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One giant leap for space ads

Bigelow Aerospace
A picture from inside Bigelow Aerospace's Genesis 1 inflatable spacecraft shows
items floating in space, and corporate logos on the walls of the interior. Many of
the logos have been obscured for legal reasons.

The latest batch of photos from inside Bigelow Aerospace's orbiting Genesis 1 spacecraft may look like merely sharper versions of previous snapshots, with cards and trinkets floating around in zero-G. But a few added features stand out: the corporate logos for Bigelow Aerospace itself and another of billionaire Robert Bigelow's ventures, Budget Suites of America, plus a veritable outbreak of pixellated spots on the image.

Those logos hint at another small step toward a giant leap in space commercialization: the first ads to be beamed down from a privately developed spacecraft in orbit.

Sure, there have been ads in space before. During the heyday of Russia's Mir space station, cosmonauts filmed spots for an Israeli milk company and even deployed a giant inflatable Pepsi can as part of a commercial campaign. (You can see a picture of the deployment on this French-language Web page.)

On the international space station, Pizza Hut, Radio Shack and Popular Mechanics worked out deals with the Russians for ad gimmicks (such as the "first pizza delivery in space"). Check out this roundup for the history of ads in space.

JP Aerospace, meanwhile, is selling ads at $100 a pop for display on its balloon-lofted platforms. The balloons bring ads up to an altitude of 100,000 feet or so - not quite the internationally accepted boundary of space (100 kilometers or 62 miles) but high enough to provide a pretty neat backdrop.

The photos from the interior of Bigelow Aerospace's inflatable space module don't show the curving Earth below, as its exterior photos do - but there still might be a novelty factor. In fact, Bigelow tested the waters this time by printing logos from other corporations on the craft's shiny interior walls, without working out deals with the corporations in advance. Thus, for legal reasons, Bigelow Aerospace had to fuzz out the logos before it could release the images provided today.

The test suggests that orbital ads may provide another revenue stream for Bigelow's business model. The company is already taking orders to "fly your stuff" on Genesis 2 and other spacecraft to come. The idea is that you'd be able to spot your business card (or treasured Spongebob Squarepants toy) in imagery transmitted from orbit.

Bigelow emphasized that the newly released images aren't yet the best that the company can do:

"The images are a small sample of what we hope to produce in the 'Fly Your Stuff' program.  The blurred images are actual photos and items in flight. As these are all preliminary samples, they do not accurately reflect the quality of image we hope to produce.  The images we produce for the 'Fly Your Stuff' program should be of a higher resolution and clarity, as we will have more cameras, improved main antenna signal and increased data streams."

I'd love to hear from business types whether spacecraft ads could provide a good model for the space advertising world, or whether this idea is as obsolete as the Mir space station. What other commercial possibilities could space entrepreneurs provide? Feel free to "ad" your comments below.