The Explorers Club in New York City provided many of his initial leads. The group’s annual black tie dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel was the ideal place to meet wealthy adventurers. It was there that Anderson met Richard Garriott, video game impresario and son of NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, an early Space Adventures advisor. Garriott the younger also had a strong interest in space, enough to kick in some initial investment in Space Adventures (including the money the company paid for the Energia study). Richard hoped to become customer number one himself, but the collapse of the tech bubble in 1999 wiped out much of his fortune, delaying his trip until 2008. He remains one of Space Adventures’ top investors.
In the early days, Anderson says, “I was always looking for investors, and I always had all my [briefing] stuff with me.” During a trip to Los Angeles in early 2000, he got a meeting with former NASA engineer and now successful money manager Dennis Tito. During a half-hour presentation in Tito’s Santa Monica office, Anderson was typically understated, matter-of-fact, and utterly confident that Space Adventures was going places. “You have a great vision and I love this,” he recalls Tito saying when he was through with the pitch. “But I’m really not interested in investing. I’m interested in going myself.”
Anderson didn’t skip a beat. “Interesting that you mention that,” he said. He just so happened to have in his bag proof that the Russians were practically on board with the project already. Tito was impressed. A few weeks later, he signed a contract as Space Adventures’ first customer.
The road to the launch pad was not entirely smooth. Tito had long been looking into other options for a Russian ride to orbit, and when a company called MirCorp, headed by Faranetta’s ex-colleague Jeffrey Manber, offered an earlier trip, to Mir instead of to the International Space Station, Tito jumped ship. Then, when the Mir deal cratered, he came back to Space Adventures. He even weathered the embarrassment of having NASA (temporarily) refuse his training with the cosmonauts and astronauts in Houston. But in April 2001, Dennis Tito became the first person to pay his own way into space.
Success bred success. Space Adventures’ second orbital customer, South African Mark Shuttleworth, called while Tito was still in space. Since Shuttleworth’s 2002 flight, five more customers (including one repeat traveler, ex-Microsoft billionaire Charles Simonyi) have paid Space Adventures to arrange their trips to the International Space Station. Even though the price has gone up (from Tito’s $20 million ticket to around $50 million), Anderson and company have continued to find buyers. In the post-space-shuttle era, Soyuz opportunities have become scarcer, but three seats remain available in the 2013-to-2014 timeframe. Meanwhile Space Adventures is offering the wealthy space traveler an even more deluxe package: a trip to the moon.
It was initially Chris Faranetta’s idea. A student of space history, Faranetta knew the Soviets had sent unmanned Zond spacecraft on circumlunar trips in the 1960s, and that modern Russian launchers, vehicles, and upper stages could, with some modification, do it again. In 2001, around the time of Tito’s flight, Faranetta developed concepts for using the Soyuz-TMA spacecraft to carry two paying passengers and a professional cosmonaut to the moon. Internally, Space Adventures called the plan “Project: Talent.”
It wasn’t until 2005—after the viability of private space travel had been well established—that Anderson and company went public with the idea. Last spring, around the 10th anniversary of Tito’s flight, Space Adventures revealed that it had already sold one of the two seats for a lunar voyage, and was looking to book the second. That’s where the 13-year-old company still finds itself—on the verge, but not quite ready, to pull off a spaceflight that no one, not even NASA, has accomplished in a generation.
DURING MY VISIT to Space Adventures’ headquarters in suburban Washington, D.C., last October, the team was preparing to move down the road to smaller digs. Like a lot of businesses these days, they’re outsourcing some jobs that were previously handled in-house, including some of their event management. Boxes of files and videotapes were lined up along the walls in preparation for the move. A fighter pilot’s pressure suit and a cosmonaut’s reentry suit flanked the vacant front desk. Change was in the air.
These days Anderson puts in more time at his other job on the West coast, working for former client Charles Simonyi. In September 2010, Simonyi hired Anderson to run his post-Microsoft venture, Intentional Software, which aims to revolutionize computer programming by making it more intuitive and user-friendly. In the press release announcing Anderson’s appointment, Simonyi was quoted saying, “Eric is truly an outstanding entrepreneur. He’s one of very few who can take futuristic ideas and make them real.”
Back at Space Adventures, it’s usually president and sales chief Tom Shelley working the phones these days, on the hunt for future space travelers. Shelley, a Briton educated at the University of Manchester, is a marketer by training. “Five years ago I knew nothing about space,” he says. That’s partly what makes his pitch credible. It all sounds so reasonable coming from him. On any given morning, he’s on the phone during his half-hour commute, talking to a possible client overseas. To find prospects, he connects with high-end travel agents, organizers of yacht shows, and others who cater to the adventurous one percent. He also spends a lot of time at conferences, like the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and the Forbes Global CEO Conference.