Blog, Creative Solutions, Product Management

Get ready to launch the first outer space concert

Boreal Aurora from the ISS
Ever wondered how to manage a complex project involving a spaceship and one of the most famous star of the scene? Follow me through the path to the stars.

It shouldn’t be easy to work in such a mega company conglomerate as Virgin Group. The holding from Sir Richard Branson consists in hundreds of companies in the most different industries around the world, from entertainment to travel, from music to beverages.

If you think that working in so many different environments with so few things in common sounds completely messy, I’ll challenge you by saying that it can also be a cool opportunity if you are creative and crazy enough to think out of the box. And when I say out of the box, I mean out, as in outer space.

Because yes, they are working on that as well. They are developing a new model of spaceship for sending you, my dear wealthy reader, out of this planet for a short zero-gravity journey. Let’s call it the next frontier of tourism: when every place on Earth has been discovered and commercialized you can always rely on the unique experience of leaving gravity for a couple of minutes.

It is the dream of generations of young kids made reality. Anyone can be a cosmonaut. (Which reminds me of “Anyone can cook”, the motto of Chef Gusteau from Ratatouille).

But creating a new type of experience requires also a good dose of adventurous marketing to prepare the mass market to the concept. And here it is, the exploding idea: launching Lady Gaga for the first concert out of Earth. Ever.

Nice but tricky. Where audience sees an amazing extraterrestrial show, we project managers see a great challenge. We see a lot of complications, an infinite to-do list, QA testing and much more. But we are not afraid of that.

So how would I make it?

I will try to narrow down the main aspects of this colossal interdisciplinary project, focusing on the ones that deserve most attention. My proposition will cover the following points:
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  • Ubiquitous applications for content delivery. The event can be followed by anyone, anywhere.
  • Agreements with Youtube, Virgin Mobile and any other influential partner.
  • On-Ground massive concert weekend, in collaboration with V Festival.
  • TV coverage by NBC Universal and international partners.
  • Creation of a custom designed SpaceShipTwo with live recording capabilities.

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To open a chapter just click on the relative title.

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The SpaceShipTwo will host the Lady Gaga space concertWe don’t want to leave anyone behind. If we work at Virgin, we know that breaking the common rules is just our daily routine. So for the launch of the first mass market space travel the main issue is how to be bold. With this objective in mind, we must focus on overcoming any existing record for online events.

The current most viewed live Youtube show is the RedBull Stratos mission (which accidentally happens to be yet another edge-of-space event), with 8 millions concurrent livestreams. Thanks to technology advances today we are seeing bigger numbers for socially smaller events. Just think that in 2011 the Royal Wedding reached around 300.000 concurrent viewers while the Xbox One presentation this fall reported a 8.4M viewership in 24 hours (there are no data for the concurrent livestreams).

The key to ride this technological wave is being ubiquitous and streaming our event in every possible device and channel. So if the partnership with Youtube seems foregone, the main asset will be the agreement with Virgin Mobile. Thanks to its presence in 4 continents, Virgin Mobile can provide the live stream to a potential market of millions of customers without even consuming their mobile data traffic.

It is the best possible partnership between two companies of the same group. The classical win-win game. The Virgin mobile companies can offer their customers the opportunity to watch the entire event in streaming from their favorite mobile device (even in HD quality with 4G coverage). They can also include the event in the “sponsored data”, where the bandwidth hungry live stream won’t worn out the usually small monthly allowance.

It is a huge communication claim for both Virgin Galactic and the Virgin Mobile companies. And also a smart way to join forces for the achievement of the bigger goal: converting Lady Gaga’s space concert in the most viewed online event ever.

So the first milestone will be the creation of a mobile APP (for iOS, Android and whatever is going to be cool in 2015) including promotional material, the online streaming of the event and why not, the possibility to win a ticket for the party. What party? Keep on reading…

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Spaceport AmericaThanks to the pervasive connectivity, anyone can follow the show from wherever they are. This is just ok for most of people.

