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US Manned Space Program

Aging Astronauts Selling Cars

a still from the "Commander" ad for the Audi R8 ad by VBP

a still from the "Commander" ad for the Audi R8 ad by VBP

Although I didn't watch much of the World Series on Sunday, my understanding is that the Denver Nuggets defeated the Carolina Hurricanes. I wasn't paying all that much attention as I watched the game's the first inning, but after Denver kicked a birdie, a commercial came on that caught my eye.

By now, Super Bowl commercials are hyped for being of exceptional high quality (or for being exceptionally bizarre). But even so this particular ad was noteworthy in that it told a tight, compelling narrative. It was like a little 60-second movie.

We see an Aging Astronaut lost in his memories of his mission to the Moon from many decades ago. His son stops by for a visit and hears from his caretaker that his dad hasn't been eating and that this is part of an ongoing mental and physical decline. The son then has an idea and invites his dad to take a drive with him in his new car. As he approaches this new car, we see images of a younger version of the Aging Astronaut as he made his way toward his spacecraft. We then see images of his past launch (or at least stock footage of the unmanned Apollo 4 launch) intercut with images of his present driving experience. The Aging Astronaut smiles just as he did so many years ago as he was flying into space.  

I smiled as I watched the ad. My wife's response to seeing the sleek metallic grey car featured in the ad (The 2017 Audi R8 V10 Plus) was to say, "That's pretty." My child's response to seeing the footage of the rocket launch was, "Wow."

It might seem odd for a German car company to use the past glories of the US Space program as a way of selling cars (this is especially true given the fact that GM had a close association with the US space program and famously provided Apollo astronauts with Corvettes). That being said, much of the engineering of the Saturn V rocket pictured in the closing seconds of the commercial was done by former Nazi scientists secretly smuggled out of Germany at the end of World War II. Their story is a fascinating one, but that's another topic for another blog post. 

Anyway, the commercial successfully conveys that Audi is something cool enough for young, attractive men (with $200k to drop on a sports car) but is also a piece of machinery that even retired astronauts can respect. More importantly, it has the power to bring these two generations together (provided the senior citizen you're hoping to connect with is a professional driver on a closed course). Audi really hopes that in the future you will think about this ad as opposed to the fact that Audi's parent company his been embroiled in a scandal stemming from engineering a way to intentionally cheat emissions testing (notice Audi dropped its "Truth in Engineering" tagline from the commercial).

The ad was produced by Venables, Bell and Partners who have done a number of Audi's more recent commercials (interestingly, VBP also does "customer experience" consulting work and were responsible for the signage, messaging and event theme for the Barclay’s Center by SHoP Architects). The ad was directed by Craig Gillespie who has several filmmaking credits to his name including Lars and the Real and Million Dollar Arm. The production values of the commercial are incredibly high. The spacesuit worn by the younger version of the Aging Astronaut is a good reproduction of the A7L suit worn by the Apollo Astronauts (and designed and build by a women's undergarment company - another story for another day) who flew to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It should be noted, however, that although this particular suit did make use of both blue and red collar rings, they never did so on the same flight (the commercial shows the younger version of the Aging Astronaut with a red neck ring whereas his mustached wingman has a blue collar). Apparently the Aging Astronaut has no memory of the third crew member who would have flown with him on an Apollo mission which is all for the best as it makes for a tighter narrative.

But perhaps the most significant - and perhaps the saddest - accuracy in the commercial is that the Aging Astronaut is depicted as being rather old. 

Most of the astronauts were in their late thirties when they went to the moon (if anything the younger version of the Aging Astronaut may be too young). The last Lunar landing occurred in 1972, almost 45 years ago which means that of the twelve humans that have walked on the moon, all of them who are still alive are into their 80s today. Just this past week, Ed Mitchell passed away in West Palm Beach, Florida. He was the last surviving member of his Apollo 14 crew. It is a sad fact that there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when there will no living person who has walked on the surface of another world.

It's not often that a car commercial gets you ponder mortality, but then again, this is the Super Bowl we're talking about.

You know what's also good about this ad? The music. The song that begins to swell in the background as the octogenarian begins his joyride is of course "Starman" by David Bowie. Bowie, who himself died only a few weeks ago, is a perfect choice. The creators of the ad couldn't have known that was going to happen, but it does add another layer to what was already a surprisingly deep TV commercial:

There's a starman waiting in the sky.
He'd like to come and meet us
But he thinks he'd blow our minds.
There's a starman waiting in the sky.
He's told us not to blow it
'Cause he knows it's all worthwhile.


In Praise of Gemini

Gemini 7 as seen from Gemini 6, image courtesy NASA
Gemini 7 as seen from Gemini 6, image courtesy NASA

When I was a kid I went through several discernible "phases" where I was interested in / obsessed with a specific topic. These topics included South America, flags, aircraft and spaceflight. The interest in space arguably extends to this day.

One of the ways these phases were manifest was by me reading everything I could about space in our family's copy of the World Book Encyclopedia. Encyclopedias, if you will recall, were bound reference volumes where you went for information about things in the world. Instead of it being constantly updated online, this information was permanently printed on paper. It was very quaint.

At any rate, the 10-year-old version of me took a particular interest in the US Space Program from the first steps of the Project Mercury to the triumphal moon landings that occurred as part of the Apollo Program (the edition of the World Book we had was printed before the Space Shuttle had become a real thing).

In the years since then, I've maintained a interest in the subject although I approach it from a slightly different perspective. Now I'm fascinated in it from a design standpoint.

Although the engineering of the spacecraft themselves is compelling, so too is the engineering of the process that allowed us to go from barely launching a single guy into space to successfully landing two guys on the moon. The fact that this occurred in less than 9 years in an era before the kind of computing we take for granted today makes the accomplishment all the more amazing.

That accomplishment did not happen in one giant leap, but rather it was accomplished through the achievements of several small steps. We remember the "firsts" of the Mercury missions and the triumphal moon landings of the Apollo missions, but the Gemini Missions were a critical step in the process.

Project Gemini consisted of ten manned missions that occurred in 1965 and 1966. Each flight carried two astronauts into low earth orbit where they practiced the techniques and technologies that would be required to land on the moon. On Gemini 5, for example, they tested the fuel-cells that would be needed to power a week-long trip to the moon and back. Gemini 6 and 7 practiced orbital rendezvous. Gemini 12 helped perfect the spacewalk techniques that are still used to this day.

Each flight built on the accomplishments of the one before it so that by 1969, the space program was ready to land on the moon. This incremental approach was in contrast to those of the Soviet Space Program that was able to accomplish several early milestones before the US, but those achievements were not part of a larger strategic plan. Although the Soviets had a moon program, it floundered whereas the US program succeeded.

The takeaway from all this is that the big, seemingly impossible tasks are achieved through small incremental steps. And although those small steps may be easy enough to achieve on their own, they must be planned so that they are all moving towards the larger goal.

I'm thinking about all this as I think about the office and all that we've accomplished this past year. I go back and forth on weather or not 2015 was a good one for HiWorks. On the one hand, a lot of really good things happened - we landed several exciting new projects and met a lot of interesting people as a result of the publication of the courthouse book. On the other hand we were considerably less profitable and we have less in savings now than we did at the beginning of the year. HiWorks has only existed for 3 years and so we are still in the early stages of our development. I'd like to think the little steps we are taking now are in the service of achieving a larger goal but we need to make certain we know what that goal is. Perhaps that's something we can do in 2016.

We'll let you know when we figure it out. Until then, Happy New Year.