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Garver and Bass
Lori Garver (left, at the ISPS conference last month) and Lance Bass (right, at a Space Frontier Foundation conference in 2004) bth tried to put together sponsorship deals to fund commercial flights to the ISS. (credit: ISPS/J. Foust)

AstroMom and Basstronaut, revisited

Last week Space Adventures announced an unusual opportunity: for $3 million, you could train in Russia alongside that company’s next commercial ISS passenger, Richard Garriott, as his backup. The lucky individual would get to spend six months in Russia training for the October 2008 flight along with Garriott, an opportunity that would include being an “active participant in Richard’s mission”, according to Space Adventures CEO Eric Anderson. And, of course, being the backup crewperson means that person would step in should something happen to Garriott. “If I had not trained as a back-up crew member in 2006, then I would never have flown to space that year,” said Anousheh Ansari, who got her chance to go in the fall of 2006 when another space tourist, Daisuke “Dice-K” Enomoto, was sidelined relatively late in the training process for an unspecified medical reason.

Enomoto, though, isn’t the most famous failed space tourist. (Nor is he arguably the most famous person with the unusual nickname “Dice-K”, having been eclipsed by Japanese baseball player Daisuke “Dice-K” Matsuzaka, who pitched for the Boston Red Sox last season and helped lead them to a World Series title.) That title goes to two people, a former NASA official and a pop star, who both tried to fly to the ISS in the fall of 2002 but failed, in part because of the competition between each other. Now, a recent conference appearance and a new book have shed some new light on those efforts in the early years of orbital space tourism.

AstroMom attempts to lift off

What became known as the “AstroMom Project” got its start in 2001, Lori Garver, a former NASA associate administrator and former executive director of the National Space Society, recounted during a session of the International Symposium for Personal Spaceflight last month in Las Cruces, New Mexico. “I, too, wanted to go to space almost my whole life,” she said, “but the reason I created this project was because I felt that… creating a spacefaring civilization was one of the most important things we could do in our lifetime.”

“We were doing very well,” Garver recalled, even getting cooperation from NASA, who was willing to fly on the shuttle items Garver wanted to bring to the ISS but could not carry on the Soyuz. “It was a very cooperative time.”

That vision, though, seemed in jeopardy in 2001 because of financial problems in Russia that raised questions about the continued production of Soyuz spacecraft needed for the ISS. At that time money from flying tourists on taxi missions to the ISS was critical to the continued production of those spacecraft. Garver, who left NASA in early 2001 to become a consultant, has been working with an unnamed client interested in flying to the ISS, but who backed out after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to attend to other pressing business. “The NASA folks came up to me and said, ‘Lori, you’ve got to find someone to take this Soyuz seat,’” she recalled.

Rather than find another paying customer, Garver, working with an agent, decided to fly herself, selling sponsorships to cover the cost of the mission under the “AstroMom” label. A variety of sponsorship levels, ranging from $1 to 3 million with varying levels of participation and exclusivity, were offered; she recalled that Visa and Mastercard were competing for one such deal whereby Garver would buy something with said credit card while on the ISS. Other potential sponsors ranged from sunglasses to cold medicine. She joked that she even had one of her sons sign up for baseball—even though he preferred to play soccer—when it appeared Major League Baseball might be interested in a sponsorship opportunity.

Those efforts, she said, raised about half of the money needed for the flight. Moreover, since Garver at the time appeared to be the only person interested in the fall 2002 flight opportunity, the Russians were willing to negotiate on price. “We were doing very well,” she recalled, even getting cooperation from NASA, who was willing to fly on the shuttle items Garver wanted to bring to the ISS but could not carry on the Soyuz. “It was a very cooperative time.”

That was, until Garver encountered an “unexpected challenge”: pop star Lance Bass. “It turns out Lance Bass’s agent told him that he was invited to go to space on a Soyuz,” she said. When Bass and Garver met in Russia during training, she said, “he said he had thought he has just been invited to go—no one told him about any money or anything.” Bass’s appearance on the scene caused Garver’s potential sponsors to reconsider her business plan for the mission, since the sponsorship model only worked if there was no competition for the flight. And, by the spring of 2002, it was Bass, not Garver, who was selected as the commercial passenger for that mission.

Despite not getting to fly, Garver said that some of the goals of the AstroMom project, including raising public awareness about space in general and commercial spaceflight in particular, were met. Moreover, it offered her a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do everything from cosmonaut training to meeting with celebrities (her agent brought her to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City while working on sponsorship opportunities). “It was an exciting time.”

Basstronaut tells his story

Garver’s story is familiar to most people in the space community. Less well known, though, is how Bass got tangled up in the process. An outsider to the space community, he is usually seen as the unexpected, if unintentional, villain in Garver’s bid to fly to space: the pop star who swooped in, attracted all the media attention (including the perhaps inevitable moniker “Basstronaut”), and then faded away when he failed to come up with the estimated $20 million needed to fly the mission. Bass rarely talked about the effort publicly afterwards, and largely remained outside the space community, other than serving as a “youth spokesman” for World Space Week.