But we do care about the true fans who want more, so we have to provide them an unforgettable experience. Actually Virgin is already teasing this idea with an empty (for the moment) webpage: Zero G Colony, a music experience that is really out of this world. I even like the claim.

The perfect place for the event is the new “Spaceport America”, the evolution of the airport for space vessels. The place is in the south of New Mexico, so I can’t stop thinking about a futuristic version of Coachella. Ok, it will be a smaller version and a very much more exclusive venue than Coachella. But it would be surrounded by the same desert-like environment in the middle of nowhere, where Lady Gaga’s fans and new-emotions-seekers will find their perfect place.

As we are not here just to sponsor a Lady Gaga event but to launch the perfect media campaign for Virgin Galactic, the whole spacial experience will be the center of attention. The entire event will last for a weekend, taking advantage of the fact that Lady Gaga has to complete a 3-day pre-flight preparation with spaceflight and aerospace medical experts.

So while other artists will play for a cheering audience at Spaceport America (Beyonce won’t be on the lineup since we will keep her for the second performance from outer space), we will broadcast Lady Gaga’s cosmonaut training. Virgin already signed a partnership with NBC Universal for the first commercial spaceflight with Sir Richard Branson and his children. If the agreement goes well it can be extended and the TV giant will broadcast the whole weekend, including Lady Gaga’s experience and the on-ground concert.

Such a big event won’t be easy to manage, unless you are Virgin and already produce the annual V Festival in the UK. So all the logistics and management can be fearlessly entrusted to the V Festival organizers.

Now that the live coverage  and the onsite event seem under control, we just need to…

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Lady Gaga space concert simulationThis point will be the trickiest. Organizing an event with a worldwide sing star is a remarkable project. But introducing a spacecraft in the equation can scare even the most experienced project manager. How do we safely fly Lady Gaga for an outer space live performance and bring her back?

We can start with the assumption that the spaceflight is already safe. The Virgin Galactic team has made a great work by developing the SpaceShipTwo (which as the name suggest is the evolution of the SpaceShipOne) bearing in mind that safety is the most important aspect. Furthermore, Lady Gaga’s flight won’t be the first one nor the last one, so everything we will learn from the unmanned flights and the first commercial tourists will raise the overall security.

Once ascertained that the spacecraft is safe, we can slowly introduce some complexity.

The interior of the spaceship has to be a custom-made variant of the original one. There will be just one seat for the artist, leaving no room for other participants. The presence of a second guest could be both a danger for the showgirl and the performance. In order to guarantee top level security, two pilots will be flying the SpaceShipTwo, both trained for medical and technical issues.

This configuration leaves only one possible solution for performance direction: everything has to be controlled from ground. The on-board cameras will be recording the event from all the different angles but the on-ground direction room will decide which stream to download in every moment and directly air it. But here we have a couple of technical issues to address. First, in order to air the event as fast as possible (almost real time), we have to find a smart way to use the only bandwidth available.

Connect a spacecraft to a wifi network is not as simple as it may seems. The traditional wireless communication data systems use frequencies that are not suitable for a spaceflight. There are two main problems. The fact that the spacecraft is flying from an altitude of 15 kilometers (50.000 feet) to almost 100 kilometers (62 miles), beyond any theoretical range limit even for new technologies like LTE. And worse, the fact that the spaceship reaches a speed of 4000 km/h (2500 mph). At this super velocity, that corresponds at 3 times the speed of sound, it is impossible for any terrestrial antenna to keep the connection with a internet cell tower. The top velocity supported by the LTE technology is around 350 km/h (220 mph), not even a tenth of what we need.

If we can’t use the current terrestrial communication systems, we have to look somewhere else. If you follow on Twitter one of the many cosmonauts that in these years have been rotating in the International Space Station, you would see a lot of really cool pictures of the Earth from outside and video of life in absence of gravity. Have you ever wondered how do they update their twitter accounts from up there? They use satellite connections. It’s basically the same internet connections that people is forced to use in remote areas. The internet signal bounces from a base station to a satellite and then bounces back again to their spaceship’s antenna. This system would work even with our spacecraft.

