Selling Their Way to Space

By Jeffrey Weiss

Staff Writer of The Dallas Morning News

Copyright © 1995 Dallas Morning News

Used with permission.

The next lunar explorers may owe less to trailblazing Christopher Columbus and more to champion hypester P.T. Barnum.

Texas-based entrepreneurs planning the first permanent moon base say they have hit on a novel scheme to finance their $1.4 billion private project.

"We plan to pay for the initial stages of the project though shameless commercialism," said Gregory Bennett, president of Lunar Resources Co.

The special genius of his plan, he says, is to cover the startup costs through movies, cartoons, kid's toys, computer games and assorted other moon-based doodads.

Mr. Bennett fits Hollywood's image of the Good Scientist: balding, bearded, bespectacled and with an almost childlike enthusiasm for his work.

By day, he supervises testing of a full-scale mockup of Space Station Alpha for one of NASA's prime contractors at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

His spare time is devoted to The Artemis Project, named after the Greek goddess of the moon. He and a team of about two dozen people -- including other NASA-linked space scientists -- are burning up the Internet computer web.

Their recipe is equal parts space opera, Madison Avenue and enthusiastic devotion to making money. Using off-the-shelf technology from Apollo and other NASA programs, they say they can do it more cheaply than the government yet without a dime from Uncle Sam -- with a little help from millions of moonstruck consumers.

Or maybe not. Even some who wish them well consider Artemis to be wildly improbable moonbeam engineering.

"For the most part, I think their idea is rather scatterbrained," said Dwayne Day, an analyst for the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. "I think people can, at times, be excited by this stuff. But overall? No."

But the first stockholders' meeting is set for next month in Houston. This month, Artemis signed up an editor for a glossy, full-color magazine scheduled for start-up by the end of the year.

Members of the Artemis team bet they'll have products they can sell to people who don't care much about lunar exploration. But they're hoping the real human adventure at the project's core will catch the public's imagination and send sales soaring, well, to the moon.

"Technically, it's pretty clear it's possible," said Geoffrey Landis, another rocket scientist and an adviser to Lunar Resources. "The question is, is it seriously possible to make a profit?"

Some on the team, including Mr. Bennett, are successful writers and editors of science and science fiction. Others are small-business owners, marketing consultants, retired military fliers, or simply space flight aficionados. They are linked by e-mail from Texas to Ohio to California to North Dakota.

None has ever done anything remotely like running a billion-dollar company.

"Some folks enjoy the challenge of a new video game. For others, it's striving to trim a few strokes from that golf score," Mr. Bennett said. "And for some of us, it's a matter of finding out if we can get a few million people together and blaze a trail into the universe."

Money-making space schemes predate the first manned launch: Construction of huge power-beaming satellites. Asteroid and lunar mining. Low-gravity manufacturing.

Advocates tout potential profits in the tens of billions of dollars 30 or 40 years down the road.

The prospect of waiting half a lifetime tends to discourage investors, most of whom want to see some return in two or three years.

The Artemis solution: sell the project as spectacle.

"If you talk to enough audiences, you realize that, to the normal person out there, the space program is just a form of entertainment," Mr. Bennett said.

Some of the products Artemis wants to sell would be rooted in reality: Books, films and CD-ROMs on the project itself. TV rights. Licensing of "official" foods, drinks or shoes.

Other products would be connected to Artemis only in the way the TV show Bonanza was tied to the cattle business: games, books, movies, action figures and other toys based loosely on lunar exploration.

"Something like this can work," said Steve Jackson, whose Austin- based SJ Games grossed about $2.5 million last year and who is interested in designing Artemis-related games. "There's honest-to- goodness potential there."

Last year alone, about 350 private companies asked the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for help and approval for NASA-related products -- from Astronaut Barbie to a special prize in the Cracker Jack box.

"Our policy is to help private industry to turn the space frontier into places people can live and work," NASA spokesman Bryan Welch said. "The sky is the limit when you talk about spaceflight. But it's a tough, tough arena."

Over the years, NASA scientists have produced several plans for potential moonbases, but they were never funded, and no government action was taken.

Artemis is drawing from those public records, but it is not receiving government funding.

The Artenauts acknowledge the difficulties in finding success, but see the potential already tapped by the entertainment industry: Computer games of all kinds grossed $9 billion in 1994, according to industry analysts. The Sci-Fi Channel will be in 18 million cable- equipped homes by the end of March.

Star Trek, the SF world's top franchise, grossed more than $700 million on six movies. Trek-based products grossed more than $750 million over the past five years. Not to mention the money made by the four TV shows.

But for every Star Wars blockbuster, there's a Last Action Hero bomb.

"One of the things I will have to see before putting any money into Artemis is to see this core of highly motivated dreamers hire business operatives chosen for their track record," said Mr. Jackson of SJ Games.

Dr. Jerry Pournelle, a successful science fiction author and columnist for Byte magazine, would love to see people back on the moon but is skeptical about Artemis.

"Yes, it is possible that this is the time for a bold, new venture," he said. "Whether they can raise the needed capital doing it the way they plan is not so clear."

The Artemis mission plan looks a lot like the Apollo lunar landings: Artemis rents the hold of the space shuttle, or some other launch vehicle, to send a smaller rocket and other equipment into earth orbit. The package is assembled and launched to the moon.

Once in lunar orbit, the Artenauts land with what will become the lunar base, explore for a while, fly back to their orbiting return vehicle, and head for home.

The biggest difference with Apollo is that the Artemis crew would leave behind a fully powered base awaiting the next crew. The challenge remains in finding ways to make the base itself a commercial success, beyond the inevitably declining entertainment value.

The earliest target date for the first Artemis mission is 2003. Mr. Bennett and his colleagues say they have time to work on that next step.

Meanwhile, designers are working on models in California, trading cards in Seattle and video games in Missouri. Details are being hashed out in cyberspace.

"And really soon," Mr. Bennett said, "we'll have a nice coffee cup with the `Moonbase Artemis: It's not just a dream any more' logo on it. Because I want one."