It’s a pity that comparatively few people were in Times Square on the morning of June 2. Because those who happened to be on hand got to watch a bit of history being made—the technological kind, and the branding kind, too.
Flickering across the seven-story LED screen at the corner of Broadway and 43rd Street were astronauts Bob Behnken, Doug Hurley and Chris Cassidy wearing black polo shirts and looking a little puffy in the weightlessness of the International Space Station. The three sent their greetings from orbit and saluted the progress of technology and the spirit of international cooperation. Then, at exactly 9:30 a.m., Cassidy, the ISS’s commander, took hold of a braided red rope tied to the clapper of a brass bell bolted to the side of the crew cabin—and pulled.
The resulting clang opened that Tuesday’s trading on the National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations, better known as Nasdaq.
Fortunately, tens of thousands of people working from home watched the event on YouTube and, irrespective of audience, it was a seminal event by any standard: the first time that a day of stock trading has been kicked off from orbit.
But the most impressive aspect of this bit of branding wasn’t so much the meteoric moment itself, but the planning and strategizing that preceded it. The short video hookup wasn’t just the result of six months of meticulous planning and technological derring-do; it was an event that the coronavirus very nearly derailed.
Here, then, is the story of how the historic marketing gambit went down.
What’s Nasdaq got to do with space?
Nasdaq is an electronic marketplace for securities trading, but it’s also a technology firm. Not only do stock exchanges from Australia to Iraq run on its software, the financial-services company has recently been looking to expand outside its immediate industry—to ticket purchasing, say, or health care exchanges. As such, Nasdaq finds itself looking for the sort of exposure you’d normally associate with a consumer tech brand, and this is where NASA comes into play. Not only do Americans associate NASA with futuristic technology, but space travel is, well, just cool.
Nasdaq had already been collaborating with NASA for a few years, but it wasn’t until last summer that the idea got going to stage something with the first astronauts to return to orbit since 2011, when NASA retired the space shuttle.
“We started talking about how amazing it would be to open up the U.S. equity markets from space,” Nasdaq CMO Jeremy Skule told Adweek. “The idea was positively received with their strategic partnership group, and the conversation went on from there.”
While the relationship benefits Nasdaq by adding the cachet of space exploration to the abstruse world of digital stock trading, NASA stood to reap some benefits as well. The American space program’s recent renaissance has blossomed from partnerships with the private sector. SpaceX, which holds a six-mission contract worth some $2.6 billion, designed and built the Crew Dragon capsule and the Falcon 9 rocket that drove it into orbit. Boeing—at work on its own capsule, called the CST-100 Starliner—hopes to launch its first manned flight next year.
And with the Trump administration throttling back on funding, NASA is increasingly looking for the participation of private-sector brands to meet its development goals. “NASA and the International Space Station are open for business,” NASA’s associate communications administrator Bettina Inclán told Adweek. “NASA’s goal is to achieve a robust economy in low-Earth orbit from which NASA can purchase services as one of many customers.”
How to book an astronaut
In planning a live opening bell ringing from space, Nasdaq’s first hurdle was finding a time slot that would work for both the company and the men in space.
Even though the economy is in recession, there are still many companies doing IPOs right now, and all of them want a turn at the bell. Nasdaq had to honor standing agreements for guest bell ringers while also looking for a time that would fit into the work schedule of the astronauts.
“The biggest challenge was finding time in the astronauts’ busy schedule,” Inclán said. Astronauts live according to a complex schedule, much of which is devoted to science experiments and maintenance chores. Factor out the time devoted to working out, sleeping and, believe it or not, attending meetings, there’s only about an hour left per week for what Inclán calls “outreach activities.”
“We had to balance the business demands with some of the space station’s needs to find the right time between 9:20 and 9:40 a.m., when they had to be available,” Skule added. Taking all those variables into account, it all had to happen on the morning of June 2.
Anyone have a bell handy?
One thing that wasn’t a problem, surprisingly enough, was having to send a brass bell up into space. Turns out that the International Space Station already has one. “It’s a unique way to continue the naval tradition of ringing a bell to announce the arrival or departure of a ship,” Inclán said. (Even though the Crew Dragon capsule’s “trunk” is pretty big—1,300 square feet—and can lift over 13,000 pounds of payload into orbit, “it’s not easy to get things put on a rocket for the space station,” Skule said.)
A real brass bell was essential, Skule added, for the sake of “key symbolism”—or to make for a memorable marketing moment.
A virus threatens the whole enterprise
After months of work, a basic plan was in place, and then came the coronavirus, which threw a wrench into all of the planning by sending Nasdaq’s employees to work from home.
“Ninety-eight percent of Nasdaq staff around the globe are working remotely, including all the people who manage market-site operations,” Skule said. “So, we had to go through a number of tests of what we can do remotely, how the satellite link would work and how the latency would work.”
Latency is the term applied to a communications delay that results when several different systems are working in unison to transmit a signal. Astronauts on the ISS stay in touch with Mission Control in Houston through space network tracking and data relay satellites—and that signal would, for the Nasdaq opening, be routed through a Zoom call.
Basic physics were also a factor. While the International Space Station is only 254 miles above the earth, it’s usually nowhere near Times Square since it travels at 17,150 mph and orbits the earth 16 times a day.
In the end, Nasdaq’s homebound engineers were able to make everything work, and the delay turned out to be minor—between one and two seconds.
Eyes on the tower
From the beginning, Nasdaq execs knew that they wanted to make use of “the tower,” as the massive LED screen is known. And while the entire Crew Dragon launch appeared on the 10,000-square-foot screen, it was the live participation of the astronauts (who’d be shown at Godzilla-like proportions) that would make the moment.
“Collaborating with Nasdaq enables NASA to better communicate our message on how the U.S. space agency is assisting American companies in growing the space economy,” Inclán said. “We are happy to find opportunities like a seven-story Jumbotron.”
A big space broadcast in Midtown Manhattan recalled the historic afternoon of April 17, 1970, when thousands of spectators packed the floor of Grand Central Terminal to watch CBS News broadcast the return to earth of the astronauts from the troubled Apollo 13 mission.
Of course, those astronauts had to come back down. What would Nasdaq have done if Behnken, Hurley and Cassidy were late for the opening bell? Well, markets are markets. Had there been a problem, Skule said, “we would open with or without them.”