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Russia Grounds 'N Sync Star's Aspirations for Space Travel

Aerospace: Officials say Lance Bass' sponsors failed to make good on $20-million rocket fare.

September 04, 2002|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — To 'N Sync star Lance Bass' dream of becoming the youngest extraterrestrial traveler, the Russian Space Agency on Tuesday said, "Bye, bye, bye."

Sponsors for the teen idol's October flight aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station failed to deliver the $20-million fare despite repeated extensions, space agency spokesman Sergei A. Gorbunov told reporters.

"It's over," Gorbunov said of Bass' space mission, for which the 23-year-old singer has already trained for two months at Star City, a facility about 25 miles northeast of Moscow.

Bass will be billed for the accommodations and preparation he received at the cosmonaut training center, the space agency spokesman added without specifying the sum.

The singer could not be reached for comment in Star City or at a luxury Moscow hotel where he kept a room until Tuesday.

Unlike the first two space tourists--California businessman Dennis Tito and South African Internet magnate Mark Shuttleworth--Bass wasn't planning to cover his own expenses. A consortium of television and film producers was to have put up the money in return for rights to a documentary series on the pop star's experience. Bass also planned to speak to students via ham radio while aboard the station.

Although the Russian announcement could be a pressure tactic to force Bass' backers to pay, Gorbunov said the decision was final. The singer, who had been publicly marveling at the chance to realize a lifelong fantasy of traveling to outer space, was sent packing from Star City just two days after returning Sunday from a crew trip to Houston for the final phase of training.

Bass remained in Russia and was still "convinced that he is going to fly," Jeffrey Manber, a liaison between the Russian Space Agency and those seeking to buy the experience of space travel, told Associated Press on Tuesday.

"It is a little dramatic to say he was kicked out," Manber said. "He was training at Star City yesterday. He is not training today, but he will be back there probably tomorrow or the day after."

The delay in payment, Manber said, was a technical problem on which the sponsors were earnestly working and mindful that "the clock is ticking."

Gorbunov's announcement suggested that the clock had stopped. The agency spokesman expressed frustration over what he called "crude violations" of the travel contract, and he spoke with finality in saying that a cargo container would travel in the singer's place.

Bass had beat out at least two other paying contenders for a seat on the Soyuz craft, which will blast off Oct. 28 with Russian commander Sergei Zaletin and Belgian colleague Frank de Winne.

Training for spaceflight takes months and there is too little time to allow another candidate to prepare, Gorbunov said.

"Even if one of them pays $40 million instead of $20 million, he will not be able to join the space mission," Gorbunov said, adding that other partners in the International Space Station, including NASA, must sign off on lay passengers.

Bass began testing for the mission in April and was confirmed by the Russian program in July. He spent most of the summer in exercises involving zero-gravity flight, emergency response measures and Russian-language education.

Although Zaletin initially expressed reservations about taking the pop star on board, he told a news conference in Houston last week that he had since been convinced that Bass had what it takes to make the voyage.

During the crew trip to Johnson Space Center, NASA gave its blessing to the singer's participation despite concerns earlier about his readiness. Bass had acknowledged that he made little progress on learning Russian, which is required of all Soyuz travelers to facilitate communication in an emergency.

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Times Berlin Bureau chief Williams is currently on assignment in Moscow.

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