NASA Examining Commercial Endorsements, Rocket Naming Rights

Jim Bridenstine (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Corporations buying the naming rights to launch vehicles and space missions, and NASA astronauts with endorsements and their photos on cereal boxes were some of the commercial ideas floated this week to help the agency commercialize space activities.

“There is interest in that right now,” Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during an appearance before the NASA Advisory Council (NAC). “The question is, is it possible? And the answer is, I don’t know. But, we need somebody to give us advice on whether it is.

“Why would we want to sell the naming rights?” he added. “Well, because then those private companies can then embed in their marketing campaigns NASA. We can embed NASA into the culture and fabric of American society and inspire generations of folks that will create those next capabilities to keep America preeminent not only in space but in science and technology and discovery and exploration.”

Bridenstine announced the formation of a new NAC committee headed by Mike Gold to advise the space agency on these and other ideas.

“The purpose of the Regulatory and Policy Committee will be to tackle barriers to achieving NASA’s goals by providing expert, independent and creative advice to the council and the administrator,” Gold said. “There are a wide array of issues the new committee will address.”

The plan is to commercialize operations in low Earth orbit (LEO) to help offset NASA’s costs and free the space agency to focus on the moon and Mars. A key goal is to establish a business case and bolster demand for commercial space stations in orbit, Gold said.

“For this to occur, obsolete rules and regulations must be reviewed and revised. For example, the Regulatory and Policy Committee will assess how to free American astronauts to fully support commercial activities on the ISS,” said Gold, who is SSL’s vice president of DC operations.

“American companies should not have to turn to Russian cosmonauts to execute commercial operations. When new industrial substances are created, commercial experiments conducted, or even advertisements filmed, American astronauts should lead the way,” Gold said.

“Speaking of astronauts, the committee will examine giving them the freedom to pursue endorsements and other media opportunities, he added. “Our astronauts are American heroes, and deserve to be treated as such.”

Bridenstine noted that the United States has a shortage of military pilots because they can make a lot more money flying for commercial airlines. NASA could have the same problem as private astronauts begin to fly aboard commercial crew vehicles being developed by Boeing and SpaceX.

“We need to find ways to allow astronauts to engage with private sector companies and the media to ensure that the astronauts, NASA and STEM return to a place of importance in popular culture,” he added. “The nation should fully leverage our astronauts as ambassadors to inspire the engineers, mathematicians and scientists of tomorrow.”

  • passinglurker

    Yeeeeeah no… NASA didn’t become the most trusted non-partisan US government agency in the world selling out to durritos.

    Also I’m pretty sure this would run into issues like why nasa doesn’t tell us who they contract for things like duct tape…

  • Jeff Smith

    I’d buy a box of Wheaties with an astronaut on it.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    Astronaut on a Wheaties box? I’m ok with that. Naming rights on spacecraft? Not so much. The old fashioned method of letting school kids compete targets the best demographic for engagement.

    Other commercial endorsement contracts are a really bad idea. The contracts are usually a nightmare and a corporation’s lawyers (blood sucking) are better than government lawyers (useless oxygen thieves) so there could be lawsuits threatened over something stupid like Microsoft being the “preferred OS provider” and a TV show captures a table with 80% of the scientists sitting behind Mac laptops with the apple lit up. There will have to be contract compliance officers all over the place making sure that non-sponsoring corporate logos are all covered up.

    If the government can’t fund NASA and is comfortable ceding space to India, China and Russia, we will need a whole new batch of politician’s PDQ. There shouldn’t be any need for a “bake sale” with the amount of flesh Uncle Sam tries to extract from me each year.

  • Charles Lurio

    Is this what they need to do to get dollars for actually useful research and development when huge gobs of their budget goes down the SLS/Orion black hole?

  • ThomasLMatula

    MetLife spent $400 million for the naming rights to MetLife Stadium in NY, enough to pay for a discovery class mission. NBC paid $12 Billion for the exclusive media rights to the next 10 Olympics, big money even in NASA’s world. So don’t knock what could be a major revenue stream for NASA free of politics.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Which was why he named Mike Gold to chair a NAC Committee to determine what the legal issues are and how to change the legal environment to make it happen.

  • passinglurker

    It would be fatal to nasa’s credibility if nasa sold endorsements.

  • Michael Halpern

    The way I see it, the naming rights should be for added branding to a primary name, “NASA [brand] + [spacecraft common name] “

  • Michael Halpern

    Not really, indirectly a number of ISS experiments are funded by major companies (ie Tupperware) and they have their name as part of the experiment. Should keep it to long form of the name, common name should be free of branding.

  • passinglurker

    There’s a difference between that and them being able to say “nasa approved” or “the official X of nasa” etc on store shelves and advertisements back here on the ground.

  • Michael Halpern

    True and I don’t think going that far makes sense

  • Kenneth_Brown

    Then what happens is there is something in a NASA statement or broadcast that mentions Pacific Life and, by contract, MetLife is due a $1m rebate on their payment.

    Corporate sponsorship of stadium and arena names is just greed on the part of owners to squeeze more money out of somebody else. There shouldn’t be any need or desire to see that sort of thing with NASA. Chances are that we’d start seeing brand insignia on uniforms and spacesuits. Advertisements on every square cm of spacecraft interiors. Product placement deals so astronauts are seen drinking a particular brand of soda on missions (or at least seen drinking from a properly branded, specially designed container). Where does it end? Logo’s being applied to the surface of the moon via pyrotechnics?

