TCS Daily


The New Upward Mobility

By James Pinkerton - May 8, 2002 12:00 AM

Upward mobility has a new trajectory, if what today's young and moneyed are striving toward is any indicator. Space exploration in the past was powered by the triple engines of scientific discovery, engineering virtuosity, and military necessity; it is now being lifted by a fourth booster: Pop-culture curiosity.

"Reaching for the stars" used to be just an expression, although it always revealed mankind's innate yearning for physical transcendence. But for Type-A Gen Y and Gen X specimens, such as young American heartthrob Lance Bass of the boy band *NSYNC and 28-year-old South African Internet mogul Mark Shuttleworth, the stars are less the stuff of poetic inspiration than of plausible destination.

Scientists and astronauts may be doing the real work to make space travel possible, but pop culture and new money are adding a new kind of value. Bass and Shuttleworth -- toothy bachelors, good-naturedly conscious of their own personal and financial magnetism - are the profit-making prophets of a new generation of space-trekkers.

The edgy, itchy enthusiasm of these new pioneers -- rich, famous, and stimuli-starved -- may lack the dry elegance of a Carl Sagan PBS series or the awe-inducing depth of a Stephen Hawking tome, but cash and flash have a way of grabbing the attention of the public in a way that physics equations scribbled on a blackboard on the NASA cable channel just can't.

Shuttleworth, 28, is the third-youngest person to go out of this world; he paid $20 million of his own fortune for the privilege of eight days and seven nights aboard the International Space Station. Moreover, he is the first African in space, a milestone proudly advertised on the eponymous website www.africaninspace.com. The self-described "Afronaut" spoke with former South African president Nelson Mandela via live television hookup, before gracefully sidestepping a marriage proposal from a lovestruck 14-year-old.

Lance Bass, 23, who can be said to lovestrike 14-year-olds for a living, can look forward to achieving more than just the endless devotion of teenage girls if he makes it to space. Having been to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, when he was a boy, he is currently training at Russia's Star City; his flight is to be documented by LA-based Destiny Productions for a reality-TV program. Once that show airs, one might expect that reality-TV fans will have new activities to admire; instead of role-modeling bug-eaters, young people might choose once again to role-model space-goers.

Indeed, space travel is making a cool comeback. Teenybop temptress Britney Spears' video for her hit song "Oops I Did it Again" had her flirting on Mars with a lucky astronaut; rockosaurus Steven Tyler of Aerosmith told the Boston Globe that he, too, was interested in a space jaunt. And the most anticipated movie of the summer is "Star Wars: Episode Two-Attack of the Clones"; its young star Natalie Portman appears on the cover of this month's Vogue magazine in a high-tech-looking Prada dress.

Meanwhile, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Satish Krishnan made People magazine's "Top Fifty Bachelors" list last year, keeping company with such decidedly un-spacey luminaries as golf great Tiger Woods and actor Ben Affleck, who shot to prominence, as it were, in the asteroid-threatens-Earth drama "Armageddon," which starred Liv Tyler, daughter of space-minded Steven.

But if space is sexy, it's not just because Hollywood has hitched its stars to the stars. Space is sexy because it is compelling, even inspiring. And if, as Henry Kissinger once said, power is an aphrodisiac, then being a part of the Big Parade is something of a turn-on.

Another part of the thrill of it all, of course, is the risk factor. Unfortunately, as spacefaring reaccelerates after its three-decade, post-Apollo slowdown, some astral trippers will undoubtedly perish. They will remain forever, perhaps, in the Great Beyond, joining the pantheon of heroes remembered today in the names of constellations, from Hercules to Orion. And after such future tragedies, some will say that men and women should pull back, retreat to earth, where it's safe and warm and static. But if the stars truly become the destination of the stars, such a retreat is unlikely to happen, no matter what the cost.

After landing in Kazakhstan late Saturday night-a time when most millionaire bachelors might be stirring up the hot tub-an elated Shuttleworth told journalists that he would go back to space "anytime." But will he? After all, earthly delights are pretty delightful, especially for the well-moneyed and well-muscled yuppie. Now that the first African in space has been there and done that, will he devote any more of his considerable charm and talent to making the experience more attainable to others? Was it a joy ride, or an inaugural trip?

And what will happen when Lance Bass re-enters Earth's atmosphere, if, indeed, he makes it up there at all? "First *NSYNC-er in Space" is great publicity, and it will make for a great TV show.

But beyond the Guinness Book of World Records and the Nielsen's, both men must choose a path. Will they sink back to their earthbound lives? Or will they become permanent advocates for others going, too, as John Glenn and Sally Ride have become?

Only time will tell, but the lesson of heroes in history is that those who go boldly are most remembered, admired-even loved. And that's sexy, then and now.

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