Eric Anderson is clear about his goal. “I’d like to go to space in the next five to 10 years,” he says. “I don’t want to wait.” He sits comfortably on a white leather couch in his office at Space Adventures in Vienna, Virginia, wearing a dark suit and open-collar shirt. A trim, fit man with a closely shaved head, he acts like he’s ready to go tomorrow. But wait he must, until he develops the net worth required to take his dream trip. That may explain why he’s working two high-profile jobs at once: chairman of Space Adventures, and president and CEO of Seattle-based Intentional Software. “Intentional actually could be worth billions and billions of dollars,” he says. “It could be my ticket.”
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For the last 10 years, Anderson and Space Adventures have been brokering deals for well-heeled passengers to fly aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station. Now that those trips have become more or less routine, Anderson is primed for his own ride. And he’s ready to take Space Adventures to the next level—to the moon.
The idea of a private company sending paying passengers into space was outrageous in the late 1990s, when Anderson first floated the idea, but at least professional astronauts were already traveling there regularly at the time. No one has been to the moon since 1972, nor does any government space agency have a solid plan to return. No matter. To Anderson it’s just another challenge, like starting a space travel business in the first place, at the age of 23.
Eric Anderson grew up in the Denver suburb of Littleton, Colorado, the son of an Argentine mother and an American real estate investor. As a boy, he and his family made frequent excursions into the mountains, and he credits the view from the Rockies with sparking his passion for spaceflight. “There is little on Earth that is as beautiful as the night sky in the mountains of Colorado,” he says. There was more to it than that, of course: a steady diet of Star Trek and Star Wars, and a dad who was curious about the natural world. The young Anderson became a math whiz, jumping two to three years ahead of his classmates. By fifth grade he was writing computer programs on early Apple computers, and by his freshman year, Anderson had taken all the math classes his high school offered. He began making plans to attend the Air Force Academy, not far from home. His goal of becoming an astronaut came plummeting to Earth, though, when he was diagnosed with myopia. “That was a really big setback,” he recalls.
It wasn’t until after graduation from the University of Virginia with a degree in aerospace engineering, an internship with NASA, and finally a job writing software code for a company that did spacecraft modeling that another way to reach space occurred to Anderson.
Entrepreneur and fellow space enthusiast Peter Diamandis, who several years later created the X PRIZE to kick-start commercial spaceflight, introduced him to adventure travel operator Mike McDowell, who was sending customers on Arctic voyages and underwater trips in Russian submersibles. Together the three hashed out the initial idea for Space Adventures and ZERO-G Corporation, which would offer rides on aircraft that flew parabolic curves, producing brief bouts of weightlessness. Diamandis provided inspiration and a chunk of financing. “We scraped together $250,000 to start Space Adventures,” says Anderson. In 1998, the world’s first space tourism company was born.
Working with the Russian space program was an obvious choice. The company hoped to eventually send paying customers to orbit, and “there was no way that NASA was going to let anybody buy a flight on the shuttle,” says Anderson. Even if the agency did permit it, the price would be around $200 million per seat—10 times a ride on a Soyuz.
In fact, the door to Russian-backed space tourism was already ajar when Anderson approached it. In 1990, the Soviets had sent Japanese TV reporter Toyohiro Akiyama to space station Mir in exchange for money (the Soviets claimed to have earned $12 million). Akiyama wasn’t a private tourist, but he was no professional cosmonaut either. A year later, British chemist Helen Sharman followed him, having won her seat to Mir in a contest sponsored by a consortium of British companies.
As the Soviet Union broke up, so did its space program, and Russian space organizations like Energia, makers of the Soyuz and Mir, were left to strike their own deals. Chris Faranetta, who would later become a vice president at Space Adventures, recalls those “crazy, crazy times” in the fledgling Russian commercial space business. Faranetta had started his career working on the Lunar Prospector mission at Gerard O’Neill’s pioneering Space Studies Institute. At an international space conference in 1988, he struck up a conversation with officials from Energia, and asked if he could help market their technologies in the West. Three years later, he and Jeffrey Manber, another young American space entrepreneur, opened the offices of NPO Energia in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., to explore, among other things, cooperation with NASA.
When Space Adventures entered the fray in 1998, establishing good connections in Russia was a must. Company co-founder Mike McDowell already had been arranging for private explorers (including Titanic director James Cameron) to ride in Russian deep-water vehicles. Faranetta joined Space Adventures in early 1999. “What I brought to the table was the connection to Energia,” he says. Sergey Kostenko had led a Russian team competing for the X PRIZE, and was soon “very well known by all the senior space management,” says Faranetta. Marsel Gubaydullin, who had been the official photographer in the cosmonaut village of Star City, also signed on. When Space Adventures client Anousheh Ansari was introduced to him before her 2006 orbital flight, she was told, “Marsel knew everybody in Star City.”