At the height of his fame as a member of the internationally famous boy band NSYNC, Lance Bass came within about two weeks of going to space in 2002.
Bass had completed four months of rigorous training in Russia’s Star City during the spring and summer of that year, learning Russian and passing several challenging pre-launch tests. The plan was to fly up to the International Space Station on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft alongside two cosmonauts and spend about 10 days in orbit.
This was not a well-trodden path, especially for a 23-year-old musician who would have been by far the youngest person to fly into space. By mid-2002, only two wealthy businessmen, Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth, had ever taken privately paid trips to space.
Since Bass could not independently finance the trip, he worked with Hollywood filmmakers. As Bass trained, a production team in Hollywood attempted to line up about $20 million in promotional financing to pay for the trip. Ultimately, this would be the adventure’s undoing.
Where’s the money?
“There were a lot of problems with Russia and Hollywood in trying to make this happen,” Bass said during a recent interview with Ars. “There were even a couple of weekends that I would get kicked off the base in Russia. They would put a gun to my head and be like, ‘Where’s the money? Where’s the money?'”
Bass did not know. The international superstar just wanted to go to space, and he was doing everything in his power to get to his goal by studying hard and putting his body through innumerable medical tests. When one medical exam showed an irregular heartbeat, Bass underwent surgery to fix it.
After final negotiations over funding broke down in September, Bass was told he wouldn’t be going to space. The call came just days before he was due to fly to the launch site in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, for final preparations.
“It was crushing,” Bass said. “Especially spending that many hours doing something you’re so passionate about. And I didn’t really know what was happening because when I was training at Zvyozdny Gorodok (the Russian name for Star City) I didn’t know what was happening in the outside world. There was a single phone line that no one ever called me on. There was no Internet. So it was just very disappointing.”
Bass had become infatuated with space as a kid, at the age of 9, when his parents drove the family from Mississippi to see a space shuttle launch from Kennedy Space Center. He thought he would become an engineer, and that was the plan right up until 1995 when he was 16 years old.
“Justin Timberlake called me and gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Bass said. “I wasn’t even in college yet. I was a high school junior getting ready to go into science and math. But Justin called me one day and said, ‘Hey, we’re putting this band together. We need a bass singer. Would you like to move to Orlando and sing with us?’ And I loved entertainment at that time, so my whole plans changed.”
Since his failed attempt to go into space, Bass has maintained some involvement in the industry. He is a member of the National Space Society’s board of governors, for example. And he would still like to go to space one day—but not just for a few minutes. Although riding on a Virgin Orbit or Blue Origin spacecraft would be a “fun rollercoaster ride,” Bass said he wants to conduct scientific experiments in orbit. So if there’s a medical company out there that needs an astronaut to work for it in low-Earth orbit, Bass says he’s ready to go.
The Last Soviet
This month, however, Bass has planted his flag firmly back in the space community with the release of a new podcast called The Last Soviet. Bass hosts the eight-part podcast, which brings to life the experience of cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who was in space when the Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991. He ended up flying an extended mission on the Mir space station—311 days—so that ground controllers could ensure the facility continued flying despite the chaos on the ground.
Krikalev is probably the most interesting Russian cosmonaut of all time, aside from his hero, Yuri Gagarin. Now 64, Krikalev has spent more than 800 days in space, was one of the first Russians to fly on the space shuttle, and was a member of the first expedition to the International Space Station. Today, Krikalev is more relevant than ever, leading Russia’s crewed spaceflight programs and providing a vital, trusted link between NASA and Russia’s space program at a time of high tension between the two countries on Earth.
At the time of my interview with Bass, only the first episode of the podcast had been released. It largely covers the experiences of Gagarin, while setting the stage for Krikalev’s exceptional mission during the fall of the Soviet Union. I found it excellent and am eager to hear the remaining episodes.
If there is one disappointment, it’s that Krikalev is not a participant. Bass said a series of interviews was arranged last year but was canceled after Russia invaded Ukraine.
“It’s a huge disappointment,” Bass said. “He was ready to do this podcast, and I wanted to hear it straight from him. We, of course, have all his colleagues and friends, and we have the story down to a tee. But just hearing his voice in a new interview would have been great. And just to be able to talk to him myself would have been really fun.”