In St. Louis in May 1996, Dr. Peter Diamandis, chairman and founder of the X Prize Foundation, set out to prove that commercial space travel is viable.Eight years and millions of media impressions later, the culmination of his odyssey unfolded in the Mojave Desert. On October 4, 2004, a craft funded by billionaire Paul Allen, Microsoft cofounder, and built by legendary aerospace engineer Burt Rutan won the $10 million X Prize, a competition among the most talented entrepreneurs and rocket experts in the world.
In the X Prize, teams privately finance, build, and launch a spaceship able to carry three people to 62.5 miles, return it safely to Earth, and repeat the launch with the same ship within two weeks. The Allen-Rutan team was the first to do so.
Several months before that, CarryOn Communication was recruited to execute a campaign that quickly escalated from soliciting media coverage to managing a torrent of global interest.
"Space travel was thought to be exclusively an area for the government or those with $20 million to spend," Diamandis says. "We wanted to ignite a commercial space-flight revolution. So we needed a promotional effort with dramatic human interest, elements of adventure, and breakthrough technology."
CarryOn faced formidable obstacles, chief among them being establishing credibility with a skeptical media. And logistically speaking, accommodating 700-plus media outlets in the middle of the Mojave Desert - a three-hour drive from LA - for a 3am start was no easy task.
"Going into it, we knew this was something special, but didn't know it would turn into a two-month media storm," says Sarah Evans, the CarryOn VP who headed up the X Prize account.
"The challenge changed from trying to attract attention to being faced with accommodating this avalanche of interest from media outlets from around the world," Evans adds.
To establish credibility, CarryOn focused activities on teams ready for flight and most likely to succeed, coordinating access to crews, pilots, and flights.
CarryOn provided state-of-the-art filing centers, surface-to-air and air-to-air photos, FTP sites for images, wi-fi access, and pool feeds for long- and short-range satellite b-roll uploads.
From construction of runway bleachers for clear camera shots, to hourly press briefings, staging large-scale press conferences and orchestrating interviews, CarryOn had its hands full.
And, with sponsorships a key aspect of the overall event, CarryOn developed special press briefings for the largest donors: the Ansari family, M&M's, 7-Up, and Champ Car World Series.
During the duration of the two flights, close to 500 interviews were conducted within a 10-day period, with international print and electronic reporters.
CarryOn's outreach netted the event 3,000 broadcast stories - including 60 Minutes and five consecutive days on Today - and more than 1,300 print stories from major dailies, news weeklies, and long-lead magazines.
Roughly 520 front-page stories were secured, including the November 29 cover of Time.
More than 24,000 consumers attended launch events in the Mojave Desert, including more than 700 media representatives.
In addition, 942 online stories appeared. On the day of the winning flight, the X Prize website alone received 21,256,482 hits, up from zero hits in July.
As featured in last month's Wired cover story, brash billionaire Sir Richard Branson will invest millions to build several likenesses of prize-winner SpaceShipOne to power Virgin Galactic, which will begin operating flights in 2007.
CarryOn will also promote the upcoming X Prize Cup, an annual event in New Mexico, to spur further entrepreneurialism in space travel.
PR team: CarryOn Communication (Los Angeles) and the X Prize Foundation (St. Louis)
Campaign: Ansari X Prize $10M Race to Space
Time frame: May to November 2004