NASA capitalizes on star power

Pop singer Lance Bass gives space agency a new, cool image

— NASA is being 'N-fused with much-needed teen appeal this week as its first celebrity space tourist, pop star Lance Bass, trains to become the youngest and coolest person ever to hit orbit.

The stodgy, middle-aged space agency is jumping on the 'N Sync singer's bandwagon, even though not everyone is thrilled about Russia's bid to send a 23-year-old with barely a high school education to the international space station this fall.


AP Photo

'N Sync singer Lance Bass, front, checks out a simulated ISS workstation as part of his Soyuz 5 training and familiarization tour at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Standing behind Bass are Ginger Kerrick, left, of JSC's International Training group, and Herve Stevenin of the European Space Agency.

Bass may not be the most scientifically savvy or most experienced guy to go through space training. But he certainly is one of the most artistic and definitely the most appealing to the hard-to-impress, under-20 crowd. Even the children of NASA workers who were ho-hum about space travel are taking a sudden interest and seeking the performer's autograph.

"What's exciting about this is getting a creative person up there," said Duane Carey, a space shuttle pilot and father of two teens. "Maybe some songs or some poetry or some type of inspiration can come out of it."

Before Bass can be considered a full-fledged member of Russia's next crew, TV producers need to wrap up a deal with the cash-strapped Russian space program. Unlike the first two space tourists, California businessman Dennis Tito and South African Internet tycoon Mark Shuttleworth, Bass is rounding up corporate sponsors to pay his $20 million fare, and that's causing a holdup.

A Los Angeles production company has plans for a TV show following Bass' space adventures.

Despite the singer's off-again, on-again status over the past several months, NASA politely agreed to accept Bass for a week of space station training at Johnson Space Center. He's learning alongside a Russian and Belgian assigned to the lifeboat-swapping mission scheduled for a Kazakhstan liftoff Oct. 28. The three men showed up Monday after working together at cosmonaut headquarters in Star City, Russia.

Publicity blitz

After 1 1/2 months of debating Bass' qualifications, NASA and the other space station partners signed off Tuesday on his trip. The ink was barely dry when NASA's public affairs machine began cranking out news releases about the singer's participation in a press conference and an Internet chat with school children. Shouted one NASA headline: "Students to share thrill of space exploration with Lance Bass."

Astronomy students at Clinton High School in Mississippi, which Bass attended in the 1990s, say his flight is sure to spark interest in space, although probably more among the 10- to 12-year-old set.

The popularity of boy bands like 'N Sync � best known for the hit "Bye Bye Bye" � is fading. Still, Brooke Bradley, a 17-year-old senior, said it was easier to relate to someone Bass' age "than someone older going up."

The fact that he's a music star makes it more appealing, too, noted Angela Wilson, a 16-year-old junior.

Tito was 60 when he became the world's first paying space tourist last year. Shuttleworth, who rocketed to the space station in April, was a much younger 28, but a dry, technical type and "about as creative as the rest of us astronauts," said Carey.

"You get a guy up there (like Bass) whose whole life has been built around the right half of his brain and creativeness and everything, it's going to be really interesting," Carey said. "I hope he fills the shoes that he's been given."

Not cut from NASA mold

At this astronaut training base, which turned Tito away last year because of its bitter opposition to space tourists at the time, grumbling still echoes in the hallways. Some see Bass' flight as a burden, others as a distraction or side show.

"He didn't compete for it, he's buying it, and there's something deeply embedded in the NASA culture that finds that difficult to accept and very hard to embrace," said a pro-Bass space agency official who did not want to be identified.

Bass is probably the polar opposite of John Glenn, who, by the way, opposes the idea of vacationers at the international space station.

"We have spent tens of billions of dollars putting the station up there, and it was to be used for basic research, not for other things," Glenn said last February on the 40th anniversary of his first orbital flight.

"John's not in sync," Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra joked in response to his friend's tough stand.


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