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Lembit Öpik, Russian billionaires and sex in space: Inside the Congress of the world’s first space nation

Asgardia wants to be the world's first space nation. By 2023, its citizens plan to establish their own laws, government and currency. In space.

In the conference room of a Best Western Hotel in Darmstadt in southern Germany, around 140 people have gathered. The hotel itself is modest, overlooking a large roundabout that leads to the larger and livelier Frankfurt. But the attendees – among them academics and investment bankers – at this expensive and little-known convention have travelled from across the world to be here, and to talk about the future.

This is the first meeting of the Congress of Asgardia. According to its citizens, Asgardia is a new nation. And not just any nation: it is the first space nation in the history of humanity. For the moment, the closest thing the nation has to territory in space is a satellite that weighs 2.4kg – equivalent to a fairly large chihuahua – which was successfully launched from the US in 2017. But in the near future, the citizens of Asgardia hope to have their own government, their own laws, and their own currency. In space.

Asgardia is the brainchild of Russian scientist and businessman, Igor Ashurbeyli. Born in Baku, Azerbaijan, Ashurbeyli made his fortune by founding a successful computer company during the economic liberalisation of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. In the 1990s and 2000s he ran SPA Almaz, the research arm of one of Russia’s largest arms companies. Then, at a press conference in Paris in October 2016, Ashurbeyli announced his new project: the Space Kingdom of Asgardia. In 2018, he announced himself as both the new nation’s head of state and of its Supreme Space Council (Asgardia’s version of the Supreme Court) in an elaborate, self-funded ceremony in an Austrian castle. Attendees sang the Asgardian anthem and swore pledges to the new nation.

Asgardia is a nation without “earthly borders”, open for any nationality to join. Its motto is “One Humanity, One Unity”. To be accepted as a citizen, however, an applicant must be “a professional” or “talent”. To become a “resident” of Asgardia incurs a joining fee of $1,000. To bring functioning democracy to this nation of high achievers – true nationhood is the goal for 2023 – Asgardia has selected a head of its parliament: the former Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomeryshire, contestant in the 2010 series of I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! and host of the 9am-noon slot on BBC Radio Kent, Lembit Öpik.

“It was never my plan to be in politics,” Opik tells me, “but I wanted to change things I didn't like about society and I ended up in parliament as a result. Exactly the same motivation attracts me to Asgardia.” Öpik describes his fellow Asgardians as “a community of visionary individuals who really think that we can produce a better society than what we've done on Earth. I find it really motivating to work with others on exporting all that’s best about the human race and leaving the worst behind.”

The worst of humanity, for Öpik, are those who engage in tribal politics. “Asgarida won’t be a one-party state,” he explains, “it will be a no-party state. It won’t have a political entity, whether it's the Communist Party, conservatives or liberals.” Its parliament, however, will still comprise 150 MPs. There are biblical elements to the Asgardia plan, which includes building settlements on the moon as well as elaborate space habitats, called “space arks” to save a select few from a declining Earth. This, in the words of the free pamphlet given out at the conference, is “the eternal dream of humankind.”

While the official line is that Asgardia intends to take only 2 per cent of Earth’s population on its messianic mission Öpik assures me that “we don't want to limit the population with a maximum.” With a border enforced by the hard vacuum of outer space, Asgardia is likely to be more vulnerable to a lack of immigration than a surplus. “We can’t force people to come to Asgardia,” Öpik says. “We won’t force people.”

A quieter and more elusive presence at the conference is Ashurbeyli himself. With a trim white moustache and a well-tailored suit, he is of average height. He uses an interpreter for interviews, although he listens carefully to his translator’s English and corrects her as she speaks. He is keen to reassure me that Asgardia is not for fanatics. “International law stipulates that a state needs to have a territory,” says Ashurbeyli. “It does not say anything about how big it is supposed to be. So in fact, we fulfil all the requirements of international law.” Ashurneyli confirms that Asgardia is currently conducting informal negotiations with countries regarding the principles by which it might join the United Nations. Five countries, he says, are ready to sign bilateral agreements, although he will not disclose which ones.

Perhaps even more pressing than the question of being recognised by other countries, however, is the question of how Asgardia can be recognised by another group: women. Of the million people whom Asgardia claims have registered as citizens online, 80 per cent are male. At the conference itself, which lasted a full day, I counted nine women. This question is crucial to the Asgardians because women are vital to the space nation’s most treasured objective. “Our main mission,” Ashurbeyli says, “is to witness the birth of the first human child in space”.

This central mission is made pretty clear to attendees. Decorating the conference are banners depicting a tiny foetus, seemingly curled inside a mother’s womb. Metal badges adorned with the foetus logo are handed out. Pamphlets explain that “the birth of the first Space Child on the Noah’s Space Ark is the main mission of Asgardia.”

And so, gathered in a Best Western with Lembit Öpik and billionaire Ashurbeyli, a room of 131 men and a handful of women begin to discuss the technicalities of having sex in space. Asgardia’s best bet, one delegate argued, is “lab conception”. But conception may be the easy part; radiation, gravity and the many legal, ethical and safety issues of flying a pregnant woman into space stand in the way of this project.

And yet one of the Congress’ keynote speakers, Egbert Edelbroek, says his company, SpaceBorn United, is on the cusp of sending the first woman into space to give birth. According to Edelbroek, he has a handful of women who have signed up to be selected for the mission. The requirements are strict: the women must have had smooth, successful births at least twice already, and they must have undergone psychological tests to “ensure they are in the right frame of mind”. The man chairing the talks confirms that Edelbroek is an expert in his field, adding he is himself a proud sperm donor to SpaceBorn United.

I ask Ashurbeyli how he intends to address Asgardia’s heavy gender imbalance. “We do not recruit, people must come to Asgarida of their own free will,” he says, but later adds that he also has an “explanation that may be seen as intolerant in Europe”.

“Women at a younger age,” he explains, “would rather build a family. So before the age of 45, women are occupied with raising their children. And then by [the time they reach] 45, 50, the children will be grown, so those women have more free time to be engaged in Asgardia and pursue their ideas.” On a notepad he draws a graph, and hands it to me; it shows a curve bisected by a line. I don’t know what the curve, or the line, mean, but another question is being asked, and Ashurbeyli moves on.

Perhaps every new society has a few red flags at its inception. As a concept, says Richard Soilleux a leading engineer on the BIS's Space Colony Study, Asgardia is plausible. “There is no reason why, in principle, everything the Asgardians propose should not be achievable.” The barrier, as with most things, is cost. However, Mark Hempstall, also a fellow of the British Interplanetary Society says it is important to remember that at this stage, Asgardia is mostly about creating a legal entity. While the details may seem odd, Hempstall says the real aim is “to establish the principle that independent nations can be established in space”.  For the people who have signed up to Asgardia, however, the space nation offers something more basic: a symbol of the future, a different reality where social structures are replaced and independent nations are formed.

As outlandish as Asgardia may seem, this message of hope is growing the space nation’s community. That night, shouts can be heard from the hotel car park, as conference members – many of whom have been drinking into the early hours – emerge into the night. “Asgardia!” they shout, the stars bright over their heads. “Long live Asgardia!”

Eleanor Peake is the New Statesman’s social media editor.