US President Donald Trump’s 2021 budget invests more than $25 billion in NASA, a 12 percent increase that makes it one of the strongest budgets in NASA history. This would significantly expand the niche and market entry threshold for new space players. Unfortunately, among numerous worthy and promising startups, there is a significant risk of fraudulent schemes.
XCOR Aerospace, which sold customers over $26 million in space tour tickets and then went bankrupt unexpectedly, could go down in history as the first major space tourism scam.
The story began in 2010 when a businessman of Dutch origin, Michiel Mol, became the head of the space travel company Space Expedition Corporation (SXC). The company’s global aspirations were announced soon after: the creation of a space research center, construction of a space port and a space experiment center to entertain tourists.
Michiel’s father, Jan Mol, became a member of the Supervisory Board. By June 2012, SXC announced the sale of 175 tickets at a price of $95,000 for the flights of XCOR Aerospace, the developer of rocket engines and rocket plans. At the time, competitors were charging much more for their space tour tickets. For example, in 2013 Virgin Galactic reported they were forced to jack up their their price from $200,000 to $250,000.
SXC’s offer looked much more attractive by comparison. It charged less and did not require the entire fee up front.
In 2014, the SXC and XCOR Aerospace merged and XCOR Space Expeditions Division appeared. It continued to sell tickets for space tours on the Lynx rocket-powered spaceplane for $95,000 per seat. The head of the new division was Michiel Mol.
By 2011-2012, it became apparent XCOR would not be able to build a shuttle to send tourists into space. Michiel Mol and his closest ally Michael Blum no doubt were aware of this… Income from ticket sales, given the “astronomical” salaries of managers, would only be enough to maintain the appearance of work. Michiel Mol and other executives, while continuing to receive high salaries, tried to remedy the situation by raising ticket prices. In January 2016, the flight cost for customers was raised to $150,000. But the reputation of the company, which several times postponed the dates of tests and launches, was tarnished. In addition, three co-founders left XCOR left the company in November 2015.
As a result, in May 2016, all major technical research and development was stopped and mass layoffs of workers began.
One former XCOR employee said all real development was suspended shortly after Michiel Mol joined the company. While the company made no new investments in research, efforts to market its space tours continued unabated, without the efforts of company management.
A PR campaign, in which Michiel Mol participated, was launched to revive the project. Tickets for space tours were distributed free of charge to influential Americans and Europeans – politicians, athletes and entertainers – in the hope of attracting them as brand ambassadors. They included Martin Schröder (1931), founder of the Dutch airline Martinair, Dutch disc jockey Armin van Buuren and Hensley Meulens, is a Curaçaoan professional baseball player and current bench coach for the New York Mets. Another influential figure in European politics who received a ticket from Mol was Erica Terpstra, who from 1977 to 2003 was a member of the Dutch House of Representatives from the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. From 2003 to 2010 she was Dutch Olympic Committee President of the Netherlands Sports Federation. It beggars belief that these high-level connections and free gifts were not accompanied by under-the-rug corrupt deals.