All Space, All the Time

Is NASA ready for prime time?

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A new venture called Dreamtime finds itself in much the same predicament. The San Francisco-based company owes its existence to NASA’s desire to have someone else take over much of its multimedia service, including digitizing its vast photo collection. Shrewdly merging the worlds of Silicon Valley and NASA, Dreamtime won a highly prized contract  last year to partner with NASA on a range of products, including television programs.

The newly formed company beat out 12 others, including, largely on the strength of its track record in the new economy (the founders had created the Excite@Home Web site). Dreamtime promised to invest up to $100 million on such innovations as high-definition TV, and claimed it would provide the public with its most detailed pictures yet of the space station.

More than a year later, the project remained in the development stages, and NASA’s inspector general was asking rude questions about whether the whole deal was too favorable to Dreamtime. Some speculate it will never happen.

Dan Tam, NASA’s commercialization czar, understands the pessimism. “They should be skeptical,” he says. “This is a startup, and there’s no guarantee it will be successful.” Bill Foster, Dreamtime’s CEO, remains hopeful. In fact, to feel his salesman’s energy and enthusiasm is to wonder if the doubters have ever spent any time in his company. “It’s our belief that space can be turned into education and entertainment and be profitable too,” he says. He points to a television program Dreamtime is developing, an “incredible kids’ show” with characters who can “interact with you in real-time. You may call this educational. Somebody may call it a game show or a video game or whatever…. There are no boundaries. Why should there be?” The program will air on NASA Television, he says. Eight or nine other Dreamtime projects are in the works, ranging from documentaries to TV game shows. For Foster, and for NASA too, the programs are more than just entertainment; they’re promotional tools. “The question,” says Foster, “is how are we gonna get a generation of kids who never saw Neil Armstrong and who play video games all day to see the importance of space and science?”

Sending them into orbit is one way, but most of us don’t have Dennis Tito’s millions. So until the price of a ticket comes down a bit, we may have to count on Foster, James Cameron, and the rest of the entertainment industry to take the trip for us, and give us a vicarious sense of what it’s like.

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