Almost two decades ago, there was a commercial space station for a brief period of time. It was Russian, and an American named Jeffrey Manber ran it. Perhaps it could have succeeded — but NASA killed it.
“If you wanted to work with the capitalists in space in the 1990s, you worked with the Russians,” Mr. Manber said. “If you wanted to work with the socialists, you worked with NASA.”
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Russian space program was strapped for money and willing to consider ideas that might have seemed crazy for an ex-Communist country. Mir, the Russian space station, was seen as ramshackle and dated, about to be replaced by the bigger, better International Space Station.
But Mr. Manber and other entrepreneurs in the United States saw Mir, destined to be destroyed, more as a fixer-upper. Energia, Mir’s manufacturer, agreed to partner with the Americans to create MirCorp, a commercial venture that leased the station from Russia’s government.
The initial pitch from Energia was using the station for research, particularly on pharmaceuticals. Mr. Manber knew that possibility was at best years away.
“Quickly, I veered to the market that existed,” he said, “which was entertainment and media, and we could do it, because we were in control.”
MirCorp signed up the first space tourist, Dennis Tito, for a trip to Mir. It sold the idea of a reality television series to NBC, and Mark Burnett, the producer who created “Survivor,” “The Apprentice” and “Shark Tank,” was set to make it.