CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Talk about commercial spaceflight.
After SpaceX's Dragon capsule berthed at the International Space Station last month, the action from the first private resupply mission was essentially over until Dragon's departure weeks later.
So why not take advantage of the lull to sell some T-shirts?
"While Dragon's at the space station, get your ‘Year of the Dragon' tee and more here," SpaceX tweeted, providing a link to an online store offering shirts, hats and onesies.
Other NASA contractors sell merchandise but rarely promote it during the high-stakes, high-cost space missions to which they contribute, either preferring or being asked to keep a low profile behind their government customer.
But flying a commercial mission in which it led the operation of both a rocket and spacecraft it designed, SpaceX seized the opportunity to promote its brand and connect with fans through the gear and social media, Local 6 News partner Florida Today reported.
"(The store) was launched as a response to public demand," said Katherine Nelson, vice president for marketing and communications for the Hawthorne, Calif-based company. "We heard loud and clear through social media, and directly, that the general public wanted the opportunity to purchase SpaceX gear. We hope to evolve our product offerings in the future."
A pair of experts in marketing and space memorabilia saw the product placement as reflective of the modern communications era in which 10-year-old SpaceX came of age, and as evidence that private space efforts are rekindling old enthusiasm for spaceflight.
"It's more a sign of times than a sign of commercial space specifically," said Robert Pearlman, a space historian and editor of CollectSpace.com. "It speaks to the fact that SpaceX lives within the social media, people-connected era that no longer is simply about answering to your shareholders or your customer base but embracing the public that follows your activities."
David Meerman Scott, a marketing strategist and collector of Apollo artifacts, said it reminded him of the marketing muscle NASA and its contractors flexed to help sell the public on a huge budget to land men to the moon.
"Some of the things that the commercial sector are doing now is almost harkening back to the days of Apollo," said Scott, the author of eight books including the best-selling "The New Rules of Marketing and PR." "The importance of Apollo to have that marketing and public relations component, which I think was for the most part lacking for the 30 years of the shuttle program, I think it's starting to come back."
In addition to the buzz created by SpaceX -- propelled by its celebrity CEO, Elon Musk -- Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace have won widespread attention for planned suborbital space tourism flights that are at least a year away.
Also last month, a record number of viewers -- more than 8 million -- tuned in to YouTube to watch Felix Baumgartner's free-fall from the edge of space, a mission sponsored by Red Bull, complete with a line of apparel.