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Space Gets Sponsored

Wed, 10/24/2012 - 3:25pm
Joel Hans, Managing Editor, Manufacturing.net

With the Red Bull Stratos mission ending in a resounding success, the energy drink maker just might have introduced the world to a new paradigm in how we push our technological limits through research and development. And it makes me wonder — could logo-emblazoned rockets and pressure suits become the new normal for dangerous and high-tech exploration, replacing the likes of that famous NASA patch? While Baumgartner didn't actually jump from "space," his success will most certainly be a model for future missions that go beyond the Kármán line with a faster pace of innovation than ever before.

Red Bull has a long history of unique marketing practices via sponsoring a bevy of extreme sports, such as mountain biking, snowboarding, motocross and even F1 racing teams. And those efforts are paying off in spades — Red Bull dominates its market, and the company is selling more cans of the stuff every year. There is no doubt that these ubiquitous sponsorships equal more sales, and analysts are predicting that Red Bull will have a record season following the Stratos jump.

There’s clear economic benefit for Red Bull, then, and based on its hefty marketing investments the company has plenty more money where Stratos came from. What’s even more important — and more revolutionary to these “out there” industries — is that Red Bull is a private company, free from stakeholders and Congress alike. This gives them an enormous amount of agility when it comes to what projects they want to sponsor, and to what extent. They’re even more “free,” in a way, than SpaceX, which is currently contracting directly with NASA on every cargo mission to the International Space Station.

But there is still a lot of confusion over why the company whose product “gives you wings” would write checks so that Felix Baumgartner could jump from 128,000 feet above the Earth. Red Bull has long touted the mission as a means to learn more about how the human body — and the corollary technology — behaves in new environments. Some have remained skeptical about the efficacy of those claims, saying that Stratos was nothing more than an Evel Knievel-esque stunt meant to hawk more sugary drinks.

With Red Bull at the helm of high-tech missions, it’s fair to have some degree of skepticism. Exploration has almost always been the fruits of a government-backed investment or agency, such as NASA. The last sixty years of space travel, along with the decades of research that led up to it, is a testament to how much can be learned and invented on a government-managed budget. The problem is that while NASA, in its “Space Race” heyday, once collected a paycheck that was worth 4.41 percent of the nation’s budget. In the next few years, it will be lucky to get one-tenth of that.

Private investment in space missions is a recent phenomenon, mostly because it hasn’t been much of a safe investment. Red Bull (and companies like SpaceX) is showing that old paradigm is no longer the case. Never before has a company actually stood to benefit from spending what must amount to be an incredible amount of money on a single stunt. Today, we have services like YouTube, which streamed the jump live, and countless social media sites, all of which were abuzz with the jump. Red Bull’s logo was emblazoned across what were probably the most-viewed images in the world that day. It’s hard to put a dollar figure on that ROI, but it’s going to be big.

Pilot Felix Baumgartner jumps out from the capsule during the final manned flight for Red Bull Stratos in Roswell, New Mexico, USA on October 14, 2012. (Photo credit: Red Bull Stratos)

Skepticism aside, there will be real scientific and technological benefits to the Stratos jump. A firm by the name of David Clark Company was responsible for designing and building the high-tech pressure suit that Baumgartner used during his jump. The company added unique customizations to a suit that they had already developed for high-altitude pilots. David Clark Company is undoubtedly the world’s expert on these types of risky missions, as it has been responsible for designing just about every pressure suit on every NASA mission since Armstrong and Aldwin stepped on the moon — and they even made the suit that Joseph Kittinger wore when he set the previous record for the highest freefall at 102,800 feet.

In regards to the Stratos jump, Dan McCarter, a program manager at the David Clark Company, said, “Now we know a little more on how to reposition arms and legs on the suit. Of course, we're always doing research and development. ... New knee joints, new elbow joints, lighter hardware. It's nonstop. We are currently working on the next-generation of suit right now for NASA and the Air Force.”

In addition, the Stratos jump was commandeered, in part, by Dr. Jonathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon. After his wife, Laurel, died onboard the Columbia accident in 2003, he dedicated himself to developing safer systems for space crews in the event of an emergency. He has said that data on Baumgartner’s jump will be priceless when developing better safety systems in the future. Said data includes the 2.5G spin that Baumgartner found himself in during freefall if he had not been able to regain control thanks to his extensive skydiving experience.

Mission accomplished. This is a formula that has now been proven to work for everyone involved. Red Bull will make record sales. The private contractors get more work, and have a unique opportunity to push their technology to its limits. And in the end, NASA will collect all of these advancements for the next time we feel like venturing to the moon, or rocketing to Mars.

I’m hesitantly thrilled to see where this new formula will take us. As long as we can look past the logos that will, no doubt, be dashed across future missions like Red Bull Stratos, there isn’t much room for criticism, in my opinion. It’s faster, more agile, and reduces risk to taxpayers. And as long as Red Bull doesn’t try to plaster the moon with their logo, they won’t get any complaints from me.

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