One of the talking points coming out of the Obama administration is that the one thing wrong about the new space policy that cancelled the Constellation space exploration program was that it wasn’t sold properly.
Lori Garver, NASA’s Deputy Administrator and one of the architects of the plan, expressed that sentiment at a recent meeting of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
The following is part fiction written for the purpose of conveying ideas in the form of a dialogue, but I think encapsulates the problem with space policy and selling a government space program in our time.
The idea that the problem with the Obama space plan was one of marketing intrigued me. So I arranged an interview with the one man who knows more about marketing than anyone else in the world, a man who claims that he was the basis of Don Draper of “Mad Men” fame. I don’t know the truth of that, but I had always found him to be very knowledgeable about advertising and marketing. I found him in a high priced retirement village in Florida and he was quite willing to talk.
Despite a lifetime of drinking, smoking, and chasing women, “Don Draper” seemed to be pretty healthy and fit for a man of his age. We met over drinks at one of the retirement village’s restaurants. At first he regaled me with stories about advertising. He claimed to have been responsible for the “Bear in the Woods” ad for the 1984 Reagan campaign, for example. I let him talk until he was ready to get to the matter at hand.
“You ask me whether the plan the President rolled out in February could have flown given a proper ad campaign,” he finally said. “The answer is probably not.”
“So what was the problem?” I asked.
“The first thing about any product, whether it’s a under arm deodorant or a plan for the US space program, there has to be a market for it to start with. For deodorant, the potential market is anyone who sweats. For a plan for the space program, it’s a number of smaller groups. The first and most important group is the US Congress. And, frankly, I am shocked that the administration didn’t even consult with the people who would be expected to pass the damn thing before springing it on them.”
“So it is just a matter of marketing? All they needed to do was to sell the policy to Congress in advance.”
“No, no, no. You misunderstand me. The purpose of market research is finding out what appeals about a product, the space policy in this case, and what doesn’t. Then the product can be adjusted to make it more sellable.”
“So what would you have fixed about the policy to make it salable?”
“The first thing is that I would have realized that the old policy, Constellation, had already been sold. The previous administration did the right thing, vetting the idea of going back to the Moon for over a year before announcing it. They made some mistakes afterwards, but they pretty much did what I would have done rolling the back to the Moon plan out.
“So what the current administration was trying to do was not only to get the Congress to accept the new policy but to get it to switch from the old one, which they had already pretty much accepted. It’s one of the hardest thing to get a customer to switch from one product that they are happy with to another that they know very little about.”
“Are you saying that the policy was irretrievable flawed?”
“I’m saying that I could not have sold it in the form they rolled out. The administration not only cancelled the return to the Moon program, but it substituted it for a program of massive subsidies to commercial space firms, many of them very speculative ventures indeed. Both of them run counter to stories that are at the very center of the American psyche.”
“What are those?”
“The first story is of the struggling entrepreneur with a dream of some product or service that he thinks people will want to buy and will make him rich. Henry Ford and the automobile. The Wright Brothers and the airplane. Steve Jobs and the personal computer.”
“Elon Musk and the private space ship.”
“Exactly. Musk was one of those characters who people liked to talk about when I was a boy. The immigrant with drive and an idea who made it and became rich. But the moment the government embraced him and proposed showering him with money was the moment that story changed.
“Now Musk is a rent seeker, someone going to the tax payers with his hand out for their money to fund his dream. Instead of looking for private funding and private markers, he has turned his company into Government Rockets, in the minds of most people. And that picture of him walking arm and arm with Obama-pure PR poison, especially now that the President is so unpopular.”
“And the other story?”
“It’s about the explorer, the person who goes out to find out what is beyond the next horizon, finding new lands, new worlds. It’s Columbus landing in the New World. It’s Lewis and Clark crossing the Rockies and finding the Pacific Coast. It’s Neil Armstrong and his one small step.”
“But we stopped after Apollo and there weren’t too many complaints.”
