For many, it was the mother of all vacations, a middle-aged millionaire buying himself the ultimate joyride. U.S. businessman Dennis Tito’s tour of the International Space Station last April was also a certifiable pop culture event, and the media coverage it engendered, from launch to Letterman, should come as no surprise. Interest in space travel, after all, is not limited to the very rich, and media executives are always looking to satisfy (read: sell to) their audience.
If this desire for more direct access to space is not quite welcome news at NASA, which was furious at Tito for forcing his visit at so early a time in station operations (and the nerve of him to hook up with the Russians!), neither is it really news. For the last several years the space agency has been changing—some say reluctantly—the way it gets its message out to the public. Or rather, how it allows others to get the message out.
It started with Hollywood. NASA has permitted a growing number of film directors to use machinery that was once the exclusive domain of real astronauts. Ron Howard filmed parts of Apollo 13 aboard a KC-135 airplane NASA uses for weightlessness training, while Clint Eastwood slipped into the agency’s gigantic water-filled neutral-buoyancy tank to shoot parts of last year’s Space Cowboys.
Nor is it unthinkable anymore that film crews will go beyond simulations. Titanic director James Cameron has made no secret of his desire to send himself on the ultimate location shoot, and has approached NASA administrator Dan Goldin about visiting the International Space Station. In fact, the Canadian-born director has become, for Goldin, a kind of anti-Tito—willing to let the agency dictate when he might fly and under what terms. Speaking before a Congressional committee in May, as pictures of a gleeful Tito were being beamed back to Earth, the administrator said pointedly that Cameron understands “the right way and the wrong way to do things,” and was willing to wait until the space station partners work out a policy for allowing tourists on the orbiting outpost. No deal has been struck, but Cameron is already mulling over what he’d like to do if he gets up there: a documentary on the space station, maybe, or shooting footage to support his pet project—a series of productions about future human missions to Mars. Rae Sanchini, president of Lightstorm Entertainment, Cameron’s production company, says the director “would see it as a working trip. He hopes to capture imagery that will excite people about the potential for space exploration, since he’s such a believer that it’s a critical part of man’s destiny.”
Also hoping to excite the masses and rack up big ratings is Brainpool Television in Cologne, Germany, which envisions a reality-based TV show called “Space Commander,” whereby players would compete for a seven-day trip to orbit. Mark Burnett, the producer of the hit series “Survivor,” had originally intended for his follow-up effort to be called “Destination: Mir.” The Russian station’s fiery fall to Earth earlier this year nixed that plan, and Burnett was forced to settle on the Australian Outback. But he hasn’t altogether scrapped his plans for another reality-based space show, called “Destination: Space.” And amazingly, the idea no longer seems all that farfetched.
Of course, rocket ships and space shuttles always seemed to have been lifted straight from a movie screen anyway. Even the theatrical suspense of the “3-2-1”countdown, a staple of rocket launches since the beginning of the Space Age, originated not with an engineer but with a silent film, Fritz Lang’s 1928 Woman in the Moon. What’s new is that NASA has become more comfortable exploiting the connection between technology and entertainment.
The Toronto-based IMAX company, which has been producing space-based documentaries filmed by shuttle astronauts since 1984, pioneered this fusion with films like 1985’s The Dream Is Alive, a 37-minute tribute to the space shuttle. But distribution has been limited to large-format theaters, such as the one at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. And even though IMAX has settled into a steady relationship with NASA—the company is already shooting film aboard the International Space Station—the involvement of partners like the Museum has lent the company’s space films the sober aura of public information rather than show biz.
However, the climate really started changing at NASA in 1992, when Goldin took over as Administrator. At the time, says Keith Cowing, a former agency scientist who now edits a savvy insider’s Web site called nasawatch.com, “NASA needed to be shaken out of its complacency. Many sacred cows needed to be slaughtered.” Dan Tam, who heads NASA’s commercialization office, remembers Goldin issuing an early manifesto claiming that “We have not done a very good job in communicating with the rest of the world.” Alan Ladwig, who left his job as the head of NASA’s policy office in 1999 to help launch a Web site-cum-space entertainment company called space.com and has since gone on to become a consultant, says, “One of the things Goldin recognized is that you need public support. The question is: How do you get that support?”
An ardent Trekkie, the new administrator turned to the entertainment industry. Goldin created a previously unheard-of role at NASA—that of Hollywood liaison—and in 1997 hired Bobbie Faye Ferguson, a former actress with connections to the Clinton White House, as the director of multimedia services. Ferguson brought a Rolodex filled with show business contacts. Only a few years earlier, NASA had been a reluctant player, but under her direction, it began seeking out Hollywood as a potential partner.
The ending of the cold war had brought a decline of spy films, but as one genre died, another was born. The movie industry could hardly believe its good fortune. Says one producer, “Hey, if [NASA] wants to work with us, great. You’d be crazy to turn that down.” By the late 1990s, the studios were starting to churn out stories about space adventures and heroes, from Armageddon to Deep Impact to Mission to Mars.