WASHINGTON – The constant creep of corporate America into all aspects of everyday life — from the Allstate Sugar Bowl to Minute Maid Park — may soon conquer a new frontier. The final frontier.
NASA's administrator Jim Bridenstine has directed the space agency to look at boosting its brand by selling naming rights to rockets and spacecraft and allowing its astronauts to appear in commercials and on cereal boxes, as if they were celebrity athletes.
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.
NASA has stayed away from endorsing any particular product or company — even going so far as to call the M&M's astronauts eat in space "candy-coated chocolates" for fear of even appearing to favor one brand of candy.
But during a meeting of a NASA advisory council, Bridenstine said 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 already on a 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 laboratory to a private entity. Meanwhile, there are other 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, who said the U.S. shouldn't cede control of an asset that it has invested nearly $100 billion in.
Likewise, the idea to sell naming rights, or have 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 that it "would be a dramatic shift from the rules prohibiting government officials from using their public office for private gain," he wrote. "But I guess this is the world we live in now. "
Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group, said 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.