MOSCOW — The Russian-built Zvezda ("star") space module, scheduled to blast off for the International Space Station early this morning, has been the butt of endless mutterings over its two-year delay and billions in cost overruns.
But a potentially more controversial issue, which hit the eye as the ship was unveiled yesterday at the Baikonur cosmodrome launch site in Kazakhstan, is the 30-foot high Pizza Hut logo stamped on its booster rocket - right where one might more readily expect a hammer and sickle.
The ex-Soviet space program, originally designed to bury capitalism, is fast becoming Russia's most visible shop window.
Four years ago, PepsiCo Inc. paid the cash-strapped Russians $5 million to inflate a huge replica of a soda can outside the Mir space station. Russia's Space Agency reportedly is negotiating a $400,000 deal with the Italian fashion house of Donatella Versace to design preflight uniforms, training suits, and lounge wear for future Russian cosmonauts. Of course, the gear would all have the Versace label prominently displayed.
"Advertising is the way to finance everything these days, why should space be different?" asks Sergei Zhiltsov, spokesman for MPO Proton, makers of the booster rocket. "Hopefully, this will become a major source of funding for our industry. The state can no longer afford to pay, and probably it shouldn't have to anyway."
The aging Mir space station, lofted by the Soviet Union in 1986, has already gone commercial. Earlier this year the Russian Space Agency closed a $100 million deal with the Netherlands-based MirCorp to develop the station as a high-end tourist resort. Last month, the company announced the first cosmic guest: US businessman Dennis Tito is already training in Star City, near Moscow, for a trip to the orbiting hotel sometime in 2001. Mr. Tito is reportedly paying $20 million for the ultimate getaway vacation.
Pizza Hut, by contrast, reportedly paid about $1 million for the Zvezda ad (less than half the cost of the average 30-second Super Bowl spot). The logo dominates the 200-foot Proton rocket and will be seen by a vast audience on TV newsclips and Internet coverage of the July 12 launch. "This is one small step for mankind, but a giant leap for our Pizza Hut turnaround," says a company press release. The international restaurant chain is in the midst of a $500 million campaign to update its image.
The firm is also guaranteeing delivery for the "first pizza party in space" when three astronauts visit the space station later this year.
The 24-ton Zvezda module, Russia's contribution to the 16-country International Space Station, is meant to be the living quarters and laboratory for teams of astronauts who will rotate through the station in years to come.
Due to Russia's perpetual cash crunch, and the crashes of two other Proton rockets, the project is at least two years behind schedule. The delays have inflicted some $3 billion in extra costs on its partners, or about 5 percent of the total $60 billion space station budget.
"Russia has had great difficulty fulfilling its obligations to the international space station project, and that's why we've had to turn to novel forms of fundraising," says Gennady Savasteyev, deputy head of the Russian parliament's space commission. "We are opening up an area that was previously closed to business. Space is becoming just another market. We hope this Pizza Hut deal is just the beginning."
Not everyone is so enthusiastic. The Moscow business daily Kommersant alleged last week that barely 15 percent of the money from the Pizza Hut promotion actually reached the people who build and operate space equipment. The remainder was siphoned off by the US and Russian advertising firms that set up the deal, the paper said. The Russian Space Agency declined comment.
"The commercialization of the space program is a moral disaster for Russia," says Andrei Vaganov, science editor of the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "This is a national project, sponsored by the Russian people, which is being turned into an opportunity for money-grubbing by unscrupulous people."
Ironically, even Russia's former cold war adversaries in the capitalist camp are looking somewhat askance at the spectacle of a giant Pizza Hut billboard headed skyward. "We have our own commercialization plan at NASA," says Carlos Fontanot, spokesman for the US space agency's Moscow office. "But we wouldn't do it the way the Russians are headed."
A Coca-Cola logo on a space shuttle, perhaps? "No, never," he says firmly.
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