  • redneck

    So you would prefer stagnation to a revenue stream that needs visible results to maintain credibility?

  • The fundamental problem is that, just like almost any government enterprise, if NASA sells anything and makes $$, the $$ will go into the general fund and NASA will not get any of it. NASA can spend what is appropriated, and that is all… that is how it works…

    However, a corporate entity could build a private space facility, including selling branding rights and THEN lease access of the branded facility to it to NASA… The lawyers will have to dance to make that work, but it could be done. It means privatization.

  • passinglurker

    considering that revenue stream could cost nasa its scientific credibility yes many would rather risk stagnation

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yea, NASA would never allow a brand to say they were chosen by NASA…

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TWghCdIqedA

  • ThomasLMatula

    Really? And just how would having the Amazon Rover on Mars collecting data effect the quality of the scientific results?

  • Jeff2Space

    It’s bad enough that Delaware North has literally trademarked the names of the space shuttles at “its” NASA Visitors Centers. Now this? Ugh. This makes me want to puke.

    NASA Announcer: The live coverage of this SLS/Orion launch is brought to you by Viagra. Right now, the Nike capsule is sitting on top of the Ford launch vehicle with liftoff in three minutes…

  • Jeff2Space

    Because as Kendall Roberson points out below, the money for the sponsorship goes right back into the general fund.

    But even if that weren’t the case, here in Ohio, the taxes from the casino gambling in the state goes to education. The problem is that funding is fungible, so the state just decreases its part of school funding so the schools see zero benefit from the casino money. NASA “sponsorships” would be no different.

    There is zero upside for NASA and a lot of potential downsides.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Sponsorships were how exploration used to be done before the era of big government science. Who do you think funded the exploration of the poles by Robert Peary and Richard Byrd in the Heroic Age before WWII? The government? That is why the stories of space exploration from the 1940’s by Robert Heinlien and Arthur C. Clarke feature private funding.

    President Roosevelt only funded Admiral Byrd’s 1939-1940 mission because he were worried about what the Germans were doing in Antarctica. It really marked the start of big science, which has been going on since. Interesting enough it was far less successful, and less covered then his earlier ones. He never even wrote a book about it as he had for the others.

  • windbourne

    to say nothing of constant tax cuts/breaks .

  • windbourne

    Should that not be SLS/Orion brought to you by Enron?

  • windbourne

    They said chosen by gemeni astronauts, not NASA. Smart.

  • Eric Thiel
  • ThomasLMatula

    The sad thing is that NASA never got a dime from Tang or the other brands that used Project Apollo to sell products. Or from all the NASA inspired merchandise. Or from the advertising revenue the networks received when covering the missions. Or from all of the IP generate from NASA funding, some of which stimulated new industries. As a result the public looked at going to the Moon as an expensive luxury, not as an enterprise that generated more wealth than it consumed. As they still look at spending on space that way despite being entirely dependent on the technology it generated.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Why? Just what is wrong with NASA generating its own revenue?

  • ThomasLMatula

    And that would be a good thing as each of those brand would be promoting space exploration just as they do NASCAR, and doing far more effective that the handful of space advocate groups do.

    It would be ironic if the cultural values passed on from a 2500 year old slave based economy doomed humanity by cutting off the revenue it needed to leave Earth.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Enron was a very good example of how markets deal with firms that go bad. By contrast just about everyone but the masters of pork see SLS/Orion as bad ideas, but there is no real mechanism to correct them. But if NASA was offering name rights for both I expect few brands would make offers seeing them as the dinosaurs they are, which would be another value of such commercialization, market signals to NASA on the viability of its projects.

  • windbourne

    funny thing is, that the feds did not make a cent on the internet directly. However, the boom to our economy has been nothing less than amazing.

    So many ppl do not realize that we are right on the same edge, and with a bit of a push, we can see space become a huge economical incentive.

  • redneck

    The major downside I can see is the possibility of NASA becoming competitive with commercial entities, and then using its’ influence on regulations affecting competition. Similar to the way that major corporations use regulatory capture to reduce competition.

    Mentioned above was that revenue generated would go into the general fund which would result in minimal advantage for NASA. It is possible that the problems of advertising would not be offset by a real funding boost.

    It seems to me that mission specific adds could make the difference between fly or not. It’s hard to see an advertiser getting excited about JWST for instance. Advertiser like winners, or failing that, at least active participants. So funds might flow to a Lunar rover, but not so much to SLS.

    With CGI, it is possible to have more advertisers than actual square footage .of spacecraft of suits, some of which would only have to sign on after a successful landing or other result.

    I could see this going either way depending on how it’s handled.

  • Jeff2Space

    SLS/Orion accounting is provided by Enron. Enron, accounting you can trust!

  • Jeff2Space

    If space travel becomes cheap enough, we’ll start to see privately funded expeditions. But it’s far too expensive today to expect that. With SLS funding alone at more than $2 billion a year, and a projected flight rate of once per year, who can afford to sponsor even a single launch? How could that sponsorship ever generate an additional $2 billion in profit for the company?

  • Lee

    Funny thing about Tang. In his biography, Walt Cunningham says something like (it’s been a long time since I read the book, so this might not be word-for-word accurate):

    “I don’t know which astronauts used Tang on their missions, but no one I know did. We tried it and found it to taste disgusting” (or words to that effect).