A match made in heavens

Consumers: Products linked to the 1960s Apollo missions saw over-the- moon sales and in turn helped promote the space program. An exhibit has landed at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

July 20, 1999|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

It was, in many ways, a marriage of convenience. She had been around longer than most folks realized. He was on his way up, up, up -- literally. She hooked her star to his coattails but eventually went the way of so many trophy wives, starting over and re-inventing herself.

We're talking, of course, about Tang and NASA.

And on this, the 30th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's moon walk, it's as good a time as any to contemplate lunar product placement -- the real and imagined links between the U.S. space program and various consumer goods.

Tang, so visibly identified with the space program throughout the 1960s, was actually invented in 1957 by General Foods chemist William Bruce James. (When he died two years ago, James' obituary in the Portland Press Herald noted: "Invented Tang, Several Jell-O Flavors.")

The powdered beverage drink was intended as "the orange juice alternative," says Kraft brand manager Bob Levi. However, real orange juice continued to be plentiful on Earth, providing formidable competition.

But Tang became the astronauts' beverage of choice, Levi says, and was requested by John Glenn on his recent space shuttle mission. Meanwhile, Tang is now trying to market itself to a "tween" audience -- that's 9-to-14-year-olds -- who don't know from John Glenn, but are responding to Tang's orangutan spokesman and new pouch packaging. With sales increasing at a steady 5 percent per year, Levi says, Tang may even one day reach the volume of sales it enjoyed during its burst of Apollo-related fame.

Thirty years ago, Tang was just one of many, many products that tried to find a marketing strategy in the moon. Crest bragged about developing a foamless toothpaste, because in space, you can't spit. (Procter & Gamble was unable to track down more information on this innovation and how it might have changed toothpaste over the years.) Even companies that had no official link to the mission -- Brillo, Volkswagen, a carpet company -- developed moon-themed ads.

Meanwhile, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has long used the consumer goods developed through space technology to promote the space program. "Life in Space," a traveling exhibit developed in the 1980s, is currently on display at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. It informs us that we owe NASA for:

* Graphite tennis rackets.

* Dustbusters.

* Antifog drops.

* Golfing aids.

Artificial sphincters.

In one part of the display, a woman shopping for Christmas gifts realizes that every item she has purchased had its roots in NASA technology. "Now she felt guilty for criticizing the man-in-space programs all these years," the exhibit tells us. And a letter from a little girl thanks NASA for the fast computers that made it possible for her family to get cash from an ATM and buy plane tickets for a trip to Disney World.

It's not the most subtle exhibit in the world, admits Louis Parker of NASA's Johnson Space Center. "It's still very popular," he says of the exhibit, which is almost constantly on the road, "but what we'd like to do is bring it in and make it a little bit more up to date."

As for Tang -- well, Parker says beverages for each space mission are chosen by "crew preference." Sometimes it's iced tea. Sometimes it's grape or raspberry flavored. And even if it is an orange powder beverage, he's not prepared to say it's Tang.

"Life in Space" will be on display at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St., through Aug. 19. Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday and Saturday; 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

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