Oct 6, 2020 - Science

Brands are changing space

Illustration of the surface of the Moon with a billboard that reads, "Your Ad Here, 1-800-MOON".

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: NASA

Space — once the purview of only the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nations — is now open to brands, private citizens and commercial companies, all at NASA's urging.

The big picture: The commercialization of spaceflight has flung open the door to branding and marketing in space that will change everyone's relationship with the cosmos.

  • Soon, space may no longer be a relatively pristine environment where only specially trained individuals with a particular skill set can live and work.
  • Instead, companies and consumers have a direct stake and toehold in orbit for the first time.

What's happening: Estée Lauder sent its Advanced Night Repair skincare product to the International Space Station aboard a Cygnus spacecraft launched Friday, where astronauts will take photos of it for the company's social media accounts.

  • The campaign is thanks to NASA's plan to open up the space station to private activities like marketing and tourism supported by the commercial spaceflight industry, allowing the space agency to help create a true economy in low-Earth orbit that makes it one of many customers.
  • Other companies — like Axiom — are planning to provide rides for private spaceflyers aboard spacecraft like SpaceX's Crew Dragon.
  • And, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said last week the space agency plans to start a program to help tourists who want to fly to the space station.

Background: NASA has long had a complicated relationship with brands and companies hoping to capitalize on the public's interest in space.

  • M&M's, Tang, Omega watches and other brands have all made it up to space incidentally because they're used by astronauts, but NASA's new regime marks the first times brands can pay the space agency for that kind of access directly.
  • And private companies supported by NASA, like SpaceX, are creating real opportunities to fly now.
  • "NASA is very much focused on promoting the NASA brand, and whatever they're doing with Estée Lauder — they got a lot of publicity, and it's publicity for Estée Lauder and it's publicity for NASA," space analyst Linda Billings told Axios.

Between the lines: Some, like Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) during a committee hearing at the end of September, have expressed concern that these types of marketing activities may not be worth the astronaut crew time spent on them.

  • The agency counters that very little time is actually going to be allotted to these activities.
  • But those who support these efforts see commercialization as a way to make NASA a user of services in orbit that can be run by private companies, freeing up the agency to focus on goals like the Moon and Mars.
  • Eventually, the money made from these partnership could help offset the cost of the agency's exploration efforts. At the moment, however, NASA isn't charging full price, with companies paying a relatively small percentage of the actual cost for these activities in space.

But, but but: It's not yet clear this commercialization effort will work at all.

  • NASA is still trying to figure out exactly how much demand there is for marketing activities and even space tourism in orbit, and the agency plans to shift the availability of its crew and cargo depending on that demand.
  • "Just like everything we do on the ISS, it's an experiment, and we will continue to monitor that to make sure that we're kind of hitting the sweet spot in terms of interest levels," Phil McAlister, NASA's director of commercial spaceflight, told Axios.

What to watch: Normalizing brands in space could help extend humanity's reach by creating a shared culture between Earth and an alien environment.

  • "You wouldn't want to live here on Earth or anywhere else without human culture establishing itself. Otherwise it's very clinical and boring," space historian Robert Pearlman, who edits collectSPACE.com, told me. "I would say that what is exciting right now is the potential for human culture to occur [in space]."

Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify that Axiom buys entire flights.

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