A brief history of the space age:
1961: First astronauts in space.
1969: First men on the moon.
2002: First boy-band member in orbit?
"We've been training our butts off," said Lance Bass of 'N Sync, who is in Houston this week for briefings on the safety systems on board the International Space Station.
If he can raise the $20 million the Russians demand — and that's still a big if — Bass will be launched to the station in late October on a Soyuz rocket. He would spend a week in space, where he would shoot parts of a musical documentary for MTV, do promotion for Radio Shack — whatever it takes to pay the freight.
The Russian Space Agency badly needs the money to do its part in building the Space Station, so it's sold trips before, to the American millionaire Dennis Tito, and a South African Internet entrepreneur, Mark Shuttleworth.
NASA was reluctant to entertain paying passengers, but now, says Charles Precourt, Chief of the Astronaut Corps, "We view ourselves as enabling commercialization."
"Eventually everyone should, and will, have the opportunity to travel into space," said Bass.
Music of the Spheres
At a Houston news conference, Bass sat with his two cosmonaut crewmates and Precourt. But almost all the questions were for, or about, him.
"Will you sing in space? What will you sing?" asked one reporter.
"Do you promise you'll write at least one song?" asked another.
"No promises," said Bass, laughing. "I mean, of course, I'll be inspired."
While Bass would not be the first orbital tourist, he would be the first ever backed by a Hollywood producer.
"Because of the demographic Lance does attract," said David Krieff, the head of Destiny Productions, "it will give kids and adults and people everywhere a new inspiration."
"But inspire them to do what?" retorts Robert Park, a well-known physicist at the University of Maryland. "Become pop music stars? The message seems to be that if you're a pop star you can do anything. You don't need to take hard courses."
Park says space travel has turned tacky, diverted from the higher cause of science. Instead of searching for life in the solar system, he says, we're selling seats to celebrities.
"The great question for human beings is, 'What is our place in the universe?'" he said. "This won't do it."
But NASA managers are giving Bass star treatment. That's partly because they have no choice; they cannot afford for the Russians to back out of the space station program.
But some astronauts say there's another reason: their own teenage children think Bass is really cool.