Pitching products in the final frontier
By Richard Stenger
(CNN) -- Whether shooting commercials, delivering pizzas or requesting a beef jerky brand, voyagers to the international space station have transformed the most expensive scientific lab into the world's highest billboard.
Most of the capitalist commuters to space have been Russian cosmonauts, including Yury Usachev, the star of the first television advertisement produced in space station Alpha.
His ad has aired nationally in the United States ahead of Father's Day on June 17. In the 30-second spot, the Alpha commander receives a gift from his daughter, a photo of her in a talking picture frame, sold by electronics retailer RadioShack.
"Hey dad, we are wishing you good fortune and success in your job, and good relations with the crew," 12-year-old Evgenia says in a message recorded on the frame, her Russian subtitled in English.
Two cosmonauts who briefly visited the space station in early May worked as cameramen for the commercial. Incidentally, the pair rode to the station on a Soyuz spacecraft along with California businessman Dennis Tito, the first paying space tourist, who bought a roundtrip ticket to Alpha for about $20 million.
Pizza boys in space
Besides floating around with cameras for RadioShack, the cosmonauts delivered the first pizza to space for Pizza Hut. The company has reached space before, having slapped its logo on a Russian Proton rocket that blasted off last year.
"Wherever there is life, there will be Pizza Hut pizza," said Randy Grier, a company spokesman.
To withstand the rigors of space travel, the pizza was made in a small size and with salami instead of pepperoni, which did not hold up well during testing.
Who hammed it up with the round snack in front of the camera? Usachev, of course. On previous ventures into orbit, the veteran of product endorsements has pitched an Israeli milk brand and even the soft drink Pepsi. The floating spokesman earned no dough of his own for the commercial work. Rather, companies have contributed to the Russian space program.
Alpha hosted yet another product endorsement in May, albeit one with much less fanfare. Weeks after the Soyuz crew returned home, a Russian supply ship brought along a care package with a brand of beef jerky specifically requested by a U.S. astronaut.
"His nephew ordered some over the Internet. He mentioned that his uncle would be on the space station, and it got recommended to the astronaut and he requested it by name," said Gregory Nemitz, a space enthusiast and owner of Final Frontier beef jerky.
Nemitz declined to name the recipient, citing NASA regulations that forbid product endorsements. But given that the only U.S. residents of Alpha are Jim Voss and Susan Helms, one requires little effort to figure out who asked for it.
Perhaps there is some irony that the once-communist Russian space program is more enthusiastic about commercial ventures than its U.S. counterpart.
"The Russians are capitalists. The American cannot be. That seems to be the socialist approach of NASA," said Jeffery Manber, president of MirCorp, which helped Tito reserve his Alpha flight.
"Space is going to be a tremendously fertile market for advertising. I hope NASA learns to accept it's a terrific way to excite the public," he told CNNfn.com in a recent interview.
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