Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, posed a question two weeks ago.
“Is it possible for NASA to offset some of its costs by selling the naming rights to its spacecraft?” he asked during to a meeting of a council that advises NASA. “Or the naming rights to its rockets? I'm telling you, there is interest in that right now.”
Don’t expect to see astronauts in Coca-Cola commercials any time soon, or NASA’s Mars rover rebranded as Curiosity, brought to you by Aflac. But Mr. Bridenstine has asked a committee of the NASA Advisory Council to explore whether it might be done, despite regulations or laws that seem to prohibit such activities. He also raised the possibility of allowing NASA astronauts to sign endorsement deals.
“The question is: is it possible?” Mr. Bridenstine said in remarks that were broadcast on NASA TV and have been debated in press accounts since then. “And the answer is, I don’t know.”
The proposal by NASA’s new administrator comes at a time when the Trump administration has lofty goals in space, but hasn’t asked Congress for a lot of money to pay for them. President Trump established a National Space Council last year, led by Vice President Mike Pence, and wants to return to the moon. But the administration’s budget proposals suggest that financing for NASA will remain flat through 2023.
In an interview on Tuesday, Mr. Bridenstine pointed to the rockets taking cargo to the International Space Station. “We have branding opportunities right there,” he said.
Perhaps NASA astronauts could beckon to children from cereal boxes like sports stars, or help raise awareness of NASA’s missions, embedding the agency in popular culture and helping spur children to pursue careers in space, he said.
But some critics worry that a decision by NASA to make endorsement and branding deals could create conflicts of interest and diminish the agency’s stature and public mission.
“Companies being able to sponsor rockets or astronauts really calls into question who’s really calling the shots,” said Timothy Farnsworth, a spokesman for the Project on Government Oversight, an independent government watchdog. “If astronauts are receiving compensation from corporations with business before NASA it could create the appearance of divided loyalty between a private company and public service.”
Typically, federal employees are prohibited from endorsing commercial projects. Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to President Trump, was accused of violating government ethics rules last year when she told people to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff,” endorsing the clothing and jewelry of Ivanka Trump.
The Onion, the humor publication, weighed in on the subject 14 years ago: “Coke-Sponsored Rover Finds Evidence of Dasani on Mars.”
NASA’s own documents appear to prohibit such activities. A webpage from the agency’s general counsel office states: “The rule is simple: we may not use our public office for private gain. This includes our own private gain, or that of anyone else.”
It adds, “Federal employees may not endorse through their government positions, titles, or other authority the products, services, or activities of nonfederal entities.”
In the interview, Mr. Bridenstine acknowledged that federal employees are generally not allowed to endorse products, but said the committee would explore possible exceptions that would allow NASA astronauts to do so. He noted that soon there will be astronauts employed by commercial companies like SpaceX and Boeing who will not be fettered by the traditional restrictions that apply to federal employees.
The military has trouble retaining pilots who can earn more and work less flying commercial jetliners, he said. “We could end up spending millions of dollars training each astronaut only to have them go work for someone else as soon as they’re trained,” he said.
Because NASA does not operate the rockets going to the space station, the agency might not get a cut of the branding revenue, but the rocket company could then make a lower bid on what it charged NASA, Mr. Bridenstine said. The cargo missions are operated, under commercial contracts with NASA, by SpaceX and Northrop Grumman.
The committee is likely to make recommendations at the next quarterly meeting of the NASA advisory council, he said.
Companies have long tried to tap marketing opportunities in outer space. From 1968 to 1971, Pan Am issued more than 93,000 cards for its First Moon Flights Club. In 2000, the Pizza Hut logo appeared on a Russian rocket, and the following year, a Radio Shack commercial featured Russian astronauts aboard the International Space Station opening a Father’s Day gift.
“It’s ironic that Russia is ahead of us in taking advantage of commercial activities on the International Space Station,” Mr. Bridenstine said.
More recently, KFC said in a promotion that it was sending a fried chicken sandwich to space on a high-altitude balloon. (It only reached the stratosphere, which is below the 62-mile altitude that is generally regarded as the boundary of outer space.)
In the past few years, NASA has made a bigger push to bring capitalism to the International Space Station, opening up opportunities for companies to conduct research there and hiring commercial companies for transportation of cargo and astronauts. Privatization of the station has been discussed and debated.
Branding and advertising are among the next steps, Mr. Bridenstine said, that future commercial space stations might tap into. “This is yet another opportunity to prove out a market.”