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Vector is actually supposed to smell like space.
Vector is actually supposed to smell like space.
Photo by Michael Roberts

Inside Lockheed Martin's Epic Smell of Space Prank

Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space has boldly gone where it's never gone before — by making a joke. Its April 1 faux-launch of Vector, a new fragrance line that supposedly captures the "aroma of space," managed to trick plenty of folks, including experienced science reporters and even some of its own personnel.

"I got lots of calls from media and employees asking for samples," says Alex Walker, marketing lead for Lockheed Martin Space and the man who oversaw one of the most quizzical projects ever for the venerable operation. "And I was like, 'Did you check the date?'"

Because there's a long and proud history of April Fool's Day pranks in Colorado, it's difficult for a local company to pull off such a stunt. But Lockheed Martin Space had an advantage, having previously shown little evidence that its corporate culture includes a sense of humor. Walker used that to his advantage. As he puts it, "I suspected that people would believe us, because we're usually pretty conservative in our marketing tactics."

That's putting it mildly. Lockheed Martin Space's previous messaging has focused on the wonders of exploring planets and galaxies beyond our own. But Walker, who joined LMS in January 2018 after stints as a producer at CNN and senior manager of communications for Facebook, felt this buttoned-up image needed some updating for purely practical reasons.

"Lockheed Martin Space is competing with no fewer than 900 space-technology startups," he says. "The economy around space has fundamentally changed, and we've got to change to keep up. So we decided to engage in more disruptive marketing concepts. It goes a long way toward reinforcing our brand, and it's a lot of fun doing it."

An early example of these efforts dates to November 26, when the outfit marked the landing of its InSight spacecraft on Mars by temporarily changing its name to "Lockheed Martian," as seen in the following animation.

The idea for Vector came to Walker last fall, when he visited the Virginia Tech campus accompanied by what he calls "a recruitment asset: the Lockheed Martin Challenge Box."

The fourteen-foot tall black tube "looked like a giant cologne bottle. It reminded me of Drakkar Noir," he notes.

At first this comparison was a private gag. But Walker realized it had greater potential after hearing a tale told by Tony Antonelli, a former astronaut and onetime pilot of Space Shuttle Discovery who's now working for Lockheed Martin Space.

"Tony is one of the top guys in our Orion program," Walker explains. "He's leading our efforts on Exploratory Mission 2, the first Orion mission designed to carry humans back to the Moon. And he said, 'I know what space smells like.' He described being on board the International Space Station, where one of his missions was to help un-suit space walkers coming back inside. And when he did, he said he smelled this sort of burning, metallic-like quality. And that clicked in my mind. I thought, 'Why don't we interview Tony about this story?' And the punchline would be that he was inspired by this smell to come back and bottle it."

Antonelli went along, and the video of him offering his explanation was a key part of an elaborate website introducing Vector, named for the star in the Lockheed Martin logo.

"The first time I opened the hatch to help space walkers back inside, I was blown away by the strong and unique odor they brought back," Antonelli is quoted as saying in the PR material concocted for Vector. "I had smelled nothing like it before and nothing like it since. Until now. Lockheed Martin has a history of achieving the impossible, but this is the dawn of a new scent and its most intoxicating achievement yet. The fragrance is truly out of this world."

Here's the Antonelli video:

For the stunt's coup de grâce, Walker decided to actually create Vector, so that samples could be sent out with media packages (as seen in the photo at the top of this post). And he took this chore seriously, sort of.

"Based on Tony's description of that burning metallic scent, we went to a local perfumery in Denver and told them we were looking for something that smelled like a mix of burning diesel fuel," he reveals. "They looked at us like, 'What are you talking about?'"

Nonetheless, the company "bottled up three different samples," Walker continues. "We took them back to the office and the marketing team at Lockheed Martin Space held a blind sniff test. And ultimately, two-thirds of us landed on the same scent. So that's the one we bottled up and sent to reporters in advance."

The main clue in the media packet that Vector wasn't an actual product was the April 1 dateline on the press release. But while some scribes caught on early (Tariq Malik of space.com created a video of him spritzing a cloud of the stuff and then walking through it), others thought the concept was genuine. "The website definitely looks real," Walker acknowledges with pride.

The success of the stunt has already inspired a sequel. The 35th annual Space Symposium, which Walker characterizes as "the premier space symposium of the year," is scheduled to take place April 8-11 at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, and Lockheed Martin Space has manufactured 2,000 samples of the scent to hand out to attendees.

The samples are "pretty strong," Walker concedes. "Space is not for the faint of heart, and neither is Vector."

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