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You May Already Be A Cosmonaut

News: Analysis & Commentary: MARKETING


A U.S.-Russia sweepstakes plans to send a civilian into orbit

It had to happen. Outer space, the final frontier, is about to see its first marketing junket. With the troubled Russian space program desperate for every ruble it can get, officials in Moscow are negotiating a deal for a Civilian in Space sweepstakes, sponsored and hyped by U.S. companies.

The pioneering Russian space agency, which sent the first man into orbit 36 years ago, is wrapping up a sponsorship deal with a U.S. company. Essentially, the sponsor--and possibly subsponsors--will buy a trip to the famed Mir space station and raffle it off to starstruck consumers. The asking price: $25 million, according to Mike Lawson, president of Space Marketing Inc., which sold the Russians on the idea and helped pitch it to potential sponsors as the marketing opportunity of the millennium.

Lawson sees vast opportunities for promotion, from T-shirts and documentaries to books and commercials. "After the initial announcement, you could milk it for six, nine months," he says. "Then you have the exit strategy, with the civilian coming back."

That is, of course, if the nine-day mission ever gets off the ground. There's no guarantee that Mir will even still be aloft in late 1998, when the winner is scheduled for liftoff. Mir, after all, was put into orbit 10 years ago, when the space program was still a showcase for Soviet technology. Now, scraping by on a quarter of its 1989 budget, the agency has cut launches and reined in its goals. "The Mir is a rickety, worn-out base limping from one crisis to the next," said James Oberg, a space engineer and author of a book about the Russian space program. "The odds of it being there in two years are not that high."

Some marketing experts question whether the event is worth the price. "This is an enormous amount of money for a sponsorship," says Tom Belle, an executive vice-president and sponsorship specialist at Minneapolis-based Gage Marketing Group. And that's before the millions more it would cost to promote it. International sponsorships carry even more risk, from political upheaval to currency fluctuations. Civilian in Space, of course, carries the extra risk inherent in space travel: A malfunction could turn it into a public-relations disaster.

Russian officials insist there's no problem on their end. "They're going to fund the project and continue," said Valery Aksamentov, an engineer representing Russia in U.S. talks. "Civilian in Space is not for the money. It's to bring international attention to the space station." Lawson insists that Mir is both safe and reliable, pointing out that the U.S. has budgeted $400 million to shuttle astronauts to the space station over the next few years.

Perhaps. But space experts whisper nervously about the program's shaky finances and high-profile failures. In November, a Russian probe bound for Mars crashed in the Pacific. Soon after, Moscow acknowledged that two spy satellites fell from orbit, and there are no funds to replace them. The Russians have also fallen a year behind on building the centerpiece of a $50 billion international space station. "Scientists are threatening to strike because they're not getting paid," says John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

That may not sound like the right stuff for marketers, but at least one has already taken a ride on Mir. Last year, PepsiCo Inc. paid $5 million to the agency to tow a giant soda can into orbit for a series of commercials featuring space-walking cosmonauts. "The Russians are selling their souls because they need hard currency," said Marco Antonio Caceres, a space analyst at the Teal Group, a Fairfax (Va.) aerospace researcher.

The Russians aren't the only ones exploiting commercial possibilities. NASA recently accepted $1.5 million from Coca-Cola Co. to install a futuristic soda machine aboard the space shuttle Endeavour so astronauts could have the Real Thing during a 10-day flight. In fact, U.S. companies have more than doubled their investment in space since 1990, to more than $7 billion. "The next three years will probably be milestones in terms of commercializing space," Caceres said. "I'm sure it'll be trashed pretty soon."

Assuming the Russians ink a deal, entry blanks for the sweepstakes could be plastered on products in 100 countries by yearend, says Lawson. A finalist from each country will go to space camp for a week, probably in the U.S. The winner--someone 18 to 55 who passes a modest health test--and an alternate will then head to Russia for three months of training. Then, the lucky winner is off, bravely going where no consumer has gone before.By I. Jeanne Dugan in New YorkReturn to top

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