While officials stress that nothing has been decided, the idea could mark a giant cultural leap for the taxpayer-funded government agency and could run into ethics regulations that prevent government officials from using public office for private gain. Astronauts may be the most venerated employees in the federal government, but they are still civil servants bound by regulations.
NASA has steadfastly stayed away from endorsing any particular product or company — even going so far as to call the M&Ms astronauts gobble in space “candy-coated chocolates” out of fear of appearing to favor one brand of candy.
But during a recent meeting of a NASA advisory council made up of outside experts who provide guidance to the agency, Bridenstine announced he was setting up a committee to examine what he called the “provocative questions” of turning its rockets into corporate billboards the way advertisements decorate NASCAR race cars.
“Is it possible for NASA to offset some of its costs by selling the naming rights to its spacecraft, or the naming rights to its rockets?” Bridenstine said. “I’m telling you there is interest in that right now. The question is: Is it possible? The answer is: I don’t know, but we want somebody to give us advice on whether it is.”
He also said he wanted astronauts to be not only more accessible to journalists but even to participate in marketing opportunities to boost their brands — and that of the space agency.
"I'd like to see kids growing up, instead of maybe wanting to be like a professional sports star, I'd like to see them grow up wanting to be a NASA astronaut, or a NASA scientist,” he said. “I'd like to see, maybe one day, NASA astronauts on the cover of a cereal box, embedded into the American culture."
The effort is part of a broader effort to generate more private-sector involvement in low Earth orbit. NASA already relies on companies to fly cargo to the space station — and is on the path to relying on companies to deliver crew. The White House has also said it would like to end direct funding for the International Space Station and turn over operations of the orbiting laboratory to a private entity. Meanwhile, there are companies looking to develop their own commercial space stations. And the White House is working to ease regulations to promote private-sector growth.
"As NASA looks toward the future of private-sector space stations, it's vital to explore these kinds of innovative commercial concepts to ensure that the U.S. maintains an ongoing presence is low Earth orbit,” said Mike Gold, the chairman of the new NASA committee.
That idea to privatize the International Space Station has run into opposition from Congress, which said the United States shouldn't cede control of an asset in which it has invested nearly $100 billion.
Likewise, the idea of selling naming rights, or having astronauts appear in commercials, was met with skepticism from many NASA experts. Scott Kelly, the former NASA astronaut who spent nearly a year in space, said in an email to The Washington Post that it “would be a dramatic shift from the rules prohibiting government officials from using their public office for private gain.”
He added, “But I guess this is the world we live in now. ”
Michael Lopez-Alegria, another former NASA astronaut, said that by endorsing products, NASA could end up competing against a growing commercial sector that is trying to open up space for the masses.
“It’s going to be really hard for NASA or any government agency to put itself in a position where it can become a de facto endorser of this product or that product,” he said. “To me, it’s like nails on a chalkboard. It’s just not right. ”
He said he was also concerned that if Congress sees NASA is getting funding from the private sector, it might say, “We're not going to pay anymore. "
Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group, said that the government “should be focused entirely on what is most important for the public interest, not private gain. In fact, if a project is commercially viable, it shouldn’t have to depend on taxpayer funds or U.S. astronauts, who might be divided in their job responsibilities. ”
The idea comes as a pivotal time for the agency, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year and soaking up renewed attention, as it is poised to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing next year. It’s also preparing to fly astronauts from U.S. soil for the first time since the last space shuttle was retired in 2011, and Bridenstine said he wants the newly formed committee to explore flying tourists to the International Space Station alongside government astronauts.
“First Man,” the film starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, is going to hit theaters soon. Last year, NASA collaborated on 143 documentary projects, 41 television programs and 25 feature films with various levels of participation, from providing footage to granting access to NASA facilities. Requests to use the NASA logo are “really going gangbusters,” said Bert Ulrich, NASA's multimedia liaison. Queries to use the logo on T-shirts and other commercial items used to come in once or twice a week, he said. Now, on average it’s multiple times a day — and there is NASA-themed apparel made for Target, Old Navy, Lands' End, Coach and H&M.
The designer Heron Preston even sells a NASA T-shirt for $270.
NASA has usage guidelines for its so-called “meatball” logo — a blue sphere, stars and a chevron. For instance, it “can only appear against a solid, black, white, gray or silver background.” But the space agency makes nothing on the sales.
That, too, would get another look, according to Gold, who said the agency would look at how the logo is being used “and any changes that might need to be made to further leverage the symbol to encourage space exploration” and encourage children to study engineering, science and math.
If NASA was able to loosen its restrictions, commercialization and branding could generate significant revenue. A study last year by the Science and Technology Policy Institute, a federally funded research and development center, found that a privately run space station could bring in between $455 million to $1.2 billion a year by participating in all sorts of commercial activities, including selling naming rights, allowing films to be shot in space, conducting research and hosting tourists.
The study estimated that leasing a module of a space station could generate as much as $25 million for 60 days, or more than $416,000 a day. It noted that companies pay between $8 million and $13 million to sponsor golf tournaments, and some corporation have paid as much as $20 million for naming rights for sports stadiums. A NASA economic adviser once suggested a boxing match in space — a “Brawl in Free Fall,” he called it — that could become a pay-per-view event.
Other countries have been more willing to cash in.
Pizza Hut paid to paint its logo on a Russian rocket in 1999. In the mid-1990s, an Israeli milk company filmed a commercial on the space station Mir, and a pair of Russian cosmonauts even appeared on QVC to sell a pen able to write in a weightless environment.
“Is this a pen you would recommend to use in space?” the host asked.
“Yeah, they said they love this pen,” the translator said on the live broadcast.
In 1993, a Georgia company called Space Marketing proposed putting a billboard in space so big that it would be visible from Earth. But the plan was met with disapproval from some in Congress, who derided the idea, saying space was a commons that should stay free of advertising.
Edward J. Markey, then a Massachusetts congressman, lamented the possibility of children wishing “upon a falling billboard.”
“Every sunrise and sunset would beam down the logo of Coke or GM or the Marlboro Man,” he said. “That would turn our morning and evening skies, often a source of inspiration and comfort, into the moral equivalent of the side of a bus.”
Still, companies have found a way to include space into their marketing campaigns, and brands such as Tang have benefited from their affiliation with the space program. When Mir de-orbited, Taco Bell put a huge floating tarp into the Pacific Ocean and claimed that if any piece of the space station hit it, the company would give everyone in the country a free taco.
More recently, Budweiser announced its plans to be “the first beer on Mars,” as part of a plan to study barley in the weightless environment of the International Space Station.
“While socializing on Mars might be in the near-distant future, Budweiser is taking steps now to better understand how its ingredients react in microgravity environments so that when we get to Mars, Budweiser will be there,” it said in a press release.