Before the late 50s, space exploration hadn’t gotten much public attention outside of the science fiction written by authors like Jules Verne, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. Then, in 1957, the Soviet Union declared that they had successfully launched their satellite Sputnik into orbit, changing everything. A year later, the U.S. founded NASA and announced that it would operate in the open, with its own public relations department, in stark contrast to the Soviet’s secret space program. The race to put a man on the moon involved launching enormous marketing and public education programs, and by the time the Eagle landed on the moon in 1969 with the Apollo 11 mission, the world was enthralled by the prospect of space exploration and eager for more.
Today, governments and private companies actively seek market share of space, competing before a savvy audience to finance the development of new technologies and carry out their missions. Let’s trace the commercialization of space from Sputnik to SpaceX.
The space race began a couple years before Sputnik, when, after the U.S. announced its intent to put an artificial satellite into orbit, the Soviet Union responded with an declaration of their own to do the same thing “in the near future.” Winning that first challenge in 1957 with Sputnik, ads in the U.S. soon followed. In 1959, LIFE magazine ran a cover piece called “Astronauts’ wives: their inner thoughts, worries” about the wives of the Mercury 7 astronauts, paying the families $500,000. NASA’s Public Affairs Office provided press release materials, articles and fully-produced interviews for TV and radio.
“I still associate Tang with space,” says Sherry Cross, an attorney with Simmrin Law Group. Tang ran a very successful advertising campaigns during the space race. “Tang. For spacemen and earth families,” ran one ad picturing a space suit laid out alongside a couple packets of the powdered orange drink. The Public Affairs Office allowed the space suit to be shown, but prohibited showing the faces of any astronauts.
The Soviets went on to put the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961, raising serious concerns in the U.S. This event led John F. Kennedy, who was formerly lukewarm over funding NASA, to respond by delivering his famous “We choose to go to the Moon” speech and aggressively pursuing the Apollo program.
NASA provided reporters with a series of books containing the technical specs for the upcoming Apollo 11 launch in unprecedented detail, sharing the design of the space suits and command module, and describing different mission phases such as the descent procedures. This bold practice of publishing highly-sensitive pre-launch technical specs continues to this day, and is practically expected by the public.
In 1980, a new TV series about space was created for PBS, co-written and narrated by an astronomer named Carl Sagan. The 13 episodes of Cosmos soon became the most widely-viewed series in the history of public television, making Sagan a world-famous celebrity. Another celebrity astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, hosted a successor to Cosmos in 2014, demonstrating the public’s enduring fascination with space.
The privatization of space exploration has been focused around a handful of rich men. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have all launched companies to ultimately offer space programs up for sale to the public. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are both in Gallup’s Top Ten Most Admired People 2017, in no small part due to their exciting space projects. Some of their ideas are grandiose, like establishing a colony on Mars, while others are a bit closer to home — but still not down to Earth — such as selling short day-trips into orbit.
If any product or service has been marketed well before its time, it is space tourism, but these ideas sell because their marketers appeal to the existing space explorer mentality. There’s a certain heroism associated with taking risks for science and humanity’s future, even dying for them. Elon Musk, promoting his SpaceX company, has said, “Just as with the establishment of the English colonies, there are people who love that. They want to be the pioneers.”
The marketing of space has now crossed over U.S. boundaries into the rest of the world. The Russians are selling ad space on their rockets for products like pizza, and the Japanese want to plant digital billboards on the moon.
Space marketing today hearkens back to the golden age of sci-fi, tugging on the imaginations of a public with dreams of travelling through the galaxy and exploring strange new worlds. Marketers know that people have big dreams and sci-fi fantasies of exploring a universe without limits, and selling space is now a matter of hinting at the possibility of fulfilling those dreams.