Introduction of Selling Peace by Jeffrey Manber
February 21st, 2002.
I answered the ringing cell phone, even though it was two in the morning.
On the other end of the line was a semi-hysterical reporter for the AP news service, demanding immediate confirmation whether Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake had booked a ride with my company into outer space.
OK, yeah, sure.
My brain struggled to pull itself out of the sleep induced and in this case, jet lagged fog. I was in Moscow and had fallen asleep with the help of some strong red wine just an hour before.
I scrambled to figure the possibilities. A joke? But only a few people had my Moscow number.
Trying to buy some time and make reason out of the question, I answered the reporter with my own question.
“What makes you think Britney Spears wants to even go into space?”
Forget it was the curt answer. It’s all over the wires.
OK, next try.
“Give me your number and I promise to call back in ten minutes. Really, I promise.”
Reluctantly the reporter agreed.
I switched on the light, throw on some clothes, and called our public relations guru, Jeffrey Lenorovitz in Washington.
Jeffrey answered immediately and confirmed that he was giving out my number to the reporters calling that late afternoon, Washington, DC time. A rumor that Spears and Timberlake wanted to fly into space was going viral and Lenorovitz figured that no matter the late hour in Moscow, better I handle the press.
I turned on the computer and attached my cell phone. A new service in Moscow allowed Internet connections directly from the phone. It was a slow connection and would cost a fortune to track down the story, but money well spent.
The first try didn’t go through. Nor on the second try. God, sometimes I hated being in Moscow.
The third try was successful. Slowly, slowly, I navigated my way through the breaking news stories.
And there it was.
The source of my lack of sleep was a screaming headline:
Spears and Boyfriend to Become First Lovers in Space?
The story had been broken by the respected French news service “Agence France Press” (AFP) just a few hours earlier. Readers must have been titillated to learn that Lynne Spears, the mother of pop star Britteny (sic) Spears, had angrily slammed down the phone upon being asked about the news, but “did not deny that the couple is negotiating for a space flight” together. So it must be true. Incredible.
The French reporter broke with the sensational news that female pop star Britney Spears was in negotiations to fly to outer space, along with her boyfriend Justin Timberlake. These plans came on the heels of the rumors that Justin Timberlake’s bass singer in the boy band N’Sync, Lance Bass, also wanted to experience a ride into the new frontier of outer space.
Revealed the reporter, “Spears, like Bass, is reputedly negotiating with Netherlands-based company MirCorp, which has an agreement with Russian spacecraft manufacturer Energia to market tourist flights.
“In 2001 millionaire businessman Dennis Tito became the first “space tourist” when he flew to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz taxi flight. Tito’s trip prompted a bitter dispute with NASA.
“South African businessman Mark Shuttleworth is scheduled to become the second space tourist in April, following the establishment of new rules about who is qualified to fly to the space station. But if Spears and Timberlake actually fly, they will not visit the space station and NASA will have no say on their activities.”
The article then provided some history of Hollywood’s interest in space, saying, in part, how “This seeming rash of interest in spaceflight among musicians is actually not new. Folk singer John Denver, killed in a 1997 plane crash, expressed an interest in flying to the now defunct space station Mir in the early 1990s.”
The mention of legendary folk singer Denver struck me as a surprising inclusion, even when reading the article in the dead of night. Very few people knew of Denver’s serious attempt to journey to space.
I still view the moment as an opportunity that slipped away. Victor Legostaev, the senior official in charge of international business development at the giant Russian space company Energia, had summoned me to his office on the outskirts of Moscow and explained in his bass voice that an “American man with guitar wants to fly with us. The problem with all men with guitars,” philosophized down-to-earth Legostaev, “is that these sort of men never have money. But he wants to fly and write a song for us.” Great. I asked who the man was. The answer was John Denver. I would learn that Denver had tried to fly with NASA in the mid-1980’s and had been refused. The composer of “Rocky Mountain High” and other megahits then went to the Soviets, who offered to fly the musician for, of course, a fee. Now, for the past two years, Denver had been struggling to find a way to realize his dreams, but without paying cash up front.
Not for the last time did Legostaev, a Hero of the Soviet Union, and I fight over differing philosophical outlooks on the new business of space tourism. For me, it was clear the advantages of sending John Denver, at whatever cost, into space.
The publicity, the opportunities for branding and the resultant royalties resulting from launching a mega-entertainer would have started a new sort of entertainment gold rush. What a promotional and entertainment coup that would have been. The more conservative Legostaev objected to what he saw as taking a financial risk with a folk singer. I would think back on this missed opportunity later, after Denver was killed in his experimental plane. What great tear-jerking songs he might have written while gazing down on the blue orb that is our earth, and how often those sings would have been played during sentimental times and lonely long journeys.
The Russians were willing to embrace our capitalist business models, but still required cash up front. This hesitation by the top Russian space officials to share in expected revenue remains still dominants, and it is a shame, as it has allowed some wonderful media and entertainment opportunities to remain out of reach.
