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Can Lance Sing His Way Into Space

in space no one can hear you sing
by James Oberg
Houston - Aug 28, 2002
Following the orbital flights of rich "space tourists" in recent years, many more people have come forward with schemes to pay the Russian ticket price of $20,000,000 (or so) for a week-long mission aboard a Soyuz space capsule. The latest candidate is a young pop singer and teenage heart throb named Lance Bass, from the group 'Nsync.

Russian cosmonaut Sergey Zalyotin and Belgian astronaut Frank de Winne will blast off October 28 in a new Soyuz, dock to the International Space Station, and return to Earth a few days later in the Soyuz currently attached there. It serves as a lifeboat for the long-term station residents but has to be replaced every six months. Two men are needed to fly the Soyuz, but the third seat has always been available for special passengers.

The current drama has been quite a show. Each week another "final deadline" passes, yet the project to put the into space in two months still sputters along towards the launch pad. His sponsors, led by Hollywood producer David Krieff, continue to dodge the demands of the rocket owners in Russia for up-front cash payments.

The suspense is worth a lot of publicity, but it doesn't appear to be deliberate. What we're seeing is an attempt by an American businessman to play poker with adversaries who are more used to playing chess. The results may be preordained if a little historical and cultural context can be explained.

When it comes to renting a spare seat on a three-place Soyuz spaceship, maneuvering over money, and confronting over contracts, has been the name of the game for a dozen years.

The first round of such deals occurred in 1990-1991, as the USSR was in terminal collapse. The spare Soyuz seat became seen as more than just a luxury for diplomatic gestures -- send up a Czech, send up a Hungarian, send up a Syrian, and collect the foreign policy rewards. It became a potential source of hard currency to replace vanished federal funding.

Several commercial contracts were signed in that period, including with a Japanese TV station (which paid), a U.S. group that planned a 'lottery-naut' (whose organizers wound up in jail in Texas), and a private British group that promised to obtain funding through sponsorship, television shows, and advertising.

That was 'Project Juno', and it started out as a non-government plan to pay $12 million for a seat for an ordinary British citizen, who would conduct British scientific experiments in space. The recruiting of candidates, and their 18-month training program, went well, but fund-raising was a bust. In the end, a Soviet-owned bank in London took over the project, and with a few months to go before launch in early 1991, they faced bankruptcy and the cancellation of the program.

At that point, Soviet officials instinctively fell back upon their old habits. Apparently under orders from the Gorbachev regime, the spaceflight industry agreed to proceed with the flight not for money but for good international relations. The British research projects were scrapped, as were all deals for logos and commercial emblems on the rocket and spacesuits.

Of the $12 million originally promised, little if any wound up in the bank accounts of the Russian space industry. One Russian newspaper said that $1.7 million was all that had been raised, and that would have about paid for the 18-month training of the two English cosmonauts and the travel expenses of negotiators. It's entirely possible that no money at all was left to pay the space program.

It was also during this period that American folksinger John Denver, a lifelong space enthusiast, also tried to talk his way onto a Soviet Soyuz flight. Denver had some money of his own, but nowhere near enough to pay the asking price for the seat. Instead, he reportedly offered the Soviets full commercial rights to an album he planned to record, some of it in space and some of it on Earth with music he composed from the inspiration of his experiences.

Later, one Russian official from 'Energia' contemptuously recalled Denver's proposal "to pay for his flight with a song", alleging that Denver hadn't understood the Russian needs. But it was the Russian who 'didn't get it'. Even if Denver's career had been sliding, he was still a gifted musician with a substantial body of loyal fans, and an "outer space album" would easily have earned the copyright owners far more than the price of the Soyuz ticket. But that wasn't the way the Russians saw it then, or even later. Cash up front was the language they had been taught by the Juno debacle.

In the years that followed, Soyuz seats were sold to Western governments only France, Austria, Germany, and the European Space Agency, for example. There were no more serious proposals for privately funded missions until 1999.

It was then that cosmonaut Sergey Zalyotin was training for his first space mission, to the Mir space station. A Russian civilian engineer would be along with him in the three-seater Soyuz.

In May 1999 it was announced in Moscow that a 51-year-old British industrialist named Peter Llewellyn had signed a contract that allowed him to accompany Zalyotin into space later that summer. Desperate for funding, the Russian spacecraft firm 'Energia' was "determined to work with him', one official said. As to stories that Llewellyn had no money behind his promises, another Russian space official angrily retorted that "all of these newspaper stories about his being a swindler are nothing but U.S. government-funded propaganda aimed at sinking [Mir]."

