A Company Once Tried to Put a Kilometer-Wide Billboard in Space

While you may consider ads to be an unwanted nuisance, advertising these days essentially allows the world to keep turning. Without it, companies couldn't reach potential customers, digital media would mostly disappear, and economies would reel. But at what point does advertising become intrusive? Chances are that fine line falls somewhere between ads in your social media feed and a giant billboard orbiting the Earth. That idea may sound completely absurd, but back in the 1990s, one marketing company almost made it a reality.

The Giant Space Billboard

In 1993, a Georgia company named Space Marketing Inc. proposed launching a giant mylar billboard into space, stretching one square kilometer in size and illuminated via solar lights. The plan was to have it orbit the earth at about 150 miles above land, making it visible to the naked eye. Nearly as soon as the idea was proposed, engineers started tearing the concept apart. It was estimated that the massive billboard would've been struck by a lethal amount of space debris, enough to destroy it in a short time. But as is the case with many things, it wasn't engineering but economics that destroyed the plan.

As this 1993 L.A. Times article points out, engineers estimated the cost of the billboard to be close to $25 million, including launch and materials. While Space Marketing Inc. succeeded for some time in luring in interested companies, their inability to secure investment eventually caused their plan to fall flat.

Discussion of a giant space billboard did do something, however: It led the U.S. Congress to work together to pass legislation. In 1993, the U.S. Senate introduced and passed a bill that banned all intrusive space advertising. With that, the world was saved from the giant 1990s space billboard — for the next handful of decades, anyway. Enter Japanese startup ispace Inc.

Billboards on the Moon

So, ispace is bringing space advertising back into the limelight. Their initial proposal is to sell ad space on rockets and spacecraft and eventually plaster the surface of the moon with advertising "projections," according to Bloomberg. The one aspect of their plan that might bring solace to all of us who like seeing the moon just as it is? Their moon advertisements won't be visible from Earth.

Unlike Space Marketing Inc. in the 1990s, ispace seems poised to actually turn their space-ad aspirations into reality. They just secured a $90 million investment that they're hoping to use for two unmanned missions to the moon by 2020.

Is It Legal?

U.S. code prohibits intrusive advertising — in other words, consumers must be able to avoid the advertisement. Of course, ispace isn't beholden to U.S. law, but their ads aren't intrusive enough to be concerned about yet, either. The only relevant law that applies to the world as a whole would be the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Most countries capable of space travel in the modern era have signed the treaty, which essentially declares space free for all people to explore, as long as they don't place weapons of mass destruction there or cause environmental damage. Ultimately, this means that ispace is probably in the clear unless signatory countries take issue and claim that ispace is causing some form of debris problem with their plan.

Advertising on spacecraft has been around since the 1990s, from Pizza Hut putting their logo on a Russian Proton rocket to the Tokyo Broadcasting System sending a reporter up to space on a Russian rocket. Elon Musk and SpaceX sending a Tesla into space might be one of the most recent examples of space advertising. The world's public seems to be okay with company logos and space ads, as long as they can avoid them. But who knows? Maybe the law will change, and one day, you'll have massive space billboard hovering over your house.

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For more on the past and future of advertising, check out "Adland: A Global History of Advertising" by Mark Tungate. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Correction 8/10/2018: A previous version of this article stated that Russia did not sign the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. However, the treaty was signed by the Soviet Union, which later became Russia. The article has been updated to reflect this.

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