Earthly brands for interstellar plans

Ashwini Deshpande and Manav Kambli of Elephant Design talk about the space industry. How it has influenced brands to create aspirational value in its products. This includes: space exploration, product innovation and everyday conveniences. Read more about the finer linkages ...

10 Dec 2021 | By WhatPackaging? Team

Humankind inherently represents contradictions. While we valiantly try escaping the clutches of the pandemic, there are those amongst us who managed to escape gravity itself. This is a topic of hot debate since Branson, Musk and Bezos created what we now call the Billionaire Space Race where entrepreneurs and companies alike attempt to monopolise the space industry.

Why does outer space excite us so much? In a world where we can now vicariously explore so many new earthly spaces with relative ease – or even travel across continents in a matter of hours – the sky is the only limit. Outer space was still the realm of the extraordinary. But that has changed now. It is all but accessible to those willing to invest in it.

When brands associate with the space industry, the feeling for the consumer is rather predictable. When a brand has catalysed the essence of something so beyond conventional limitations, the implied association becomes a source of legitimacy and aspiration. But ever since companies such as Omega tried leveraging ‘space-based’ campaigns (Red Bull, Coca Cola and even Suntory have sent their products into space), what about innovations that literally came from the need to innovate for space?

With this comes the need to understand the finer linkages between space exploration, product innovation and everyday conveniences. While it helps us understand the conditions that led to the inception of these products/solutions, the larger takeaway is to keenly watch this space – literally and figuratively – for newer opportunities and ultimately, progress as we know it.

As an entity, NASA dominates the popular imagination. Synonymous with scientific advancement, excellence and vision for many, NASA is that bridge between the earthly and interstellar domains. The NASA Technology Transfer Program is responsible for connecting space research with private players across industries. Viewers can find a surprising array of these products neatly catalogued in their publication Spinoff, first published in 1976 – giving increased credence to the term ‘NASA Spinoffs’. Here are a few of them that illustrate how deeply this research has penetrated our lives.

Eat and drink safe
Before getting to the products themselves, space exploration has brought about a host of packaging and other solutions when it comes to us eating safely on a societal level. Freeze drying, for instance, was developed by Nestle as early as 1938 – but was massively improved upon for the Apollo missions. Today, we utilise this across domains where food can still preserve its nutritional value while being lighter and lasting longer.

The same goes for the idea of HACCP guidelines, developed by the Pillsbury Company to assure that space food was free of toxins – preventing hazards proactively. This and several derivatives of this system are now applied by companies and governmental bodies when it comes to handling certain food products such as dairy and seafood.

Even water filtration technology has grown by leaps and bounds due to astronauts needing a constant, safe supply of the precious stuff whilst on their journey. Apollo spacecraft had an ionising nine-ounce purifier installed, which paved the way for electrolytic water purifiers in the commercial markets. The same goes for air purifiers, where the original intent for “ethylene scrubbers” was that of enabling astronauts to grow plants in space.

The parallels are clear, as such technological spikes earlier can be linked to the increase in long seafaring voyages – such as tinned/salted food, for instance. Today, these packaging and safety-based innovations are so commonplace that most of us can’t imagine a world where they weren’t a norm.

Remember me
The mattress that remembers your form even as you look forward to just hitting the sack after a hard day – that’s right, the memory foam mattress – was developed by NASA in 1966 through a funded contractor, Charles Yost. Designed to protect spacefarers from crashes and other accidents, its property of returning to its original state (from where it gets its namesake) is now broadly utilised for many home products such as pillows, mattresses and other accessories.

Sneaking away
If you are the proud owner of a Nike sneaker – particularly the Nike Air – then you are literally walking in the shoes of astronauts. While the blow rubber moulding process was crucial for producing helmets as part of the new wave of designing lighter safety gear for firefighters, it would also have additional applications – such as the creation of hollow shoe soles. Frank Rudy, a former NASA engineer took this technology to Nike, where his idea was to use a pad made of air cells under the heel and frontal parts of the foot to act as a cushiony shock absorber. Today, this tech bounces on concrete and Earth in this reverse-adaptation.

No excuses for lost time
While time is undoubtedly becoming more and more precious as a commodity in our hectically paced lives, we’d be understating how crucial it is for NASA missions. The literal difference between life and death, between revolutionary success and costly failure – keeping time at NASA needed a radically different solution. The task fell upon the General Time Corporation, which used quartz crystals to establish a stable reference point for mission times. Since watches utilise motion, or vibration to maintain accuracy, quartz ushered in a new dimension of accuracy altogether with its ability to vibrate millions of times within a single minute – provided it has electrical stimulation. This is the basis for all commercial quartz crystal watches and helps us provide less excuses when it comes to being punctual.

Treading over Inefficiency
It seems far-fetched to connect the Viking Lander mission on Mars to the concept of better, more robust tires – but thanks to Goodyear, here we are. While having earlier developed a fibre-based material (stronger than steel) for the Lander’s parachutes, Goodyear implemented the tech for its new radial tires whose tread life was 16,000 km – quite a feat by any stretch.

Swimming towards glory
Fluid dynamics has always been an integral part of NASA’s technology: you simply can’t do enough to reduce drag for interstellar travel. Speedo caught on to this and decided to join forces with them, using their wind tunnels to test different materials in the quest to reduce drag and enable the swimmer to cut through the water even more efficiently. The results were phenomenal, where the Speedo LZR took centre stage in the Beijing Olympics – 98% of the athletes with medals had used this suit, leading the governing body (FINA) to change regulations so that this advantage would not be abused.

Watch your step
A lesser-known innovation comes in the form of a public safety feature. NASA was in the process of researching technology to reduce friction due to skidding and hydroplaning in order to keep their landing shuttles safe. Today, this translates to safety grooves being cut into concrete with diamond blades – reducing the possibility of untimely accidents and the like due to wetness and other friction-reducing agents.

Unearthly beautification – straightener, sunglasses and the selfie
While cataloguing this exhaustive list is a rewarding task in its own right, we will conclude these examples by looking at the concept of beautification. While we live our digitally perfect lives with each selfie clicked on our smartphones, where NASA scientist Eric Fossum developed CMOS active pixel sensors that allowed us to shrink camera sizes drastically without impacting quality. But that picture needs perfection, and outer space provides!

For instance, what if we told you that hair-straightener tech was derived from nanoceramic research, where ceramic plates can release ions when heated at relatively lower temperatures, making hair softer and easier to style. Or what if we also said that those irresistible scratch-proof glasses you picked up to ‘complete your look’ were also derived from NASA’s research to make plastic compounds for helmets scratch-proof? Like outer space, the possibilities are nearly endless.

Towards the future
The Space-Age experience is slowly inching towards becoming more accessible to us. Even as the domain of spaceflight, deemed ever so alien to ordinary human beings, now seems within reach. Brands are turning their attention to a world (or worlds) beyond ours. Given our exploration in this article, we can anticipate a paradox of sorts: earlier, brands took different technologies used for space-travel and recontextualised them for everyday use and today, we are taking steps in the opposite direction.

For instance, in 2019 alone, Under Armour partnered with Virgin Galactic to develop a range of space-wear; Budweiser wanted to be the first beer to be brewed on Mars and Aleph Farms declared that they had successfully “grown meat” on the International Space Station.

While these attempts to create aspirational value with such campaigns might be looked at as a frivolous affair (the expenditure is by no means minuscule), the positives are that there is an unfettered attempt to devise new product, solutions and more importantly, experiences that take us beyond conventional boundaries and into realms hitherto unknown – so, watch this space indeed.