Highway 58. And why should I take the author’s word about the town’s moods or the characters’ quirks or how a rocket works or anything else if she can’t get this elementary stuff straight?

Grilled Cheese in Space

Earlier in the year, I covered the space teams that said they planned to launch for the X Prize — the $10 million purse offered for the first privately financed space launch.  Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne won the prize in October, and was the only team to try a launch. A group in Toronto, which came to be known as The Space Program Powered by the da Vinci Project (the name of the volunteer effort tacked onto the name of their online-casino sponsor), got itself lots of media attention by declaring it would try to beat Rutan’s group to the punch. To be more accurate, it was the da Vinci Project’s leader, astronaut, and chief spokesman, Brian Feeney, who promised a launch.

Common sense suggested it was a long shot: Feeney’s team, which envisions launching its manned rocket from a balloon floating 15 or 16 miles above the prairie of western Saskatchewan, set its first X Prize launch for Oct. 2 without ever flight-testing its gear. Feeney would just climb into his capsule, light the rocket, and see what happened (the plan was to fly to 100 or 110 kilometers, then parachute back to the wide open spaces below; also wants Feeney to play some sort of casino game loaded on a laptop in the capsule). The apparent lack of preparation aside, Feeney was always adamant: all sorts of computer modeling had been done, safety was assured, and  no one outside the project could possibly know the state of readiness.  Da Vinci would make its launch date; just wait and see.

In late September, Feeney backed off his October 2 launch date because da Vinci’s vehicle wasn’t ready. SpaceShipOne made its X Prize-winning flight on Oct. 4. Feeney was in the crowd of spectators at Mojave, still insisting he’d fly before the end of October. But his ship still wasn’t ready,  and the launch was rescheduled for an indefinite date before the end of the year. Which brings us to today, in late November.

Now, Canadian media outlets (the CBC and the Globe and Mail, for instance) are reporting that the da Vinci project is putting off its first launch until January. This time the upcoming holidays are to blame: "Over the holidays some people become extremely available and other people become totally unavailable. Although we are planning for an unmanned test flight, we still need a lot of logistical support."

Just a minute: unmanned test flight? Feeney used to talk about a full-on test of the launch system as though it were a frill and dismiss those who suggested at least one test flight was needed as if they were killjoys, people without a sense of adventure or imagination or who were tied to the tired old NASA way of doing things. OK, now he says there will be a test flight; he says it will go up by late January, with a manned flight to follow in the spring. Just a hunch: The January test date will be the next thing to go: Feeney’s always insisted that weather — cold, wind, whatever — is no factor for the da Vinci launch. He’ll think better of that when faced with reality. 

The best da Vinci Project tidbit in the Canadian papers right now comes from Andy Ogle of the Edmonton Journal. He’s got a story speculating that Feeney’s historic flight, whenever it occurs, will carry a 10-year-old grilled-cheese sandwich upon which some see the image of the Virgin Mary.

X Prize News: $10 Million Check

Just for the record: Yesterday in St. Louis, the X Prize Foundation awarded Paul Allen and Burt Rutan the $10 million check they won for their SpaceShipOne launches of Sept. 29 and Oct. 4. (Other significant X Prize booty: a 200-pound, 5-foot-tall trophy.) I thought about going, but what with the election and other little things nagging at me (plus the reluctance of what I’ll call my freelance sponsors to pick up expenses for out-of-town trips, meaning I would have gone on my own dime) I didn’t make it.

The stories I see (I’ve only read a couple of them) don’t answer my biggest point of curiosity about the award: How the cash is going to be split up. Rutan has been very upfront that all the investment for SpaceShipOne came from Allen (no one but the principals knows exactly how much money went into the project; but after the second successful X Prize flight in October, Rutan remarked that winning the $10 million prize recouped 40 percent of Allen’s outlay, which would put the investment figure at $25 million. Anyway, Allen said he’d be sharing the jackpot with Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites; and Rutan said, in turn, that everyone at Scaled would share in the cash. I just wonder how much everyone got.

In Other News …

I actually have a new story on Wired News today: “Space Race Focuses on Money.” It’s the problem that has beset the new space companies for years: So far, few in the investment world are wild about the prospect of space tourism or backing companies that are pushing speculative technology (of course, when the speculation involved dumping hundreds of millions into an online grocery story or pet supply store, the venture capitalists and investment bankers were lined up around the block to get a taste).

Candy-Coated, and Butt Ugly, Too!

Cimg2232_2For SpaceShipOne’s second X Prize launch on Monday, someone gave me a VIP pass that allowed me to go pretty mucn anywhere I wanted around the event site (except to the restroom in the building where the press conference was held afterward, but that’s another story). Since I was getting the VIP treatment, I also got a bag that was about half chock full of what’s commonly referred to as swag. My swag included an X Prize hat and a bag of commemorative X Prize M&M’s (the Mars Co. came in as a sponsor after the SpaceShipOne astronaut, Mike Melvill, let go a handful of M&M’s in the cabin during the weightless portion of his flight in June). These aren’t like the M&Ms you can buy in the store. These are special-edition M&M’s: an assortment of odd colors (a sort of aqua blue, white, and gray, with green-ish printing; I’m not getting the color scheme) and they’re imprinted with a little image of a spaceship on one side and the official slogan of the event (“Go.”) on the other. They’re nifty. And if I was half as industrious as I should be, I’d have posted them for sale on eBay already (nope — nobody’s gotten to that yet, although bidding is up to $182 or something on an autographed X Prize press kit). But they are also, well, ugly. It’s the color. Red and brown and yellow and green and the rest of the traditional M&M palette I can buy. Gray, looks like you’re eating something out of an ashtray.

X Prize: They Made It

Cimg2188OK. It’s done. The launch went flawlessly. I filed my stories and think I got it right the first time through (rereading the first breaking story I filed, I actually kind of liked the way it read. It was direct and not too jazzy but still reflected the excitement I felt as the stuff was happening).

So now I’ll get ready to go back home. Maybe back up I-5, or maybe a less direct route up the east side of the Sierra or something.

But, the difficulties of breaking away from my old desk habits and actually going into the field aside, this has been a wonderful story to get to cover. My only regret is not having gotten closer to some of the key players; it’s painfully obvious out here how hard it is to get on the inside of what’s going on. Of course, Rutan is known to want to keep reporters at arm’s length; also, by the time I was working on the story, the project had drawn a lot of attention, the Discovery Channel filmmakers had gotten the real inside track, and I was just one among hundreds of people to descend on the scene of the action. Lesson: Get in early. Now I have to think of the story I need to get in early on.

X Prize: Takeoff

Not that anyone is reading this live, but I’m able to post this morning from the side of the runway here at Mojave thanks to a company called WanderPort that has set up a prototype mobile WiFi unit they’re calling the WanderPod. So, I’m sitting on an equipment case next to the pod, writing a post, squinting as the sun rises higher and becomes more insistent about blinding me and making the display hard to read.

That’s the story of the laptop. The story of SpaceShipOne is this: It took off all of 25 minutes ago, attached to the belly of the White Knight carrier plane. Now they’re circling high above the airport on their way up to 48,000 feet and launch.