WASHINGTON — When a Georgia-based marketing company announced last April that it was seeking an advertiser for a giant floating billboard it would launch into Earth's atmosphere, some members of Congress thought the idea was ridiculous.
So ridiculous, they feared, that some publicity-starved company might take them up on it.
"If advertisers are willing to pay $1.7 million for a minute of ad time during the Super Bowl," said Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.), "it's frightening to imagine how much they might pay to have their ad seen by half of the world for 15 days."
So Jeffords, along with four members of the House of Representatives, introduced legislation to prevent the Transportation Department from issuing a launch license for any venture seeking to put an advertisement in space, and make it illegal to import goods from firms that have advertised at such heights.
The bill has been applauded by citizens' groups, environmentalists and scientists who say a space billboard would be an atmospheric eyesore.
But the billboard company, Space Marketing Inc. of Roswell, Ga., remains undeterred. It continues to look for an advertiser--11 companies have expressed interest--and says the billboard could be ready for launch in time for the 1996 Summer Olympics.
According to Space Marketing's design specifications, the billboard's advertising space would be a half-mile by quarter-mile sheet of Mylar, a strong, Space Age plastic that can be rolled and packed tightly. Once ejected from the launch vehicle, the reflective sheet would unfurl and be pulled taut by a framework of inflating Mylar tubes.
From Earth, 150 miles away, the billboard would appear about half the size of the full moon. Any company logo it bears would be visible to the naked eye, although the project's chief engineer says the billboard would not be intrusive. "Unless you're trying to see it, you won't," said Dr. Ron Humble of the University of Colorado Space Laboratory.
The billboard would generate no light or sound, Humble said, and its orbit would be designed to cover only that part of the planet the advertiser would like to reach. Traveling at about 20,000 m.p.h., it could be seen from any Earth location for only 10 minutes a day, and would burn up in the atmosphere after two weeks.
Humble estimates the cost at $25 million--$20 million for a launch vehicle, plus the costs of materials, engineering and operations.
Astronomer Carl Sagan and consumer advocate Ralph Nader have joined the outcry against the billboard. Environmental groups, including the Audubon Society, have threatened to organize a boycott of any company that advertises on it. The Public Interest Research Group has picketed Space Marketing's headquarters.
Space Marketing President Mike Lawson says opposition to the space billboard stems from misunderstanding of the project's intentions.
"If we had called it a space platform from the beginning there would have been no interest," Lawson said. "Because we called it a space billboard, that's what made it controversial."
Recently, Lawson has tried to redefine the project as a scientific venture, playing down its commercial aspects. Press releases from Space Marketing refer to the "environmental billboard," and point out that it will be fitted with ozone-measuring sensors that will continue to function long after the advertisement has disintegrated.
"The whole objective was to have a global company foot the bill for scientific research," Lawson said. That argument has failed to sway opponents, who say opening the skies to commercial exploitation isn't a price worth paying, even for research.
"Putting billboards in space is a bad idea no matter to whom or what they claim to be giving a share of the profits," Jeffords said. "Companies can support space and environmental research and tell us about it through newspapers, TV and radio; they don't need to ruin our sunsets."