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Thursday, July 15, 2010

“The vehicle broke up at an altitude that was not survivable.”

The current edition of Esquire talks about the Red Bull Stratos project. Later this summer, BASE jumper and spacediver Felix Baumgartner will attempt a free-fall from a height of around 120,000 feet, hopefully hitting the sound barrier and surviving what the last man who tried couldn’t. The story though isn’t really about him as much it is another member of the team hired by Red Bull, Medical Director Dr. Jonathan B. Clark.

What I know about Red Bull from an advertising perspective is that their spirit of adventure always seems to have them promoting racing events outside the mainstream. Stratos definitely qualifies, and touches on something we’ve talked about on AdVerve before, in that, the changing nature of space exploration in America means private companies will likely be stepping in more and more to write checks for initiatives like this. As the article underscores, it also means private companies can push technical limits in ways that NASA just won’t anymore.

This all came together for me after seeing the Corvette commercial, and how we’re reminded of America’s once-great space program in its prime. Part of the reason Dr. Clark joined Stratos was that he was drawn to how the private sector can operate in ways NASA used to be able to, long before it became the bloated agency he still works for. When shortcuts are taken on Stratos, it’s them pushing things in a spirit of exploration without the baggage of government oversight and committees, let alone the pressure to meet deadlines. (Bruce Willis’ non-astronaut, hot-dogging crew in Armageddon also comes to mind.)

Still, it comes down to funding. To quote a line from The Right Stuff: “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

Without Red Bull, funding for the suit doesn’t happen. It’s more than a cool way to get their logo in space and on YouTube. You don’t see it on their bio page, and maybe it’s out of respect perhaps, but the other reason Dr. Clark is involved elevates this project from being just another brand promotion to something that could affect the safety of future space flight.

Dr. Clark’s wife Laurel was on board the Columbia when it disintegrated over Texas seven years ago. It’s clear he’s driven by the countless “What if?” scenarios that he’s played back in his mind. A successful jump in the specially-designed suit means they’re one step closer to developing a way for astronauts to survive a fall from space, the way his wife and the rest of the crew couldn’t.

Something tells me though I don’t think they’re focused on any other outcome.

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