TCS Daily

NASA Gets (Planned?) Lift from Tito's Launch, Too

By James Pinkerton - April 30, 2001 12:00 AM

Is it possible that Dennis Tito and NASA are secret allies?

Tito, of course, is the California millionaire who has been trying for years to buy a ticket aboard a space ship - any space ship. And NASA has not only refused to sell him room aboard the space shuttle, but it has tried to pressure the Russians into also refusing to sell Tito a ticket to ride on one of their craft. Or so it seems.

But consider: maybe this has been a scheme to attract interest to a mostly moribund space program. As every cable news show knows by now, it's rivalry that gets ratings. By spurning Tito's money, NASA has made space travel appear to be even more of a forbidden fruit than it already is. And Tito, of course, has been a big winner. A year ago, he was just another centimillionaire, known only to Wall Streeters who admired the financial management company he founded, Wilshire Associates, and followed his Wilshire 5000 market index. But then he paid the Russians a reported $20 million to fly to the space station Mir. When Mir faltered, he switched his booking, aiming for the International Space Station instead-much to NASA's official consternation.

If the plan was to cause sparks to start a media fire, it worked; on April 25, Tito got his picture on the front page of The New York Times, under the headline, "Russia Wins Fight to be First Space Travel Agent." And then on April 26, it happened again: "$20 Million Paid for a Ticket, But Tenacity Paved the Way." The Times' definition of news that's fit to print expands apparently, to make room for a good spat. In other words, Tito had gotten far more than $20 million worth of publicity before he slipped the surly bonds of earth.

And of course, on Saturday morning, Tito finally got his ultimate wish, when he and two Russian cosmonauts blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome to begin a six - day mission to the International Space Station and back."

Staged media rivalries are nothing new - which means that they almost always work. Jack Benny famously phony-feuded with Fred Allen. W.C. Fields tussled with Charlie McCarthy - and Charlie was a dummy, literally. "One of these days, I'm gonna chew you up into toothpicks," Fields snarled at the mouthy mannequin, operated by Edgar Bergen. And for years, two men on opposite sides of the '60s cultural divide, G. Gordon Liddy and Timothy Leary, formed a traveling road show, debating each other on college campuses. (The act broke up when Leary died in 1996 - although one can't completely rule out some sort of comeback.) More recently, Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation has grown rich staging nothing but fake tussles, in and out of the ring. Indeed, McMahon's one effort to stage an honestly competitive sports league, the XFL, was a spectacular failure.

But most likely, Tito sincerely wanted to fly aboard a space ship, and most likely NASA sincerely wanted to stop him from doing so.

But why? NASA argued that it wasn't safe, that space was no place for amateurs-never mind the fact that Tito worked as a NASA engineer for five years before striking off to get rich.

And wait a second: isn't this the same NASA that sent Republican Senator Jake Garn of Utah into space aboard the shuttle in 1985? And Democratic Congressman - now Senator - Bill Nelson of Florida into space the following year. Indeed, isn't this the same NASA that has always understood the importance, indeed, the centrality, of publicity? The same NASA that was happy enough to see the Mercury astronauts sell their story to Life magazine four decades ago? The same NASA that was accused of staging launches for the convenience of TV cameras?

Yup, that NASA. And it was that NASA that confronted disaster in 1986 when the Challenger blew up - because agency honchos bowed to media impatience. In the subsequent investigation, famed physicist Richard Feynman argued that the accident happened because the Challenger's "O-rings" failed to seal properly in the chill January air; in other words, NASA should have waited until the weather turned warmer.

And one of those aboard Challenger - which took off just 10 days after then - Rep. Nelson came back from his flight aboard a different shuttle, Columbia -- was a New Hampshire school teacher, Christa McAuliffe. What was she doing there? critics demanded to know. NASA had no answer, other than the obvious: it's fun, albeit risky, to fly into space atop a rocket generating a million or so pounds of thrust.

And that's the ringing defense NASA should have made: of course space travel is hazardous; just about everything with an upside has a downside. Adventurers have always accepted danger as a necessary companion, sometimes, it seems, even as a welcome friend.

But instead, NASA went into a crouch, and the agency has stayed in that cramped posture ever since. If the virtue of bureaucracy is a kind of stolid consistency - in theory, everyone gets treated the same - then that same consistency can be a vice, or a vise, stifling new thinking. That is, once an organization gets an idea into its head, it's tough to get it out. Fifteen years ago, NASA decided to minimize its risk by minimizing the number of outsiders and interlopers, and it has stuck to that position with iron determination ever since. What the space agency didn't seem to realize was that in doing so, it was forfeiting a potential source of goodwill and, of course, revenue.

Put simply, NASA has a hot product. In a rich world in which yuppies are always searching for the next thrill, NASA has an experience that is, well, out of this world. And yet it repelled all would-be boarders-until now.

And so while Tito gets the thrill of a lifetime, the big winner, in spite of itself, could be NASA. If Tito comes back safely - and even if he doesn't - others will want to follow him. The film director James "Titanic" Cameron, for example, wants to go next. He is working on three different space-related projects, a documentary, a 3D-IMAX movie, and a TV series for Fox; surely those shows are more valuable to NASA than the next iteration of zero-g experiments on flatworms.

In the '60s, NASA was unique among government agencies in its pr savvy. And the result was not just a booming budget, but genuine success: it put men on the moon. Now, after three decades of bureausclerosis, Dennis Tito has cleaned out some of NASA's arteries, putting space-wanderlust on at the top of the news and offering the agency the chance to ally itself with a new generation of joyriders and entrepreneurs.

It's worked out so well that one must wonder if NASA didn't plan this comeback all along.


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