There was no money, as it turned out, and four days after Llewellyn reported to Star City for cosmonaut training, he was told to leave. Zalyotin and his Russian shipmate continued training, but without funding for the rocket, the mission was delayed until the following year.

By then, a new paying customer had shown up. Vladimir Steklov, a well-known 52-year-old Russian actor, had passed cosmonaut physical exams and had been training at Star City for about six months as part of a movie project. Producer-director Yuri Kara, along with British producer John Daly ('Terminator', 'Last Emperor', 'Platoon', etc.), were planning to film a science fiction novel about 'the last man on Mir'. They had raised some initial money and had paid both for Steklov's training and a small down payment to 'Energia'.

The movie, to be called 'The Last Journey', was budgeted at about $200,000,000 and the space segments would cost about $40,000,000, including the Soyuz ticket. Stecklov received final medical clearance in February, about the same time that all parties agreed on the financing schedule for the launch set for March 31, and he was officially accepted for flight. All three cosmonauts trained together for the mission, and in fact the full crew is still memorialized to this day by a group photograph on the wall of the Soyuz simulator at Star City.

But despite furious trans-Atlantic visits and phone calls, the sponsorship funding did not fall into place. Kara asked 'Energia' to allow Steklov to fly for the money already delivered, pointing out (not unreasonably) that once he had the on-orbit film 'in the can', finding new funding to finish the project and pay the balance for the ticket would be much easier. But the Russian space officials weren't about to replay the script from 'Project Juno', and with only a month to go before launch, Steklov was removed from the crew. Zalyotin and his cosmonaut assistant flew into space with the third seat unoccupied, and his crew was the last to visit Mir before it was dumped into the Pacific in early 2001.

Now Zalyotin is preparing for a new launch, and once again for the third time the question of a third seater is still unresolved. Once again, there are promises of future payments and excuses for missed deadlines for past payments. Once again, a potential passenger's team is trying to bluff and bluster their way into orbit. The Russians have seen it all before.

Krieff's attempts to outplay the Russians again from the same position that previous commercial space riders tried a decade ago does not appear very encouraging. He doesn't seem to know much about these earlier experiences which shaped the Russian attitudes towards the approach he too is trying to take. He doesn't seem to be treating them with the respect that they (and their friends overseas) think they've earned over the decades. He does not seem to be giving them the 'warm fuzzy feeling' that they need for a commercial partner who will be shaping Western public attitudes towards the Russian space program and its history.

There's an old saw about how you gain insight into a society by the games that it likes to play. Chess was said to be the Russian game, and poker, the American game. In one, all of the resources are fully visible and it's up to the minds of the players to create the winning strategies. In the other, the players strive to create false impressions of the balance of resources in the minds of their opponents.

Krieff, like many of his predecessors in the game of "rent-the-Soyuz-seat", appears to be an excellent poker player. This involves exploiting the other side's weaknesses and in deliberately fostering misconceptions. It requires that make-believe be conjured up, and ambushes be sprung.

But the Russians are no longer naive novices, and they have been keeping their eye on the ball despite distractions. Any money they do get, they keep if the project ultimately fails there are no refunds. Any sale at a 'bargain price' will seriously diminish what they can expect to charge for future seats in years to come, and they know this. The Russians make the rules for games on their turf, and that's where this game will be won or lost by their players whose careers depend on an outcome which does not cost them dearly and make them look foolish.

Krieff better 'show them the money', all of it, in advance or fold his tent and be satisfied with the worldwide publicity he has already earned for himself and Bass.

James Oberg is a veteran spaceflight operations expert in Houston, and a noted author and commentator on space policy. He has been a consultant to several commercial commercial Soyuz passenger projects.

James Oberg is a veteran spaceflight operations expert in Houston, and a noted author and commentator on space policy. He has been a consultant to several commercial commercial Soyuz passenger projects.

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Are Boy Bands A Viable Launch Vehicle For Space Tourism
San Diego - Jul 18, 2002
A little look behind the business infrastructure that launches boy bands reveals a lucrative source of capital and explorers for the new frontier. A business World that appears to support Lance Bass's aspirations to become a space tourist.


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