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Rockets boosted by fashion

DKNY
The Bridenstine Rocket Racing Team will fly DKNY's colors, as seen in this artwork.

Do rocket planes and men's fashions ever mix? The Rocket Racing League and DKNY certainly hope so: They've struck a sponsorship deal that will give ample exposure to DKNY's fashion brand on the league's flight suits and one of the rocket racers.

It's one more example showing how the league's rocketeers are following the model set in auto racing. NASCAR teams have long festooned their uniforms with sponsors' logos - and the organizers of the Rocket Racing League want to work that into their business model as well.

DKNY, the league's first corporate sponsor, is a fashion label created by designer Donna Karan that has spawned a network of retail stores as well. "This is not a company that sponsors NASCAR or Formula One, and the fact that they are sponsoring the Rocket Racing League is unique," Granger Whitelaw, the league's chief executive officer, told me.

Whitelaw and X Prize mastermind Peter Diamandis founded the league three years ago as a vehicle for bringing the excitement of auto racing to rocket-powered aerobatics. The first public flight demonstrations of the league's rocket planes are scheduled for next week at the Experimental Aviation Association's annual AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wis.

Fashions for flight
DKNY will be showing off its fashions for flight in Oshkosh as well, to coincide with the launch of the DKNY Men clothing brand.

The pairing of the new clothing line and the racing league was the result of discussions between the executives of the two ventures. "Everything just aligned," Patti Cohen, executive vice president for global marketing and communications at Donna Karan International, told me in an e-mail.

"Rocket Racing is exciting, innovative, fast and fun, attributes which completely mirror the DKNY man," Cohen said. "DKNY loves the innovation aspect of the sport, which we strive to do creatively in our own business model."

DKNY
These designs are being adapted into uniforms for the Santa Fe Racing Team,
one of the groups intending to compete in the Rocket Racing League.

DKNY is paying to sponsor the Bridenstine Rocket Racing Team, one of six teams aiming to compete in the league, Whitelaw said. That means the corporate logo will appear on the wings of the Bridenstine rocket plane.

In addition, DKNY is sponsoring the entire league, which means they'll be providing branded flight suits for all of the teams' pilots and pit crews.

"The flight suits were inspired by NASCAR suits, but we really wanted to be sure that the suits had the aesthetic of an actual flight suit rather than NASCAR," Cohen explained. "NASCAR suits are much heavier, and these suits are lighter and sleeker."

Cohen said DKNY also wanted to make sure the pilots had the mobility, ventilation and safety margin they would need for riding a rocket.  "This is the first time DKNY has ever worked with the flame-retardant fabric Nomex, which is essential for rocket flight," she told me.

The league's executives and staff members will be sporting DKNY duds as well. "So I'll be well-dressed," Whitelaw quipped.

The rocket report
Two rocket racers will be on display at the Oshkosh show: One is equipped with a kerosene-fueled engine developed by California-based XCOR Aerospace, whle the other will have an alcohol-fueled engine from Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace.

XCOR and Armadillo both hope to parlay their work for the Rocket Racing League into even more powerful craft for suborbital spaceflight.

XCOR has been working with the league for a long time, and its plane is fully cleared for takeoff for demonstration flights, Whitelaw said. Armadillo got into the game much later, and it's not yet clear whether the plane it has been working on will fly in Oshkosh.

Whitelaw said on Monday that the Federal Aviation Administration "has not given us the releases for the Armadillo-powered racer yet, just the XCOR-powered racer thus far … but the 'Dillo plane is and has been 100 percent flight-ready for two weeks now."

FAA spokesman Les Dorr told me that both planes have special airworthiness certificates for experimental research and development. However, he said it was "highly unlikely" that the Armadillo-powered plane would be cleared for takeoff in Oshkosh.

Whitelaw's plan calls for both planes to fly at a succession of air shows that follow Oshkosh, including September's Reno Air Races and November's Aviation Nation in Nevada. That would lead up to the first televised races no earlier than the end of 2009, he said. "We'll be adding planes as we go forward now," he said.

Art of the deal
If the races match Whitelaw's expectations, it should be quite a show: The rocket planes would spew 15-foot plumes of flame as they roar around a "raceway in the sky" at speeds in excess of 300 mph.

But it will take more than a good show to get the league off the ground, and that's why Whitelaw places so much importance on the art of the deal. He's hoping that the DKNY sponsorship will set a model for the future - not only for the Rocket Racing League, but for suborbital space ventures to come.

"We all in the space arena talk about commercial space and the privatization of space, but what the conversation boils down to is, 'What's going to make the investors get involved?' No one really has an answer" he said. "And I say, 'Guys, you've got to get the people interested in it.' ... When you can get it down to a business model that Wall Street understands and commercial America understands, then you'll have success."

Update for 3 p.m. ET July 23: The FAA's Les Dorr expanded on the reasons why the Armadillo-powered plane probably won't be flying in Oshkosh. "They came to us relatively late, and we weren't able to work up limitations [for exhibition flight] similar to what we did for the XCOR airplane," he said.

Armadillo is not using the same airframe that XCOR is using, so the FAA needs to know how the two models differ, and get more details about how operations would be handled in flight and on the ground for an exhibition, Dorr said. The certification process is continuing, and it's conceivable that the Armadillo-powered plane would be good to go for air shows later this year.