Then the breaking French news report got to the really good stuff, when the reporter wrote how “The Russian spacecraft has two compartments that can be sealed with a hatch. The rumors that Spears and Timberlake hope to fly together has prompted speculation among her fans, and criticism from her detractors, that the two are planning a “zero-gee love tryst” in the words of one critic. Shelly Travers, head of the non-religious morality group League of Decency, who has previously criticized Spears, said “Now it looks like she is going to take lust to new heights.”
Space expert John Pike, of GlobalSecurity.Org, a think tank in Washington, DC, was quoted as suggesting, “It used to be that it was the superpowers competing to put people in space. Now it is apparently rock stars.” As for the rumors that the couple may be planning a romantic rendezvous in orbit, Pike joked “NASA has spent a lot of money studying long-duration spaceflight. It is a long way to Mars. Maybe they will learn something useful about how to pass the time.” Pike is always good for a quote, and he must have had a fun time with this one.
All night my phone continued to ring.
Reporters, editors, producers, were all demanding a quote confirming the story.
As president of MirCorp, the company named in the above scoop, I was caught off-guard. We knew nothing about Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake wanting to fly together into space. But the story was being carried by a respected news organization, and much of the rest of the other information seemed accurate. We were trying to arrange for Lance Bass of N’Sync to fly to the space station. And it accurately captured both NASA’s opposition to Dennis Tito and the space agency’s new neutral position on flying Shuttleworth, the South African co-founder of the Internet payment system Paypal.
We had first learned about Bass through a news story, when the young N*Sync singer told a packed Los Angeles press conference of his dream to fly into space, and his willingness to undertake a television show to pay for the seat, so why not Brittney?
Three in the morning. Four in the morning. Five in the Moscow morning. Over and over I repeated to the reporters that we knew nothing. Some wanted to know the history of sex in space. Whether we had spoken with Britney, whether sex would be permitted between the two pop stars. And how much the flight would cost the stars. Twenty million? Forty million dollars?
One of the entertainment producers gushed that the event, if true, would be a bigger media crunch than “the Beatles invasion.” There was no success in getting the business reporters and television producers and big-show researchers interested in the more important story: why was MirCorp working with Russians, and not with NASA?
Put another way, why did Lance Bass have to come to Russia? Or John Denver? Or Radio Shack, which was filming a commercial on the Russian side of the new international space station. And now maybe Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears? To all the reporters I wondered aloud just why did the United States balk at allowing classical American commercial activities, whether advertising or entertainment into the frontier of outer space.
Just how did it come about that we owe it to the Russians for showing that capitalism and tourists can thrive, like dogs, monkeys, yeast cells and fighter jocks in the zero-gravity of the space station. My ruminations fell on very deaf ears. All during that snowy February night the reporters, the researchers, the producers, just wanted to know if there would finally be sex in space. And by morning, I was a bit curious myself.
The Britney Spears story faded away in a day or so. I never learned where it came from, but was forced to spend several long meetings with my Russian colleagues explaining to them what the fuss was all about. Even the head of Energia, Yuri Semenov, called me into his office with Victor Legostaev to discuss Timberlake, Spears and Lance Bass.
The whole situation was frustrating, as no reporter took my bait that frantic evening, meaning that the paradox of Americans trekking to Russia as a commercial gateway to the space frontier remained unexamined by our media and more importantly, by us.
It is a discussion that we must have.
America has spent over $100 billion dollars building a space station that more than likely we did not need. We have spent an equal sum on a transportation system so flawed that the weak links were identified by journalists before the first launch. Not to mention two tragic accidents. Even today, $200 billion is a large sum to have wasted.
Sure its fun to think about Britney Spears or Timberlake having sex in space, but it’s also critical that we develop the right mix of government oversight and private initiative that allows space exploration to be an extension of who we are. Just as the Internet has unleashed a powerful explosion of very democratic values through social networking, decentralization of news and elimination of geographical boundaries, so will private sector space exploration cause a similar social disruption.
The good news is that we seem to have almost figured it out. Private companies today are developing innovative space projects with the assistance and support of NASA. But forgotten is that industry and entrepreneurs grew so frustrated that it took entrepreneurial Americans and powerful Russians working side by side to launch American style capitalism into outer space, all against the frantic opposition of NASA.
How we got to this point is a hell of a story, filled with all sorts of colorful, stubborn and some very smart characters. None more unusual than Energia’s head, Yuri Semenov, who for much of the 1990’s was my boss. The other major character in this story is the Mir space station itself.
The Mir was born in the Cold war to the secretive Soviets, morphing in the late 1980’s into a symbol of perestroika, then reincarnated as a platform for Russian economic reform, next a run-down mockery of all that was then wrong with the Russian society of the mid-1990’s and for a brief tantalizing moment, right near the end of the decade, the Mir became a beacon on the long-sought path to commercial markets and competition into outer space.
It is this final reincarnation of Mir that I chose to remember.
By a series of circumstances outlined in the book, I was present at many of the key milestones as Americans came to grips with the paradox of having to journey through Russia to find our own way in the space frontier. This is my recounting of what I saw, filled no doubt with my own biases and opinions.
Let’s start at the very beginning, when a Boston company took the first steps to circumvent the NASA monopoly on manned exploitation of space. Why the company took that fateful step, and the consequences that rippled out across the American political landscape, is the tale of this book.