When Virgin Galactic’s tourism customers take their quarter-million dollar ride to the edge of space, they’ll strap themselves into custom-made reclining seats and blast into the upper atmosphere before spending a few minutes floating in microgravity — all while an on-board camera system captures their next social media posts.
But now, NASA, one of the space station’s primary operators, is preparing to oversee the largest push of business activity aboard the ISS. Later this month, up to 10 bottles of a new Estée Lauder (EL) skincare serum will launch to the space station, a NASA spokesperson told CNN Business. NASA astronauts are expected to film the items in the microgravity environment of the ISS and the company will be able to use that footage in ad campaigns or other promotional material.
The details of those plans were first reported by New Scientist magazine.
If the footage is used in a commercial, it would not be the first advertisement filmed in space; nor will it be the first time NASA has worked with corporate advertisers. But it will mark one of the most high-profile cases of NASA offering up the American portion of the space station for capturing zero-gravity footage of a product.
The Estée Lauder partnership will continue NASA’s years-long push to encourage private-sector spending on space projects as the space agency looks to stretch its budget beyond the ISS and focus on taking astronauts back into deep space. Those efforts include allowing the space station to be used for marketing and entertainment purposes.
The Estée Lauder products, a new formula of the company’s “Advanced Night Repair” skin serum, are expected to launch aboard a Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft, tucked alongside 8,000 pounds of other cargo, experiments and supplies. NASA astronauts will be tasked with capturing “imagery and video” of the product.
The astronauts themselves, however, won’t be appearing in any cosmetics ads: The space agency’s ethics policies strictly bar astronauts from appearing in marketing campaigns.
Estée Lauder president Stephane de la Faverie hinted at the company’s plans last month. “I’m a risk taker, and that tends to basically come with ideas that are a little bit, you know, outside of the normal, traditional ways of doing marketing,” he said during a panel at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’s virtual Ascend Summit in August.
At that same panel, de la Faverie spoke about Estée Lauder’s plans to help NASA and CASIS, the organization that manages the US laboratory on the space station, fund research aimed at developing more sustainable packaging materials. A CASIS spokesperson told CNN Business on Wednesday, however, that the partnership has not yet resulted in firm plans to a send a scientific experiment to the ISS. CASIS is not involved in the plans to film Estée Lauder product footage in space.
Rather, the in-space footage will be part of a Space Act Agreement the company signed with NASA headquarters, which builds off a mandate from Congress and a 2019 directive for NASA to “catalyze and nurture” a business economy in low-Earth orbit.
NASA will handle the costs of the mission. And under the agreement, Estée Lauder’s partner for the project, Space Commerce Matters, is expected to reimburse about $128,000 — a fraction of what the overall project is expected to cost.
NASA’s efforts to commercialize space include allowing “sponsorship and marketing” activities on the space station as well as in-space manufacturing, tourism, and “video products for entertainment” such as film and documentaries. NASA announced in 2019 that it would commit up to 90 hours of astronaut work time and allocate 400 pounds worth of cargo delivery each year for commercial companies to use for such purposes.
“We’re dedicating a modest amount of crew time — just 5% — to commercial and marketing activities because a robust commercial space economy will support national interests and our Congressional direction to transition ‘to a regime where NASA is one of many customers of a low-Earth orbit commercial human space flight enterprise,’” Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA headquarters, said in an emailed statement to CNN Business.
In short, the goal is to help foot the bill for companies interested in space-based activities, hoping that will spur broader interest in extraterrestrial business activity and help NASA offset costs.
NASA has since signed a variety of Space Act agreements with various companies, including athletic wear brand Adidas. And NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced earlier this year that actor Tom Cruise landed a deal with the space agency to film a movie on board the ISS. The timing and details of that plan have not yet been released.
NASA’s desire to expand its private-sector partnerships is not new. The space agency has already outsourced the transportation of cargo to and from the ISS and, more recently, SpaceX became the first-ever company to take over transportation of NASA astronauts.
The space agency, however, also has to weigh its efforts to spur private investments with its goal to conduct as much scientific research as possible while the 20-year-old space station is still in orbit. SpaceX returning crewed launches to US soil after the country went nearly a decade without the ability to fly its own astronauts, however, is expected to significantly boost the amount of research NASA can carry out.