NASA Goes Hollywood?

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Even in a town that's seen it all, the pitch being shopped around Hollywood seemed almost too good to be true. An astro-tribe of 20 strangers would go through weeks of grueling astronaut training, competing on prime-time, network TV for a chance to fly in space. An identical deal had just been inked by NBC, but the winner of that competition would be rocketing off to Russia's rust-bucket Mir space station. The new show's winner would be riding in comparative luxury aboard NASA's spanking new--if eternally under-construction--International Space Station.

The Survivor-in-space show was being pitched by Dreamtime Holdings, a Silicon Valley media company that had already signed an agreement with NASA to fly high-definition TV equipment aboard the space station and then market the images that were produced. With NASA apparently behind Dreamtime's new idea, no fewer than three major networks--CBS, ABC and Fox--were said to be interested.

The only problem was, someone forgot to tell NASA. No sooner did the story break than the space agency issued a flurry of statements insisting that the show was not under consideration. There was something, however, in the nondenial tone of the denials coming out of NASA last week and the week before that raised eyebrows. Yes, Dreamtime was authorized to come up with "outside-the-box" ideas, the space agency admitted--just not this one.

How did NASA even get involved in this kind of private-sector silliness? How did the agency that made its name in the heady days of John Glenn and Neil Armstrong get mixed up with the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Michael Eisner? Part of the problem may be that NASA has simply put too many of its budgetary eggs in the space-station basket--scrapping in the meantime a number of smaller, worthier projects like its long-dreamed-of mission to Pluto (see box). As public interest in the giant orbiting construction project continues to wane, NASA has grown increasingly desperate for a hit. The flap over the TV show may be a cautionary tale of what can happen when an agency that once cared only about aiming for the stars makes the mistake of trying to become one.

The trouble started several weeks back when Dreamtime reps--led by CEO Bill Foster--made the rounds in Hollywood for a series of high-level pitch meetings. If there's one thing that defines the way entertainment-industry suits conduct business, it's the pitch meeting, where high-concept ideas (think Die Hard meets Sense and Sensibility) get tossed about, directors' names are freely floated, and stars are vaguely said to be "attached." Into this fantasy factory stepped Foster--who previously worked as a furniture maker, a graphic designer and a vice president at Excite.com, before striking out on his own and founding Dreamtime this year.

Foster's mandate in his deal with NASA was a broad one. In addition to creating and selling space images, he was supposed to come up with ways to help get the public involved in space and make the beleaguered agency seem exciting again. "We want them to come up with great ideas," says Patty Reilly, who works in NASA's office of space travel and commercialization. Says Foster: "We have an agreement to pitch a lot of crazy things."

According to television executives, Dreamtime's craziest idea was the NASA-sponsored Survivor-in-space scheme. The show Foster's team described was identical to NBC's Mir project--which was produced by Mark Burnett, the producer of Survivor--except for the use of NASA's $100 billion space station and its vaunted Houston-based training facilities. The winning contestant in both shows would be fired into orbit aboard a Russian rocket launched from Russian soil since, as Foster explained during the meetings, launching nonastronauts is both against NASA policy and illegal in the U.S. The executives bored in, wondering why any network should sign on to his proposed deal if NBC already had the reality-TV space market sewn up. The answer to that one was obvious: because Burnett was in bed with the notoriously unreliable Russians, while Dreamtime had NASA...well, attached.

While Foster did not explicitly say that the space agency had signed off on the idea, the networks came away with the distinct impression he could deliver. Foster did concede that he wouldn't know NASA's official position for a few days, but whether that meant the agency bosses were actually contemplating the show or that Foster was merely hoping for a thumbs-up from Hollywood so he could persuade them to do so was unclear. "We were doing something we were supposed to be doing," says Foster, "throwing ideas around."

Apparently, he threw too hard. When the story of the possible TV show leaked to the New York Times, NASA moved fast to squelch it, denying that it would ever use priceless American space assets so frivolously. The agency's statements were carefully parsed, but it seemed clear that Foster had been quietly taken to the woodshed. "Dreamtime jumped the gun," says Peggy Wilhide, NASA's public-affairs chief. "They're new, enthusiastic and eager to do great things for us. There are no hard feelings, and the misunderstanding has been resolved."

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