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New book describes how NASA sold the moon, with lessons for today

Harrison Schmitt on the moon
Harrison Schmitt on the moon
NASA

One of the little known aspects of the Apollo program to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s is that it was as much a marketing triumph as it was a technological achievement. That is the conclusion of a newly published book, “Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program” by David Meerman Scott and David Jurek. In a March 12, 2014 story, Forbes interviewed the authors about how NASA convinced the public to spend four percent of the federal budget to land 12 men on the moon.

More importantly, there are lessons to be learned about marketing space that could be applied today, though both the global audience and the nature of the space program are different than they were in the 1960s.

Some of the points made:

“From a marketing perspective, NASA is involved in so many areas, that there is no unified theme that pulls a large enough focused audience. It is a challenge many marketers face in many industries. One needs to think of NASA like Coca-Cola. If you just defined Coca-Cola by Coke, then you would miss its many other brands and message channels, like Sprite, Fanta, Dasani, Fresca, etc.”

Indeed, NASA is currently conducting a commercial space program, running the International Space Station, conducting planetary and science missions, and is gearing up for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. What is the unifying theme that ties all of those together? Perhaps some sort of story that can be easily understood.

“[Apollo] accomplished the most audacious goal ever attempted by humans. I don’t see anything remotely like that today. The reason we haven’t landed humans on Mars is due to a lack of marketing and PR. By invoking a quest, Kennedy motivated us. If we’re ever going to conquer space again, we need a powerful story to get us there.”

Of course the problem is far different in today’s media environment than it was 50 years ago,

“For NASA [today], the issue is one of having many multiple programs with fractured, multiple niche audiences [rather] than just the main program of Apollo during the 60’s and 70’s. The massive, global interest and support that Apollo enjoyed is just not sustainable [today], and wasn’t sustainable even for Apollo after that first landing. We need to learn from that – and accept it, and, perhaps, change how we measure success for an agency like NASA.”

Is the solution to develop an overarching program like Apollo, say a return to the moon or expeditions to Mars? Two presidents named Bush tried that. The elder Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative was still born and the younger Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration is basically on life support in the current administration.

The bottom line may be that when the next president changes space policy again, he or she will really need to mull along with it how to sell it to the stakeholders, including the public.