NASA's chief of the Astronaut Corps sits behind a lectern with three other space travelers. At his immediate left is one of Russia's top cosmonauts, and next to him is a European astronaut, the greatest fighter pilot in Belgian (!) history. At the far end is Lance Bass, a well-coiffed, wide-eyed, 23-year-old high school dropout pop star, who is set to accompany the two Europeans to the International Space Station.
This can't be real. Surely it's early in the rising action of a pulp sci-fi movie. In later scenes, time and time again the wet-behind-the-ears but plucky American will be on the receiving end of cruel barbs from the two haughty, overeducated Euros, who, meanwhile, are making goo-goo eyes at one another. (Note to the producer: Switch the Belgian fighter pilot's gender and get Charlize Theron.)
But then something goes wrong! One of the many evil practical jokes with which the two lovebirds tormented Bass goes seriously awry. A rigged canister of Tang explodes prematurely, and the flying orange powder temporarily blinds the Belgian and the Russian just as the module is entering a near-impenetrable asteroid belt. The haughty lovers beg for Bass to set aside his toilet-brush responsibilities and save them.
Armed only with grim resolve, Yankee ingenuity and a few snappy one-liners (not to mention memories of child dirt-bike heroics--gotta have the X-Games tie-in), the pissed-on pop star steers the craft through the space debris and splashes down safely. Fighter pilot Charlize casts her Russky stud aside. In a fit of gratuitous nudity, she rips off her European Space Agency baby tee in front of Bass. But despite sore temptation, the pop star spurns the fickle temptress' crude advances to stay true to the all-American girl he had left behind, the one who had always believed in him.
As preposterous as that story line sounds, it's only a little more absurd than actual events. Sometimes truth is stranger than science fiction.
To the consternation of many old-school astronauts, and the elation of legions of teens, it looks as if Lance Bass of 'N Sync is going to space. And, yes, Hollywood is involved.
Unlike the two previous space tourists, Bass is not paying for his own $20 million ticket. According to Bass, it wasn't even his idea to go, though it certainly was a dream. "One time a sixth-grader asked me in an online chat what I wanted to be if I couldn't be a musician," he said at a recent news conference. "I said an astronaut. I went to Space Camp and all that, and that was always my dream. I was asked if I could go tomorrow, would I go? And I said of course."
Enter Los Angeles TV producer David Krieff. Krieff's story is odd enough on its own. Last year, a mysterious Australian entrepreneur named Ilya Osadchuk dreamed up the idea of a space-based reality show called Space Trials, and he enlisted Krieff--a Hollywood dealmaker with a PR background who you may remember from such films as Love Boat: The Movie and such documentaries as Richard Simmons and the Silver Foxes: Fitness for Senior Citizens--to help make it happen. (Osadchuk is an intriguing character. An Internet search of his name implies that this is his only claim to fame--aside from a stint in the early '90s as the director-general of the Gorby Club, a fan club for the former Soviet premier, and later as the target of an extortion plot by Russian gangsters in Cyprus. He appears to have vanished from the space scene ever since Bass got involved.)
In June of last year it was announced that Krieff had persuaded the Russian space program to allow his Destiny Productions to make Space Trials, in which, through a series of ordeals, a pool of hard-bodied contestants would be whittled down to one lucky winner who would be sent into space on a mission much like the one Bass is going on in October.
When Krieff got wind that Bass wanted to be an astronaut, a lightbulb popped over his head. Why send an ordinary schmuck to space when you can send a global superstar? By February the TV show was temporarily scrapped, and now a seven-part documentary about Bass' training, launch, space flight and eventual homecoming concert is in the works instead. It's to be titled Celebrity Mission: Lance Bass. The Russians had already agreed to the Space Trials deal for the same $20 million that Bass' backers will be paying. They don't care who they send to space. (One gets the impression that for $20 million the Russians will launch Mafia turncoats on one-way rides to Pluto, if that's what paying customers want.)
Krieff wants to resurrect Space Trials later and hybridize it with the Bass mission. He wants to send the game-show winner and a celebrity up to space together. Krieff envisions a near-future in which space is clogged with celebrities and the more nubile of the rank-and-file, all of it televised and chock-full of product placement.
