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NASA's chief of the Astronaut Corps sits behind a podium 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 each other. (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 Russki 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's 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.
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 press 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 deal-maker with a PR background whom 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 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 hardbodied 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 light bulb popped over his head. Why send an ordinary schmuck into space when you can send a global superstar? By February the TV show was temporarily scrapped, and now a seven-part documentary about Bass's training, launch, 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's 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's 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.
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