Even though Americans have become inured to product placement, it was impossible not to notice the deft bit of branding that SpaceX founder Elon Musk pulled off before Saturday afternoon’s launch of the Crew Dragon Demo-2: For the quick drive to launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken climbed into a sleek, showroom-new Tesla Model X.
Call it opportunistic or co-branding, it’s the sort of high-visibility stagecraft that’s possible when the founder of America’s leading private space company and the owner of its leading electric-vehicle brand happen to be the same man.
As a marketing opportunity, it was close to perfect. SpaceX’s partnership with NASA furnished the necessary entrée for Tesla. And not only was the snow-white Model X a sleek match to the white space suits that Behnken and Hurley wore, the $85,000 SUV’s gullwing doors allowed for easy boarding for the astronauts and looked mightily space-age while they were doing it. Best of all, since SpaceX essentially pays Tesla for various pieces of equipment, the cost to the automaker was essentially nothing.
Musk has some experience with space branding, of course. In February 2018, the eccentric and outspoken executive got the Tesla name stratospheric visibility as part of the Falcon Heavy Test Flight. Bolted to the top of the rocket’s second stage was Musk’s former daily driver, a $100,000 midnight-cherry roadster with a mannequin named Starman in the driver’s seat, his elbow casually resting on the convertible’s door.
Tesla wasn’t just piggybacking on a rocket ship—the brand rode into American living rooms courtesy of the Launch America livestream (paid for by NASA, which is to say: you and me). On YouTube, the launch notched over 2.3 million concurrent views.
But while business luminaries praise Musk for his marketing mastery, industry graybeards know that space branding is, actually, an old trick. Quite a few brands have preceded Tesla into orbit, either by playing an instrumental role in the actual missions or simply riding along through a combination of good luck and corporate funding. Here’s a look back at some of the brands that have gone to the stars:
When Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 astronaut wore a 200-pound A7L space suit—and Omega Speedmaster watch on his wrist. The timepiece wasn’t a fashion accessory—NASA had selected the watches four years earlier for their reliability, proven in 1970 when the astronauts of the ill-starred Apollo 13 mission used the second hands to time the 14-second burn that aligned them for atmospheric reentry. In recent years, Omega introduced a Moonwatch commemorative edition; price: $9,650.
Cola-Cola (and Pepsi)
In 1985, product engineers at Cola-Cola designed a special can that NASA loaded onto the STS-51F mission of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Fitted with a special valve, the can’s mission was to deliver soda to the astronauts’ mouths without getting sticky soda droplets all over the cabin.
When executives at rival PepsiCo learned that Coke was blasting off, they insisted their brand be included, too. The soft-drink mission got its share of media coverage at the time, and Coke milked the incident for a bit more in 2014, when astronauts drinking in space was the theme of a 60-second Olympics ad. So: Did the astronauts prefer Coke or Pepsi? Neither, actually, since the drinks were both flat and warm by the time they reached orbit.
In 2008, NASA struck an educational partnership with Disney that resulted in a slew of online games and videos. But none of those noble components got as much attention as a foot-tall action figure of Buzz Lightyear, leading man of the Disney/Pixar Toy Story franchise. In May, Buzz blasted off as part of the Space Shuttle Discovery’s STS-124 mission. After docking at the International Space Station, Buzz spent 467 days in orbit. As if all that publicity weren’t enough, Disney got more earned-media attention in 2012, when the Smithsonian accepted the special Buzz figure into its permanent collection.