For now, the only backer officially on board is Radio Shack, though it's rumored that Procter & Gamble, MTV and an unspecified major soft-drink company are ponying up, too. Every inch of Bass' spacesuit is up for sale, NASCAR-style. So, for that matter, is the rocket. According to the Washington Post, computer-generated corporate logos will appear on the side of the ship, varied according to market much like Fox does with baseball.
It's also rumored that Bass will be filming commercials in space for his backers. Specifically, Bass is said to be making a hair-gel spot, and judging by the amount he wore to the news conference, you should believe that. He will only be allowed 5 kilos of personal belongings on board, so whatever he endorses had better not weigh much. (And that, as it happens, is a pretty accurate description of the music he says he's taking with him: Faith Hill and Tim McGraw.)
But the Russians are playing hardball. In recent weeks, they've said that if they don't get mad cash by certain deadlines they keep extending, they will send ballast in Bass' seat instead of the singer. Things came to a head September 3, when the Russians told the singer to pack up his gel and the rest of his well-stocked Dopp kit and get out of Star City. Whether this is more grist for Celebrity Mission or the end of Bass' dream is unclear at press time, but it would seem that there's too much money on the line to back out now. Money already spent, money not yet spent that the Russians really need and money Krieff and his backers will have to spend in litigation if Bass doesn't go to space. Already the pop star has spent months training and even undergone minor heart surgery to correct a slightly irregular heartbeat.
"I have no doubt in my mind that I will be on that flight this October," Bass said, "and enjoying every minute of it." When asked what he would do should he not get to go, Bass replied, "Probably cry." And then he would sue the crap out of somebody.
For its part, NASA management harrumphed awhile for the sake of appearances, but Krieff's scheme suits them to a T. They get tons of press and the opportunity to capture the hearts and minds of a generation of kids. And since Bass is going up in a Russian rocket, our government agency doesn't look like it's for sale. The space program also gets tons of free advertising for the Space Camps in Alabama and Florida. And they're touting that old Sputnik-era truism--that Bass' mission will spur interest in science and math (though it seems more likely to interest would-be accountants than future astrophysicists).
NASA astronauts, on the other hand, are genuinely upset. John Glenn recently likened using the International Space Station as a tourist attraction to turning a hospital ward into a hot dog stand. "I don't think we should be encouraging that," he told reporters at an earlier news conference. Fellow Right Stuffer Wally Schirra added, "John is not in synch."
Meanwhile, at Bass' dog-and-pony show, a Popular Mechanics scribe with a Russian accent asked the singer if he was comfortable climbing atop a ballistic missile designed to deliver nuclear warheads and getting launched 225 miles into space in 10 minutes. Bass admitted he was a little scared, but added he had a lot of confidence in the two real space men accompanying him.
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Puritanical ladies in both Houston and by phone in Cape Canaveral demanded to know if Bass was going to warn kids from space not to smoke or drink. "No, that's not part of my mission," he replied flatly. "I'll do that on Earth, but not in space." (Subtext: "Yeah, lady, I'm gonna spend a year in rigorous training, undergo heart surgery and risk my life zooming into orbit on a rickety Russian rocket so I can tell the kiddies to just say no. I have personal-electronics commericals to make, for chrissakes.") Let's send up Liam Gallagher; at least he'd come up with an appropriate comeback like, "Planet Earth is blue, and there's nothing I can do, man."
Sergei Zalotin, the captain of Bass' ship, said he was skeptical about Bass at first but grew to respect his dedication over time. There was some disagreement over the course of the news conference as to whether Bass "would bring a lot to the mission" or whether he simply "wouldn't be a nuisance."
And anyway, as Krieff told the Post, space flight is so easy today even a monkey could do it (and in fact has done it). But most monkeys are not as cute as Lance Bass. "If my trip inspires even one kid out there to become an astronaut," Bass said, "it will all have been worth it."
He's right. All those space celebs are gonna need chauffeurs.