“We had a lot on our plate forty years ago. Vietnam, riots, and so on. We have got a lot of things to worry about now, but we have something that we lacked in 1970.”
“And what’s that?”
“It’s the memory of Apollo and a certain wistfulness about what might have been. People who were alive then and people who came of age later think they’ve been cheated of the space future everyone likes to talk about.”
“What about George H. W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative?”
“In 1989 people were excited about it at first. But then NASA said it would cost a half a trillion dollars and take thirty years. That was the same as saying that they weren’t serious about doing it. Then Congress didn’t fund it. Clinton just buried the corpse when he formally cancelled the thing.
“In any case, people were actually interested in what was going to happen with the most current space exploration program. Not excited, for the most part, but that was because the next Moon landing was not going to happen for a while. Bush’s primary mistake, the one that made the Constellation program vulnerable, was that he tried to do it on the cheap. He traded time for money, putting the first real milestone out fifteen years in the future, instead of sooner. Then both Bush and the Congress didn’t come through with the funding they promised. That again sent the signal that they were not quite serious about going back to the Moon.”
“But a lot of people have said that Constellation was too expensive, not sustainable.”
“‘Sustainable’ is a word we like to avoid in advertising. It bespeaks limits, which is a quality Americans really don’t like. Saying that a program like Constellation is not ‘sustainable’ is the same as saying you really don’t want to do it.”
“So what would you have done?”
“If the Bush administration had consulted me? First, spend what it takes. Second, sell the program, justify spending what it takes, and keep selling it. It’s not really hard, if you have the will and the marketing research information. Bush only made one speech, for God’s sake. He should have included his space vision in every speech he made.”
“So back to Mr. Obama.”
“Mr. Obama changed the second story by proposing to end Constellation. Now Columbus is not going to sail to the New World, Lewis and Clark are not headed across the Rockies, Neil Armstrong is not walking on the Moon. Congress rebelled. A lot of ordinary people rebelled. The kicker came in when Neil Armstrong himself and Gene Cernan testified before Congress. PR gold. Two of America’s heroes telling the President of the United States that he’s killing a dream.
“The administration seemed to realize this somewhat belatedly. That’s why Obama rolled out his asteroid BS mission. He was trying to restore the explorer story that he had destroyed a few months before. But by then it was too late. Nobody believed that he gave a rat’s-er-posterior for space exploration. He was pandering and everyone knew it.”
“So now what happens?”
“From what I understand, Congress is cobbling together something that keeps the elements of Constellation and funds the commercial subsidies. They can’t order NASA to keep going on Constellation as planned; you can’t run the space agency from the House Science and Technology Committee. But Congress can make sure that the next President will have options.”
“And what would you advise?”
“Something bold. Something exciting. Something meaningful.”
“A lunar colony? Not just a return by a few astronauts, but a new home that anyone could hope to go to?”
“And that is another bedrock American story. Pulling up stakes and trying to make a better life somewhere else. That’s both the story of the Mayflower Pilgrims and of the immigrant who just got off the plane this morning. I’ll bet that any ad agency in the world could sell that one.”
At that point, “Don Draper’s” cell phone rang. His took it out. “Gotta love these things.” He put it to his ear. “‘Draper’ here.” He paused for a moment, listening to the person calling him. “Just a moment.” He turned to me. “I think we’re done now. I need to take this call.”
“Of course,” I said. “Thank you for your time.”
We stood up, shook hands, and I turned to leave. Before I got out of earshot, I heard “Don Draper” say, “Sure, Governor, if my cardiologist gives the OK, I can come up to Alaska any time you like.”
I smiled as I left the restaurant.
Sources: Tweet from AIAA Meeting, Jeff Foust, September 1st.
Further Reading: Selling Outer Space: Kennedy, the Media, and Funding for Project Apollo, 1961-1963 (Studies Rhetoric & Communication), James Kaufman, University of Alabama Press, 2009
If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government, William D. Eggers and John O’Leary, Harvard Business School Press, 2009