Twenty years ago, their three-time Grammy-nominated sophomore record No Strings Attached smashed sales records, moving a phenomenal 2.4 million units in its first week. And while the success was swiftly followed up with 2001’s Celebrity, shortly after that record’s tour, an emotional earthquake hit the boy band loving world when the group announced a hiatus in 2002.

While the break was never intended to evolve into a long-term split, ultimately, it parted Lance Bass, Justin Timberlake, Joey Fatone, Chris Kirkpatrick and JC Chasez professionally for good. In the years since, many have blamed Timberlake’s pursual of a solo career for the disbandment, however several other factors played a part, according to many close to the band.

ET Canada talked to musicians and executives who worked with the boy band about what might have really been to blame for the split, then put the theories to Bass, who dished on how his projects outside of the group, struggles with his sexuality, and Timberlake’s solo career impacted the fivesome.

For musician Alex Greggs, who co-wrote and produced several NSA tracks and lived with Chasez, the hiatus and any subsequent solo aspirations were kicked into higher gear when Bass announced he needed time off for a space mission.

“People think Justin was like, ‘That’s it, I’m done. I’m the one everyone’s looking at so I’m going off on my own,’ but it was quite the opposite because not once had JC or Justin ever asked me about doing other songs,” Greggs says. “There was never any hint of [solo music] until Lance came into the room and said, ‘I’m going into space, so we’ll need a year off.’ I’m sure it was on Justin’s and JC’s minds though because as soon as Lance said it, that night, they were like, ‘I have some ideas I’d love to put on tape.’”

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The moment proved a “fork in the road” for Greggs. He says after promising Chasez he would dedicate his spare time to helping him lay down the tracks he had brewing in his head, he was then approached by Timberlake with a similar request.

“We were at Roxy nightclub in Orlando and Justin came up and said the same thing: ‘I want to put some songs down – do you have time?’ I was like, ‘I just told JC the spare time I have is going to him, so you might have to wait.’ I had to pick one or the other and since me and JC were closer and I had committed already, I went with it. It’s been a regret for a long time that I didn’t do both!”

Greggs notes that the band were all on the same page about the hiatus and had every intention to “pick up where we left off” afterwards. He further clarifies that the music Timberlake and Chasez expressed interest in recording could well have ended up on future *NSYNC albums had the group continued. “They never said the word ‘solo’ – it was just that they were now going to have time and had songs in their heads they wanted to get out.”

However, he believes that time gave Timberlake and Chasez the opportunity to deeply ponder any solo aspirations and sure enough, a few months later the term ‘solo album’ started coming up. Furthermore, boy bands had started waning in popularity prompting the group to consider “leaving while we’re on top.”

For Barry Weiss, who was president of the group’s label, Jive Records, at the time, Timberlake truly started considering a solo career when Bass and Fatone took roles in the 2001 rom com, On the Line. Bass addressed the project in his 2007 book Out of Sync, writing that Timberlake stated he “didn’t think any of us was operating in the best interest of the band.”

“I asked him what he meant by that, and he said, ‘Well, you know, when y’all did your movie,’ meaning Joey and me … I couldn’t believe it,” Bass wrote.

“I think something that had a lot to do with the break was when Lance did On the Line,” says Weiss, now CEO of RECORDS. “That gave Justin a lot of time to think. I think that was a strategic error on the band’s part and ultimately what broke the group up.”

“I’m not sure anybody would ever acknowledge that and it’s just my assessment from a bird’s-eye view, but I believe when Lance and Joey did that movie, it created a space of time which gave Justin the chance to really think about what he wanted to do with his life and his ultimate conclusion was that he wanted to go solo. I strongly believe had that movie not happened, there would’ve been at least one, if not two, more *NSYNC albums.”

So, what does Bass have to say about all this?

In his early 20s and struggling with his sexuality at the time, the 40-year-old musician reflects that he was purposely taking on multiple projects outside of *NSYNC as a distraction. However, as far as he recalls, the group had already agreed upon a six-month hiatus when he was invited to join the 2002 Russian mission to the International Space Station.

