In Essays, Innovation

A few weeks ago, Estee Lauder sent 10 bottles of Advanced Night Repair lotion to a photo shoot on the International Space Station (“ISS”), if all went accordingly to plan, and the images will find their way into social media marketing.

The New York Post reported comments the company’s president made about it at space industry forum:

“I’m a risk-taker. That tends to basically come with ideas that are a little bit, you know, outside of the normal, traditional ways of doing marketing.”

Three cheers for Lauder on the stunt. Of course, it will be forgotten a zeptosecond after the images appear on Twitter, and it won’t sell a bottle of lotion, but it sure beats the typical cosmetics industry nonsense claims about doing actual science.

That’s what NASA should be doing instead of hosting photo shoots.

Turns out NASA has a department — commercial spaceflight development — dedicated to helping businesses to find reasons to use its launch and orbiting capabilities. It let Pizza Hut to “deliver” a pizza to the ISS astronauts and announced plans to ship Tom Cruise there for a film project.

I’m not sure NASA could do a better job of making itself irrelevant if it tried.

The fundamental problem with using space as the backdrop for marketing or moviemaking is that it’s unnecessary. Computer graphics can more than compensate for limitations of gravity and scenery. You could have told me that the outer space scenes in Brad Pitt’s Ad Astra were actually shot in space, and my reaction would have been a yawn. Make believe has nothing to do with real.

It also attaches NASA to the silliness of make believe.

Remember, we Americans have paid for the research, development, and execution of every launch of living things into space since the US strapped a rhesus macaque to a V-2 rocket in 1948, and we’re paying for upkeep on the ISS.

Exploring space is incomprehensibly complicated, extremely dangerous, encourages and yields vital technology innovations, and is otherwise incredibly important for the future of America and all of humanity.

And seeing the ISS as the set for a face lotion tweet is supposed to inspire us, let alone prove a return on our investment?

Er, yup, according to the director of NASA’s commercialization initiative, who said at Bloomberg: “We need to expand people’s perspective on what we can accomplish in space.” The initiative is also supposed to earn money to fund future exploration (Lauder paid $128,000 for the photo shoot, which is 0.000005 of NASA’s 2020 budget). Space tourism is under consideration, too, perhaps pending Tom Cruise’s Tripadvisor review.

There has to be a better way.

There’s a lot of research that goes on in space, most of which is focused on solving space-based problems like growing food in zero or low gravity. Why couldn’t some or more of that be focused on products that are sold and used back on Earth?

The vacuum and low/lack of gravity in space should allow for unique execution of processes. I’m thinking mixing chemicals, testing combinations, things like that. But my imagination is limited by my training as a marketer, so I’m the guy who would have come up with the photo shoot garbage.

Couldn’t the scientists and engineers at NASA do better than me and imagine hundreds of things that could get done in space that are impossible to do on Earth (or at least fundamentally different enough to offer the potential of some commercial cachet)?

Why couldn’t Lauder figure out how to do real science and find some way its revitalizing syrup achieves a special quality if mixed in space, and then sell bottles infused with it at neighborhood grocery stores”

Forget tested or assembled in China. Why not brand things as coming from Space?

There’s also the proud tradition of consumer technologies spun off from NASA innovation, from transistors and Teflon to Tang. You’d think the commercial spaceflight development folks would be trolling the last few years’ worth of development for ideas that could end up in some new consumer product.

There’s also the not inconsequential go-forward projects to consider, whether going back to the Moon or landing on Mars. Why aren’t categories of commercial partners working to “mainstream” technologies developed on those journeys?

I guess I don’t want to be entertained by actors or cosmetics companies in space, and I worry that encouraging this kind of stuff is going to make it harder for NASA to argue for funding dollars down the road.

I want to be inspired by NASA doing meaningful, real things, even if that meant creating a successor to Tang.

That might even warrant a photo op.

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