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Meet NASA's Stunt Double: An Ad-Supported, Volunteer Space Program

To fund its missions, amateur space program JP Aerospace sends stuff to space on behalf of brands.

During its next space mission, JP Aerospace will photograph seven logos against the backdrop of Earth’s blue arc. It will send 120 business cards on their first trip to space and back for $10 a pop and videotape the out-of-this world journey partaken by a handful of Malaysian snack packets.

"Funding space missions is really hard," explains John Powell, the amateur space program’s founder. "Nobody thinks you can do it, so they don’t want to give you any money. People think you’re crazy, so they don’t want to give you any money. So we were looking for new ways of keeping the program going."

NASA has strict guidelines against advertising or endorsing products. Russia’s space program has no problem with endorsements (it once, for instance, delivered a pizza to space on behalf of Pizza Hut), but its mission schedule is less than flexible. So when brands want to shoot in space, they often turn to JP Aerospace.

More than 50% of the program’s annual funding comes from launching stuff into space on behalf of brands. Call it the first ad-supported space program.

JP Aerospace’s first advertisements were NASCAR-like sponsorships in which brands paid to have their logo slapped on a spacecraft. But eventually requests got more elaborate. In 2009, Nokia asked JP Aerospace to videotape a space-bound chair for a television ad (punchline: "armchair viewing, redefined").

Attached to a two-story-tall helium balloon by fishing line, the chair and camera setup rose 98,268 feet in 83 minutes. Nokia eventually turned the footage into a remake of a 2004 film called Escape Vehicle No. 6 by the artist Simon Faithfull, which followed a chair on its similar journey behind a weather balloon. The effect in both versions is eerily attention-grabbing.

Why not just use CGI to make a chair appear to be floating in space? Because, believe it or not, it’s cheaper to actually launch stuff into space than it is to make it look like you launched stuff into space. Powell says that on average his volunteer team charges about $40,000 per commercial. The last brand he worked with told him an estimate for accomplishing the same shot in CGI was $300,000.

Then there’s the appeal of more complicated space maneuvers. Last year, JP Aerospace helped launch (literally) the Samsung Galaxy II. It displayed photos taken at a concert launch event in Tokyo on the screen of a Galaxy II that was dangling above the atmosphere in the arms of a plastic astronaut figurine. Footage of the plastic astronaut was beamed back to the big screen in Tokyo so concert-goers could see their photos in space.

The maneuver took more than a year and 17 test flights to set up. It was complicated. Powell may be good at advertising, but he never set out to start an advertising company. When he launched JP Aerospace in 1979, his team was bidding for a NASA contract. Powell says the group had made it to the final round when NASA learned they were all 17—too young to legally sign a contract.

Still, the startup raised money and was working on a satellite when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. Investors withdrew their funding shortly later, and JP Aerospace, unable to pay employees, by default became a volunteer organization.

Today’s team is a hodgepodge of lawyers, doctors, accountants and other people who wanted to be astronauts while growing up but never took the right classes. They’re volunteers, but they’re doing real space work. Most recently, they smashed the world altitude record by four miles. Within a year, they plan to send someone to space.

"We’ve been able to do so much more, develop the technology we wanted to develop and head in the direction we really wanted to go this whole time," Powell says about his startup turned volunteer organization. "We’re the only space company completely in the black for 35 years."

While NASA was planning its admittedly more ambitious $2.5 billion Curiosity Mission to Mars, JP Aerospace launched its record-breaking spacecraft for about $30,000—most of which it earned by floating cameras behind helium balloons with brands on board.

"I think it’s more dignified than taking tax dollars," Powell says.

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