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Jason DavisApril 5, 2018

Funpost! A milk commercial in space

Welcome back for another weekly Funpost! 

Last week's Tiangong-1 reentry madness got me thinking about other old space stations; particularly, the venerable Mir, which launched as a Soviet station in 1986 and reentered Earth's atmosphere as a Russian station in 2001. 

For many Russian institutions, the transition from communism to capitalism in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse was rocky, and the aerospace industry was no exception. The Mir program in particular became cash-strapped, forcing the Russians to turn to the time-honored Western tradition of MONETIZING CONTENT through advertising. 

What resulted was a truly bizarre, yet undeniably awesome, commercial:

As commercials go, it's pretty good! It was filmed inside both Mir and Russia's mission control center in Korolyov, and uses real footage of a Russian rocket launch for the milk run. (I'm pretty sure the milk came up on a Progress supply ship, but if you adjust your nerd glasses and look closely, you'll notice the commercial uses a Soyuz. BIG MISTAKE, TNUVA.)

Even the fact that the Russian flight director is drinking a truly HUGE glass of milk with no accompanying foodstuffs doesn't seem terribly weird, because milk was all-pervasive during the 80s and 90s. I know this because I grew up firmly in the grasp of BIG MILK, which blitzed scrawny boys like me with commercials saying popular girls would dig us if we just kept drinking milk. On top of that, my mother grew up on a farm, so flight director-sized glasses of milk were mandatory at our dinner table. 

There's an interesting backstory to this milk commercial! I first learned about it in the book Dragonfly: NASA and the crisis aboard Mir, by Bryan Burrough, published in 1998. Dragonfly is a great book on the Shuttle-Mir program, and I highly recommend it if you want to have all your stereotypes about Russian space stations validated.

The cosmonaut who stars in the milk commercial is Vasily Tsibliyev, who faced many problems during his two stints aboard Mir, including an out-of-control Progress vehicle that smashed into the station and caused a hull breach. Here's an excerpt from Dragonfly about the milk commercial; the other two people mentioned are NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger and cosmonaut Aleksandr Lazutkin, who goes by Sasha.

Among the food items Linenger has requested from the ground are pretzels, and to his delight, he spies a bag of Rold Gold pretzels nestled in the Progress as the crew continues unpacking that weekend. Linengener grabs the bag and is just about to open it when Tsibliyev stops him.

"Hey, don't eat those!" the commander says. "Those are for the commercial."

In the midst of one of the more difficult periods Mir has endured in its eleven-year history, the TsUP [Russia's mission control] has scheduled Tsibliyev to perform not one but two television commercials, one for Rold Gold, the other for an Israeli milk company. Linenger can tell Tsibliyev is embarrassed to be filming the commercials, which is one reason, he suspects, the commander insists on doing them late at night. 

The first to be filmed is the milk commercial, which requires Tsibliyev to gobble globs of milk floating in the air; there is no speaking part.

"I couldn't believe it," Linenger remembers. "In the middle of all this, they want him to do a milk commercial. All of a sudden, at 11:30 at night, we need to do a milk commercial. 'Stop working on the oxygen generator, we have to do a milk commercial!' I could see he was sort of ashamed that the Russian space program had degenerated into doing milk commercials, so I said 'Good night' so he could do it. Then later I came back out and saw Sasha filming him. He looks at me and turns beet red. It was embarrassing for both of us."

Tsibliyev's embarrassment turns to irritation the next morning when the TsUP, acting on directions from the commercial's director, asks him to reshoot one scene. The commander, it turns out, hadn't been smiling.

UGH. You have to feel for Tsibliyev. But at least he did it in the name of MILK. By the way, if anyone has a link to that Rold Gold commercial, please send it my way—I've never been able to find it. 

That's it for this week's Funpost! If you have topics or questions for a future Funpost!, email me at [email protected] or leave a comment below. 

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Jason Davis

Digital Editor for The Planetary Society
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