The Washington Post is reporting that NASA is considering the possibility of selling naming rights to its rockets and spacecraft. As part of that process, NASA also is thinking about loosening restrictions on astronauts in a bid to make them more accessible and known to the public — the kind of figures that might appear on cereal boxes.
It’s all about branding and (of course!) money. The consideration process is in its very early stages, with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announcing at a recent meeting of the NASA advisory council that he will be creating a committee to study the issues. The Post quotes Bridenstine as saying: “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? 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.”
The kind of commercialization that is being contemplated would be an abrupt turn for NASA, which has studiously avoided any action that might be seen as an endorsement of one product or another. And, there are challenging questions about how it would all work — and how astronauts being paid to appear on commercials, or wearing uniforms adorned with the patches of sponsor a la NASCAR drivers, would be treated under the governmental ethics laws.
When I first read of what NASA was considering, I rebelled against the very thought of corporate naming rights or corporate logos on spacecraft. I’ve always like the purity of the white rockets and the simple white spacesuits, adorned only with an American flag and a NASA emblem, and it irks me that buildings built with public funds, like sports stadiums, can be rebranded with the name of a corporation that throws in a few million after the building has been completed. But there’s no doubt about it — that’s just the world that we live in these days.
I also think that if selling corporate naming rights helps NASA get the money it needs to reenergize the manned space program, so that we can finally move to the Moon and Mars and beyond, I’m willing to endure rockets and spacecraft and astronaut suits that are plastered with stickers. I also think it would be good for the country to have kids wanting to be astronauts again, as many kids did when I was growing up. In those days, astronauts were the biggest heroes and celebrities around, and they stood for many of the qualities that we prize — bravery, fortitude, and coolness under stress, among others. It wouldn’t be a bad thing, either, to put people who have gone to college and received advanced degrees into our firmament of national celebrities and aspirational figures for kids, right up there with hip-hop artists and professional athletes and reality TV stars.
So I say let NASA study the issue, and then move forward in a way that puts space back into the public eye and public mind. I’ll put up with a few corporate logos along the way.