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Still pitching a far-out idea: ads in space

For years, Robert Lorsch has lobbied to let firms sponsor NASA missions. His idea may finally be launched.

June 10, 2007|Alana Semuels | Times Staff Writer

It started as a joke. But after a while, Robert H. Lorsch began to think that selling advertising in space wasn't so funny.

More than 20 years after his ad agency used maps of the moon and the freeze-dried ice cream favored by astronauts to make pitches to potential clients, the Beverly Hills businessman is still lobbying for the commercialization of space.

And his idea might yet get off the ground -- Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) plans to introduce a bill that would create a committee to investigate which advertising partnerships NASA might pursue.

"In the beginning, they probably thought I was some crackpot," Lorsch says. "Now, they're not sure I'm such a crackpot."

When he moved to Southern California in 1967, Lorsch was a high school dropout from Chicago without any particular passion. He paid the bills by selling smokeless cigarettes and cigarette filters out of the trunk of his car, then talked his way into a job at a marketing firm.

From there he built Lorsch Creative Network, which in the 1980s was one of the largest sales promotion agencies in the country. His clients included television networks ABC, CBS and NBC, McDonald's Corp. and Procter & Gamble Co.

Lorsch says he felt compelled to respond to President Reagan's challenge to the private sector in 1981 to help relieve the government's financial burden. He presented his plan to several members of Congress: NASA should allow companies to put their names on plaques inside space shuttles, charging $1 million for the privilege, and let corporate America promote its backing of the space program in the same way businesses do when they pay to be sponsors of the Olympics.

Congress didn't bite. Lorsch protected his idea anyway, threatening legal action after NASA made a deal in 1993 with Columbia Pictures to promote the movie "Last Action Hero" on a rocket. His attorney said NASA had breached an agreement with Lorsch. By then, Lorsch had already copyrighted the idea of advertising in space. In the end, the rocket with the movie ad on it was never launched.

Although NASA has participated in some commercial partnerships that allow businesses to use information learned from space missions, the agency isn't permitted to profit from such pacts. By contrast, the Russian space agency has embraced advertising as a way to fund its program and has signed deals with Pepsi, Pizza Hut and Kodak. Pizza Hut paid about $1.3 million to put a logo on a Russian spacecraft and Pepsi shelled out $5 million to have a cosmonaut float a replica of a soda can in outer space.

Lorsch sees the U.S. position as fiscally reckless.

"Since the first shuttle flight, there have been 113 missions," he said in testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space in 2004. "If my program had been implemented, the space program could have earned more than $5 billion."

Picking his way through hordes of schoolchildren visiting the Robert H. Lorsch Pavilion at the California Science Center (he donated $1 million for the naming rights to the pavilion and made $3 million in other contributions over 15 years) the sandy-haired Lorsch looks like neither a millionaire nor a space geek in his pinstripe suit and rimless eyeglasses.

He is definitely the former. Until last year, he was the owner of Lorschland, one of the most opulent properties in Beverly Hills, a 23,000-square-foot mansion complete with a gazebo, waterfall, pool and media room that he bought from the brother of the sultan of Brunei. He sold it for double what he paid, somewhere around $18 million.

Now Lorsch lives in an apartment in Beverly Hills; his Chesapeake Bay retriever and mixed Shepherd/Labrador and his staff live in the unit next door. He's glad to have moved out of Lorschland, he says, because when you own such a huge house "you never know whether people are taken with you because of what you have or who you are."

Lorsch might be best known for co-founding SmarTalk TeleServices Inc., a prepaid long-distance calling-card company. It went public in 1996 and was sold to AT&T for about $145 million in 1999. SmarTalk was the subject of shareholder lawsuits in 1998 that claimed company directors, including Lorsch, misled shareholders. Lorsch said the cases were settled out of court.

The thrice-divorced Lorsch has been through personal legal troubles, facing legal actions by former wives who demanded parts of his fortune. He's now engaged to be married again.

He's kept busy with business ventures since his first foray into space advertising. He has marketed Wuppees (those furry balls with feet and googly eyes used in promotional campaigns) and founded a company that makes dental treats for dogs.

His newest project is MyMedicalRecords.com, a company that allows consumers to store their medical information online. And he's involved in a plan to make the most luxurious limo ever -- he says it will be for royalty -- by turning the Rolls-Royce Phantom into a limousine.

But Lorsch has no intention of giving up on advertising in space.

"Here's a way to benefit billions of people," he said. "If it improves mankind, what's wrong with it?"

alana.semuels@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Highflier

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Who: Robert H. Lorsch

Age: 57

Title: Chief executive, MyMedicalRecords.com

Education: GED, completed after he dropped out of high school

Honors: 1998 Man of the Year, DARE America; 1999 Humanitarian of the Year, Muscular Dystrophy Assn.; 2000 Humanitarian of the Year, Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Southern California Chapter.

Favorite book: "Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah" by Richard Bach

Quotable quote: "At the end of the day, I do think there is a certain amount of dignity that has to stay with the space program. I don't think I'd want to see a giant Pepsi logo on a space shuttle, but I don't know why."

Personal: Thrice divorced, engaged to be married.

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