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Stacking Dollar Bills to the Moon

In the past month-and-a-half, since NASA’s Spirit rover touched down on the red plant, the space program’s rover Web site has logged 6.5 billion hits. As CNET News.com recently noted, that’s more visits than there are people on earth. …Can anyone say “marketing opportunity”?

In the past month-and-a-half, since NASA’s Spirit rover touched down on the red plant, the space program’s rover Web site has logged 6.5 billion hits. As CNET News.com recently noted, that’s more visits than there are people on earth.

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…Can anyone say “marketing opportunity”?

In late 90s bubble-think, those 6.5 billion eyeballs (or, er, 13 billion eyeballs, I guess) would have had marketers fomenting at the mouth. Hell, even today, 6.5 billion visits over 45 days would be enough to get even the most jaded of former web advertisers back off (on?) the bandwagon. So imagine my surprise when I swung by the Mars Exploration Rover Mission Web site and found… no advertising. That’s right, no migraine-inducing flashing ads, no floating rover photos pitching tie-ins, no “Win a Summer trip to the Bonneville Crater!” Nothing. 6.5 billion visits and not a penny to show for it! The rover site was starting to sound a lot like Theglobe.com.

As I soon found out though, NASA is no stranger to the power of marketing. Over the past four decades, NASA and the commercial market have danced a fascinating little tang-o, stirring up innovative products and making marketing history. Teflon? Velcro? Tang?

Contrary to the popular belief that each of these came out of NASA’s space program, all three were spawned elsewhere. Once the government picked them up for use on space missions or rocketry however, the public soon followed with lace-less shoes, non-stick pans, and a sugar buzz that hasn’t worn off yet.

Business take-away: land a deal with NASA.

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That’s just what Lego, the world’s fifth-largest toy maker, did when NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory came knocking. Overlooking Mattel’s 1999 embarrassment (none of the four real spacecraft depicted in that year’s Hot Wheels “Action Pack” survived the journey to Mars; toys languished on shelves), Lego placed its bets and, last month, just as the Spirit touched down on Mars, a 415-piece Spirit model showed up at Toys R Us. (There’s even a Mars Rover Lego Blog.) What’s more: the actual rovers themselves – yes, I’m talking about the genuine $200+ million-dollar rovers now racing over Martian soil – feature real Lego pieces and an “astrobot” Lego figure! Take that, Tang!

In perhaps a more predictable tie-in, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s burger joints currently feature NASA-inspired toys in kid’s meals. Act fast, though, the promotion is scheduled to wrap up February 24.

Of course, the money train runs in both directions. Since the 60s, NASA research has introduced “thousands” of product innovations into the commercial market. We’re talking major innovations, like hearing for the deaf, heart valves, and plastic that can withstand 600 degrees F. Even things as pedestrian as cordless tools, scratch resistant lenses, DirecTV, and, yes, that Tempur-Pedic foam at Brookstone, can trace their lineage to NASA. In 1988, finally getting wise to the trend, the space program set up a separate division, the NASA Commercial Technology Network, for the “transfer, application, and commercialization of NASA-funded technology.” Take a look at the “Success Stories” for more on the innovations listed above, as well as some lesser-known highlights like Data Matrix Symbology, Sewage Treatment with Water Hyacinths, and Advanced Lubricants!