First, this celestial start-up gets - yes! - Columbia Pictures to pay $500,000 to become the first advertiser in space with a deal to turn the main fuselage of NASA's 58-foot Conestoga rocket boosters into a billboard for Last Action Hero. Alas, NASA had to scrub the spring space shuttle launch. (Arnold Schwarzenegger's movie hasn't taken off as anticipated, either.)
Next, Space Marketing announces it has figured out a clever and relatively inexpensive way to launch an advertisement in low-earth orbit. Well, you'd have thought they were the Lunatic Sociopaths from Outer Space! Media coverage from The New York Times to the San Francisco Examiner to CNN was uniformly brutal.
Horrified congressmen took time out from battling the deficit to draft bills that would outlaw orbital advertising and ban imports from any foreign company that dared sully the horizon with a space-based billboard. This is truly the Chicken Little issue of the 1990s. No, the sky isn't falling; it's going to become an advertising medium - which is even worse.
In reality, the Space Marketing proposal hardly represents the beginning of the media end for the final frontier. In practice, a Space Marketing orbital ad would be demonstrably less intrusive, less invasive and (especially if you live in New York) undeniably less dangerous than a blimp. What's more, Space Marketing's concept is precisely the sort of idea that merits exploration. It's not only technically ingenious, it also encourages corporate sponsorship of space science and technology.
'The whole idea behind this is that we're trying to come up with some way to get corporations to fund scientific research,' says Ron Humble, chief engineer for Space Marketing and an assistant professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado. 'The idea was to give them some advertising exposure for some relatively low period of time.'
In other words, in the same way that blue-chip companies like AT&T and Philip Morris sponsor art and orchestras, Space Marketing was trying to lure companies into sponsoring scientific satellites. Is it illogical for a DuPont or a Dow Chemical to want to sponsor an environmental-monitoring satellite? Maybe Planet Reebok would want to piggyback itself on a satellite launch.
Of course, these launches cost tens of millions of dollars. In an era of declining federal budgets, there is nothing inherently inappropriate about seeking corporate support for these scientific missions.
What Humble found was that one could launch these scientific satellites along with inflatable structures that could be visible to the naked eye from earth. 'It's a structure similar to a rubber raft 400-by-1,000 meters in size, orbiting at an altitude of 150 miles,' he says. 'Someone who had 20/20 vision could see it.'
At that size, says Humble, you could put a logo on this platform or maybe four or five letters (Coke? Nike? Dow? Sony?). Depending upon the orbit, the ad would be visible roughly 10 or 15 minutes during the day for a radius of about 200 miles. Not bad for the CPM . . .
'One of the misconceptions is that it will be visible at night and block out the stars,' says Humble. 'It emits no light,' but rather counts on the reflectivity of its Mylar-like surface to make itself visible. Cloudy day? Tough luck. It's a billboard in fog.
In the context of heavenly bodies, this adsat would be far more subtle than spectacular. In astro-dynamical terms, Humble asserts, the typical height of the adsat against the sky would be five minutes (of arc, not time). By contrast, the moon is 35 minutes of arc. At most, says Humble, the space ad would be roughly a third of the size of a full moon.
This is obnoxious? This is the end of civilization as we know it? Even if there were half-a-dozen of these space billboards, they would hardly distort or destroy the beauty of the daylight sky. Remember, these adsats are always moving, and physics commands that they die. They would last but a few weeks before burning up in the atmosphere.
To be sure, bright and brilliant billboards in space could ultimately be as ugly and grotesque as billboards on the highway. But that's not what we're talking about here. We're talking about a simple, fairly innocuous idea that blends potential public service with technical merit. Let's end the faux outrage and start the countdown.
Please fax comments to Michael Schrage at 212-536-1416.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)