Space: Selling the Final Frontier

[20 May 2014]

By Hans Rollman

It’s a tough time to be an astronaut.

The space shuttle’s been discontinued; NASA’s budget is shrinking; funding for basic science is dropping and key astronomical facilities are under threat of closure. There hasn’t been a man on the moon in over 40 years (and not a single woman). And Mars? Let’s not even go there.

In the words of David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek – marketing strategists, space enthusiasts, and authors of Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program– “…the reason humans have not been to Mars is, essentially, the result of a marketing failure.”

Their new book is a chronicle of the heyday of space travel from the intriguing perspective of how it was marketed. This isn’t just a trivial concern: their argument is that the reason humans went from skeptics to moonwalkers in a few short decades was thanks to a public relations campaign of unprecedented proportions that sold society on space travel, and that without it we might never have emerged from this thin blue dot. NASA’s approach to public relations – near-total, unfettered openness, rejection of military- and corporate-style secrecy, and adopting something more akin to journalism than to traditional marketing – was a remarkably unique product and achieved a remarkably unique success, re-focusing American hearts, minds and dollars on the ‘conquest of space’.

Marketing the Moon tells that story. Not just out of idle curiosity; in an era of declining public interest in space travel, and in which national governments are divesting their role in outer space and leaving it to private industry to fill the gap, Scott and Jurek’s work offers hope it might be possible to rekindle public interest and excitement around what appears to be a fallen star.

The book is more ambitious than its title suggests. It chronicles not just the Apollo Lunar Program, but by needs looks also at how we got there. It opens in the era of early sci-fi, chronicling the importance of science fiction – both the fantastic stories of the 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as the more respectable later literature – in galvanizing public interest in the stars. Science fiction made a gradual transition from the pages of obscure pulp zines to mainstream commercial radio and television, and the authors’ chronicle of that process is almost as interesting as the story which follows.

As the world re-oriented itself following World War II, the Cold War broke out and spaceflight took off. NASA came together too, as rocket research shifted from military to civilian control. What rendered NASA’s public affairs initiatives unique – and in the view of the authors, uniquely successful – was their reliance on openness. NASA public affairs staff considered themselves journalists, and indeed pioneered what has subsequently been referred to as ‘brand journalism’. They saw themselves as reporting on what the agency was doing, not trying to promote it or spin it or control the messaging.

The goal of this was to differentiate their publicity efforts from the typical spin and sleaze often associated with marketing: what is promoted is the truth, plain and simple. “Publicity to manipulate or ‘sell’ facts or image of a product, activity, viewpoint, or personality to create favorable public impression, has no place in the NASA program,” wrote the first head of NASA’s Public Information Office. To carry this out, the Office made a particular point of hiring staff with experience in journalism, who knew what journalists wanted and how to provide it to them.

The result was an overwhelming success: the media came to trust what NASA told them, even during periods when the broader US government was at odds with media, for instance during the Nixon presidency. This helped both parties during times of tragedy and adversity, such as the near disaster of the Apollo 13 mission. “NASA and the press had a sweetheart relationship,” commented one former Director of Public Affairs with the agency.

It had its tumultuous moments – waning interest by corporate networks during the final few moon missions reflected (or perhaps encouraged) fickle public interest – but the importance of public affairs and marketing in propelling space travel was undeniable. Where in the early days of the Apollo program mission planners were overwhelmingly opposed to including television cameras on spaceflights where every ounce of weight mattered, by the end of the program they were scheduling missions to coincide with prime time viewership patterns.

The authors manage to balance their broad theme and the points they are trying to make, with the sort of incidental detail that makes a good story. They explore the controversies that erupted – for example, over commercial exclusivity deals and ad contracts – and how they were handled. They look at the personalities, and the tensions and struggles between them.

Mission commentators often weren’t sure whether their role was to perform as part of a technical team, or cultivate a dramatic radio personality. Astronauts played sometimes racy jokes on each other and on mission control, and public affairs had to deal with the fallout. The book tells an entertaining and engaging story, but there’s a lot to learn from here, as well.

And it’s a beautiful book. Lavishly illustrated, it’s a book for the coffee table, the office desk, the lobby. Full-page illustrations; covers and excerpts of glossy magazines from the era, as well as full-page ‘asides’ on related topics: Disney’s Tomorrowland; the ‘50s sci-fi television series Space Patrol; Soviet Russian efforts to inspire with elaborate futuristic space films of their own. And much more.

The text boxes and asides are just as fascinating and informative as the main narrative itself. And it’s impeccably researched: from how reporters with low-budget media improvised launch coverage, to how contractors ingeniously pioneered new methods of colour photography. The authors leave no stone unturned - not even moon rocks, whose complicated fate in international diplomacy they chronicle as well. Those with an interest in marketing and complex project management will find the book particularly interesting, but it’s accessible for the general public and will enthrall any space enthusiast.

Marketing the Moon raises important questions, too. If the hallmark of successfully selling the public on space travel lay in NASA’s unique brand of public relations and marketing – near full disclosure, proactive sharing of information, free public access to technical details and mission plans alike – then the drive to divest the future of space travel onto private industry does not inspire tremendous faith. It’s hard to imagine for-profit corporations revealing their latest technical developments in unrestricted detail on the pages of popular magazines: their competitive edge would rapidly disappear. And without public interest catalyzed into a mission to Mars, it’s hard to imagine stakeholders willing to sacrifice the enormous profits that a country was willing to sacrifice when its national pride was on the line.

Participation in the space program often came either at a loss or with very slim profit margins for the private companies that were involved; yet they did it for the prestige and in hopes their participation would situate them favourably for other, more lucrative government contracts (some corporations were trying to deflect attention from their involvement in weapons manufacture and other unsavory activities: contributing to the space program was how they sought to sanitize their public reputation). NASA’s true success lay in drawing together these competing companies, personalities, motives and priorities and fusing them together in a single audacious effort to land a man on the moon.

But the future is uncertain: NASA finances are under siege and even its budding Mars budget has been slashed. Space travel took off – but then fizzled, and hopes that each milestone would inevitably lead to the next one proved to be wishful thinking. In the words of Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean: “…why would you worry about marketing when the tide of history is with you?” But as the ‘70s played out that tide began to recede: the inevitable downturn in a product’s life-cycle that every marketing agent anticipates, and dreads.

Yet the conclusion is not without hope. The dream of space travel lingers in the popular imagination: the same place where, in the novels of Jules Verne and pages of pulp fiction, it originally began. Can it be rekindled? During the Apollo 11 moon mission one CBS News commentator aptly observed “The great debate about America in space is an exercise in freedom, the freedom of choice. How shall a people use its excess energies and resources?”

There are recent examples of space marketing success stories—Felix Baumgartner’s leap of faith from space that was watched by millions online; Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s savvy use of social media while in orbit which catapulted him to international rock star status—that demonstrate the public is still willing and able (and, perhaps, eager) to be inspired (and sold) on space travel. Marketing the Moon helps put the challenge in context, and does a beautiful job of doing so.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/181795-marketing-the-moon-the-selling-of-the-apollo-lunar-program-by-david-/