“I think it was super-important back then to have my brain go to different places, when it came to time off from *NSYNC,” he says. “Films and all these other things I was interested in were like my release, especially because I was in the closet. Whenever we had a week off, I wasn’t going home with anyone and I needed an excuse to not have a girlfriend and for me, that was to dive into other work things.”

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“But how the hiatus started was simple,” he continues. “We felt burnt out, we hadn’t taken a break and Justin started the idea by saying, ‘I know we’re taking a little break and I’d like to try a solo album on our break.’ We were all very supportive. To me, any side project only looks good for our group. He was like, ‘I don’t know if it’s going to be successful or if anyone’s even going to care, but I want to do some solo stuff and I’m going to need six months to do that.’ We were like, ‘That’s great. We have six months to find ourselves, write for the next album and get settled and rested.’”

Bass says it was at that point that he was invited on the space mission. Conscious of *NSYNC’s plans to reconvene on Nov. 1, 2002, Bass said he could only take the mission if he made it back in time.

“I was like, ‘November 1 is the day I have to get back to record this album, so if you can get me to space within six months, let’s do it.’ They guaranteed they could, so I went into training,” Bass says. “Then that mission got cancelled and when we got back November 1, Justin’s stuff just started blowing up and there was no way he was going to be able to maintain that momentum and do another *NSYNC album. He was just getting bigger and bigger.”

Regardless of what or who bore the seeds of the group’s eventual split, there’s one factor most people agree on – that the young musicians needed time off in the wake of NSA’s phenomenal success.

“I think it was a relief for everyone,” Greggs says. “If they weren’t doing a show, they were rehearsing, and their rehearsal sessions were eight hours long, so between rehearsing, shows and recording, they had no time. They were getting worn out.’”

Weiss agrees the quintet were “burnt out, touring a lot and tired,” while Joe Riccitelli, who was working as Senior Vice President of Promotions at Jive Records at the time, believes there was also a strong element of the fivesome outgrowing each other as “teenage boys became men.”

“I don’t think it was anything more than that,” says Riccitelli, who still works with Timberlake at RCA Records. “There was never any animosity between any of the guys. I was in the dressing rooms and hung out with them a lot and never felt any. I think it was a natural life story of a teenager becoming a man. In those years, it’s natural to go, ‘I want to experience new things in my life.’”

While demand for a reunion continues to bubble away, the group hasn’t reunited on stage as a quintet since honouring Timberlake’s Vanguard Award at the 2013 VMAs. However, Bass, Fatone, Kirkpatrick and Chasez pulled off a surprise performance with Ariana Grande at Coachella in 2018, which has only elevated fan hopes for a comeback.

Greggs, who remains pals with Chasez and still chats to Fatone, believes the “logistical nightmare” of a reunion remains an obstacle. “The machine is rusted and has been sitting in the garage forever, so it’d take a while to get it running again,” he says. “Then, if the record fails or doesn’t meet expectations it becomes big news that it’s a flop. People will say, ‘Looks like Justin really was the one carrying the band.’ But if it’s successful, that means touring and your life stops when you tour. Some of them aren’t interested in uplifting their lives. It’s like a no-win situation.”

Bass, who says the band continue to discuss the idea, disagrees that it’s a no-win prospect. “I don’t think that far ahead,” says the singer, who recently discussed the hot topic with his bandmates in interviews for his podcast, “The Daily Popcast With Lance Bass”. “If it doesn’t work, we go back to our normal lives. Whatever happens, I think we’d be able to pivot whichever way it went.”

Riccitelli meanwhile thinks the group could pull off a comeback without Timberlake, thanks to fans’ undying love for the group. “It’s a tricky situation because there are expectations, but I think people would be supportive without Justin. I think that they would support *NSYNC in general because for a lot of girls – similar to when the Backstreet Boys go out on the road – they just want to be able to see them again.”