In his recently-released memoir, Out of Sync, Bass does devote a chapter to his failed space tourist bid. His interest in space, he recalled, dated back to a trip to Cape Canaveral to visit family at the age of nine, a trip that coincided with a shuttle launch. “That was the day I decided I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up,” he wrote. A year later, he went to Space Camp for a week. “I was certain from then on that my future was to be involved with space. It was the sky, not the stage, that first captured my creative imagination with such an extraordinary display of wonder, probably because singing just came naturally to me.”

Bass’s interest in space was triggered by seeing a shuttle launch as a nine-year-old. “That was the day I decided I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up,” he wrote.

However, it was singing that catapulted Bass to fame as a member of the “boy band” *NSYNC, which reached the apex of its fame by early 2002. Bass and his manager, Cindy Owen, were looking into various television and movie options he could take advantage of during the band’s upcoming six-month hiatus when Owen received a fax from an unnamed television producer who claimed to have acquired the rights to two seats on upcoming Soyuz flights and wanted to offer one of them to Bass as part of a reality TV show. (When initially told of the offer by phone from Owen, Bass initially thought he was the subject of a practical joke for the MTV show Punk’d.) “Very rarely do you get to have any of your big dreams actually come true,” he wrote. “I’d already had my pop-star fantasy realized with *NSYNC; now I was about to have a shot at the other, to be a spaceman.”

(So how did the producer know to contact Bass in the first place? According to the book, the producer and a friend were discussing the reality TV show concept when the friend’s daughter blurted out, “Lance Bass wants to go into space!” because Bass had mentioned his spacefaring desire during an online chat. “So everything that followed,” Bass wrote, “happened because of a nine-year-old girl who was a fan of mine.”)

Bass’s bid to realize that dream of becoming a spaceman ran into several obstacles along the way. One was a demand by the Russians that he spend a year to train for the flight; they later agreed to condense it into four months to fit into his schedule, provided he agreed to train most weekends. More seriously, a medical exam turned up an irregular heartbeat, something that didn’t pose a risk to his health but would bar him from flying in space. In May 2002 he underwent a surgical procedure to successfully correct the problem.

Those were minor obstacles, though, compared to funding the flight. He admitted in the book that it would have made sense to get all the money raised up front before starting the training, but because of the tight schedule “we had to go about this backward and hope for the best.” Like Garver, Bass was relying on sponsorship money to pay for the flight, including $10 million from a “popular breakfast drink” whose logo would be on his spacesuit as well as a contract in negotiations with a major network for the TV show about his flight. Still, money was an issue with the Russians: “From the beginning they demanded $20 million before I would be able to complete my training.”

Bass put up with the hardships of training in Star City (ranging from the poor cuisine to the ubiquitous mosquitoes during the Russian summer) and did well in the physical and academic preparation for the flight, but money remained an issue. “More than once I got kicked out of Star City in the middle of training over some money dispute,” he wrote, “and I’d have to stay in a hotel in Moscow, missing precious days sitting around until somebody bailed me out.”

Bass had counted on a big chunk of the $20 million coming from the network that would air the TV show. “They were stalling, and we had no idea why,” he wrote. By late summer 2002, there were rumors reaching the press that his flight was in jeopardy; Bass said nondisclosure agreements prevented him from trying to respond to those reports. Eventually, the TV network deal fell through. “They appear to have used me in Russia like a guinea pig. They wanted the Soyuz seat for a game show they were hoping to air.” Another sponsor who planned to advertise on the capsule itself backed out late in the process as well, concerned about how their brand would be affected in the event of an accident.

“More than once I got kicked out of Star City in the middle of training over some money dispute,” he wrote, “and I’d have to stay in a hotel in Moscow, missing precious days sitting around until somebody bailed me out.”

At the last minute, Bass and his backers scrambled to work out deals with MTV and the Discovery Channel to supplement existing sponsorships that included toothpaste, hair-care products, and soft drinks. Meanwhile, to avoid any further disruptions in his training, Bass agreed to pay for the rest of it out of his own pocket—about $450,000. However, the MTV deal fell through because the network could not agree with the Russians on payment terms: “They didn’t want to make the rest of their payment until I was successfully launched, and the Russians wouldn’t let me go into space until the rest of the money was paid.” Unable to resolve that deadlock, Bass’s bid to fly on the fall 2002 Soyuz flight ended.

“What really hurt was that we had gone though so much and actually gotten so close,” he wrote. “It was heartbreaking; there is no other word for it.”

Second chances?

If Bass still has a desire to be a “spaceman”, he doesn’t reveal it in Out of Sync. “I still travel and speak to students to encourage them to stay in school and study math and science if they are interested in one day having a career in aeronautics,” he wrote. “Great things like that came out of my experience.”

Garver (who is never mentioned in Bass’s book even though they were aware of each other’s interest in the flight opportunity, and appeared together at one press conference) is still hopeful that she’ll have the opportunity to fly at some point down the road. “I guess I feel like I will still go to space,” she said, although she has no plans to revive the AstroMom project and is instead saving her money for her children’s college funds.

“My goal has been to facilitate getting more people to be able to go into space,” she said. “I really don’t feel that if I never get to go it will be a failed life so long as other people are going.”