Marketing men launch symbolic bid to conquer space

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The Independent Online
DUSK FALLS one evening in 1996 and the first stars appear in the sky. Over the horizon comes a bright green sign of a tree, appearing the same size as the moon. Ringing it are the words - you can just pick them out - 'Reforest the Earth'.

You will see this image crossing the dusk and dawn skies several times in the next few weeks, visible for about 10 minutes at a time. The tree symbol will be familiar - you will have seen it on supermarket shelves and in television advertisements.

And you will feel, well, warm about it because the companies which use the logo care. They donate to reforestation projects. They help to pay for orbiting scientific instruments which monitor our planet's environmental health.

This is the dream of Space Marketing Inc, based in Atlanta, which plans a low-orbiting space billboard one mile across, having hired government and university scientists to do some of the design work.

The first American private sector rocket, a joint venture involving Nasa, industry and universities, was to have been launched this month with an advertisement for Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest blockbuster, Last Action Hero. The project has been delayed, but a spokeswoman for Columbia Pictures, which paid dollars 500m ( pounds 328m), said: 'It remains a very viable promotion.'

This advertisement will be seen only by those choosing to watch, at the launch pad at Wallops, Virginia, or on television. Space Marketing's billboard would allow no such choice.

The structure would be tightly packed inside an average-sized satellite. Once in orbit, some 200 miles above the earth, a fine film of transparent mylar would be unfurled by inflating tubes. The logo, made of reflective material, would bounce sunlight from it back to earth. Space experts agree that today's technology is up to the task.

The satellite's instruments would take environmental measurements, such as ozone layer thickness, for government bodies, and do experiments for private industry. After a few weeks, the billboard, punctured and shredded by micro-meteorites, would drop off and burn up as it re-entered the atmosphere, leaving the hardware in orbit.

Space Marketing believes this package would appeal both to global corporations and Nasa, which is finding the US government increasingly tight-fisted. The billboard would bear no corporate logo, but a symbol promoting an environmental cause that would be echoed in terrestrial merchandising. It would be most visible at dawn and dusk, but not through the night because its low orbit would keep it in earth's shadow.

Space Marketing had hoped its billboard would be aloft in time for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The city's Games marketeers were keen, but Mayor Maynard Jackson squashed the idea.

Carl Sagan, the Cornell University astronomer, calls the billboard 'an abomination opening the way to political, ideological and religious sloganising in the skies'. Paul Murdin, director of Edinburgh's Royal Observatory, said: 'Nobody has the right to impose themselves on our world like this.'

Karen Brown, of the Centre for the Study of Commercialism in Washington, has helped organise a nationwide protest campaign: 'We've got to nip this in the bud - outer space must be kept advertisement free.'

Space Marketing remains undaunted. 'It's an environmental undertaking first and foremost,' said a spokesman, Mike Jones. 'It will save taxpayers' money and promote a message which is tasteful and unobtrusive.'

Leading article, page 24