Sending e-mail into the galaxy

Larry Klaes (lklaes@bbn.com)
Mon, 02 Aug 1999 17:33:08 -0400

http://www10.bentspace.com/

http://www.space.com/business/novelty_space.html

Space Messengers Offer Eternity For a Fee

                                   By Daniel Sorid
                                   Staff Writer

                                   Aug 02 1999 11:38:34 ET 

You send an e-mail to a computer in Davis, California. It, in turn, forwards the message to another computer a few feet away.

It sure doesnít seem like anything to pay $10.95 for.

But Greg Snow, 40, president of Bentspace.com, is hoping youíll give him your credit card number for the opportunity.

The catch: as that computer passes your message along, itís doing so with a parabolic antenna that also hurtles the signal, and your message, into space.

Snow calls it "a gateway to the cosmos."

The space-related novelty gift industry has traditionally thrived on trinkets, like astronaut pens and patches, and mock real estate deeds to cosmic bodies.

But a new breed of companies that promise to send your name, message, or image to space, has recently begun popping up.

Space messaging companies hope to capitalize on the mystique of space and a human desire for adventure and eternity. The appeal of signing oneís name across a pioneering space mission, or having a personal signal travelling the heavens in perpetuity, has caught the attention of entrepreneurs.

There's also the hope that a faraway being may someday come decode the messages.

"I think itís human nature to want to leave your mark on the
cosmos," Snow says. "Itís a message in a bottle."

In July, Dojin Limited purchased room for its "digital passenger" CD-ROMs on what could be the first private-sector space exploration mission. For $54.95, Dojin will save your photo and some text onto the CD-ROM, which will travel with the spacecraft to a near-Earth asteroid.

"Represent the human race," its Web page coos. "Your place in
eternity awaits you."

But profits are still to come. Snow and his four partners, for instance, have shelled out about $70,000 for Bentspace. If itís any indication of hopes for success, Snow hasn't quit his day job.

"I have no expectation, I really donít," says Snow, who also
runs an online computer shop. "My experience with the Internet leads me to not even know. Weíll see if it does capture the publicís imagination."

Dojin President Richard Barrett III says the company has already made several thousand sales, but needs 10,000 to break even.

Another space messaging project begun by French artist Jean-Marc Philippe offers to put your message, in digital form, on a capsule that would be launched in 2001 and programmed to return to Earth 50,000 years later.

Unlike the others, KEO, as the mission is called, is free.

Phillipe writes on KEOís Web site that he hopes the mission will serve as a "globally appealing metaphor that would help ignite Ö universal reflection."

Fifty-thousand years, he adds, is "a distance in time that is so vertiginous and mind-boggling that it compels us to abandon our normal points of reference and puts us all on equal footing, forcing us to reach down into our imaginations or deep convictions."

To a degree, KEO has succeeded. The mission has drawn entries from 86 countries, and has been featured by CNN, Reuters, and Discover magazine.

NASA also offers its own program, plainly named "Send Your Name to Mars." On a special Web page, you can have your name included on a CD-ROM that will travel on NASAís Mars Explorer mission, scheduled for 2001.

Like KEO, itís free. But there is some question about how that one is going to work. It seems the data on NASAís CD-ROM will be destroyed by solar radiation unless it is shielded, and no decision on that has been made just yet.

The space agency may have been the first to complete this kind of mission. On January 3, 1999, NASA sent more than 930,000 names on a CD it attached to its Mars Polar Lander.

That mission proved that message-bearing spacecraft appeal to more than just space buffs and science fiction devotees. NASAís offering, which was initially geared towards kids, was opened to all after adults started bombarding the site with requests, according to John Lee, the administrator of the program.

Such broad interest may explain why for-profit companies are sprouting despite competition with free programs with virtually the same offerings.

Still, space messaging is, in essence, a specially-marketed variant of modern-day electronics. Many phone and television signals use satellites for transmission; a satellite used for Internet service may even have brought you the words of this article.

But this hasnít stopped Bentspace, which sends its first message on August 17. As for why anyone would pay $10.95 to send some bytes of data into space, the company curtly replies:

"Each of us will have our own reason. And that's reason enough."

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                related links

                Bentspace.com

                Dojin Limited

                KEO

                NASA's Send Your Name to Mars