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NASA launches space-age advertising


NEW YORK -- When the first U.S. commercial rocket lifts off in May, its payload will be emblazoned with the cryptic message, "Last Action Hero."

A warning to space aliens? A pessimistic comment on the future of space exploration?

How about a commercial for an Arnold Schwarzenegger film?

Improbable but true, the rocket's payload will carry the title of Mr. Schwarzenegger's action adventure, while the four boosters will be graced with the star's long name.

The unlikely advertising venue came about when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's commercial arm -- Commercial Experimental Transport, or COMET -- decided to defray costs of its first commercial launch by renting space to advertisers. After intense bidding, COMET announced yesterday that Columbia Pictures and its new film had won.

The movie company is to pay COMET $500,000 as well as the proceeds of a call-in campaign, in which people are urged to call and record a message that will be sent into space.

The calls will cost $3.50 each.

Callers will also be entered in a sweepstakes for the chance to push the launch button -- possibly with Mr. Schwarzenegger.

Up to 3 million calls are expected, which would generate about $10 million. The May launch is due to cost $30 million, COMET spokesman Michael Parver said.

"The idea is to cover some of the costs and get children interested in space exploration. If we don't get children interested, space exploration will come to a screeching halt in a few years," Mr. Parver said.

The mission is to carry out 11 experiments in space, which NASA and many industries believe have commercial uses.

Some of the experiments include growing plants and crystals, which scientists believe develop differently in the near-weightlessness found in a craft orbiting the earth.

The research will be a partnership between universities and private companies, such as Boeing Co., Merck & Co., and Martin Marietta Corp.

Future flights are to include experiments devised by the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University.

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