But there is still one problem: it is kind of slow. The current Internet bandwidth at the International Space Station has an upload capacity of 3 Mbps, so it won’t be enough to broadcast an HD stream not even if properly compressed. We need at least a 15 Mbps upload connection in order to make it work. And the more, the better. The Ka band used in Global Express satellite system promises to reach a maximum speed of 50 Mbps and will be ready by the end of 2014. It could be an interesting solution.

Unfortunately even with an upgraded bandwidth it would be impossible for the on-ground staff to download simultaneously the streams from all the on-board cameras. The connection will allow just one single HD stream at a time, increasing the complexity of the job of the show direction. So in spite of showing everything simultaneously in high definition, a very low quality preview of what every camera is filming will be downloaded for direction purposes. Thanks to this system the staff can decide in real time when to switch the HD stream from one camera to the others, making it seamless for the audience. An on-board portable system will compress the stream from the cameras, creating a little delay with the broadcast.

Once the on-board telecommunication system is settled, we still have left a second big issue to face. The complexity of a complete testing flight with all the solutions that we have introduced. It is very important to properly test the communications system quality and its reliability because we cannot afford an unexpected behavior during the space concert. Every single mechanism has to be approved beforehand during ground testing, and only after the exhaustive checkout we can launch a final testing flight. There will be only one single occasion to test everything with the custom-made “Lady Gaga Spaceship”, because the cost of this flight will be as high as the cost of any other space flight. And we don’t want to waste money on more than one.

Once the light is green, we are finally done. We can’t wait for the big day.

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Let’s review our project check-list:

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  • Ubiquitous applications for content delivery. The event can be followed by anyone, anywhere.
  • Agreements with Youtube, Virgin Mobile and any other influential partner.
  • On-Ground massive concert weekend, in collaboration with V Festival.
  • TV coverage by NBCUniversal and international partners.
  • Creation of a custom designed SpaceShipTwo with live recording capabilities.

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Everything seems fine, so we can go home.. but just not yet. Our job is not finished here, there are a couple of more things to manage before open up one bottle of Italian Prosecco. Because even if all appears to be defined and on schedule, our simple presence during the event can make the difference.

It is a common procedure in project management leaving the operational work in the hands of who is going to follow us. It can be the customer operation department, the maintenance one, or any other one depending on the characteristics of the project. So we have already delineated the list of responsible people in our final documents and agreed it with our successors.

Suit by Ermenegildo ZegnaBut still, our role is to make sure that the final handover is the smoothest possible. So like a pilot in the port, we guarantee that the boat leaves the docks without fearing any danger. Only when the ship is safe in the open, we retire from this project and get ready for a new adventure. With this simple rule in mind, we prepare for the unknown. The day of the Lady Gaga event we wake up with our phone fully charged, because it will ring a lot. We take a full breakfast with a double coffee, because we don’t know if we are going to be able to eat anything for the rest of the day. And we put on our best one-buttons broken suit, and there is no need to tell you why.

I have read that many football player prepare themselves the morning before a big match with simple pregame rituals. A good example is John Henderson, who likes to be slapped hard in the face. I do not have any rituals, because I fell that I don’t need to. When you have control over everything that runs around you, when you have double-checked (or triple-checked) every single detail of the project you have so hard worked on, you don’t need everybody to wish you luck. You build your own luck.

Now sit tight and hold your breath, because while everyone else is enjoying the first space performance ever, we are going to be there for anyone who might need our help. Only at the end of the day, when the press will congratulate the team for the fantastic show, it will be the right time for opening that very deserved bottle of Prosecco.

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Infographic by The Coffee Route.
Photo courtesy of Virgin GalacticStyle.com and Nasa.

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