Talk about uncharted territory: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration its exploring selling sponsorships for its journeys beyond the exosphere.
“Why NASA’s next rockets might say Budweiser on the side,” reads the headline in the Washington Post that broke the story Monday.
“NASA 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,” explains WaPo’s Christian Davenport, adding that “officials stress that nothing has been decided.”
“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,” Bridenstine says.
He also asks, “Why would we want to sell the naming rights?” reports Doug Messier for Parabolic Arc. “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.”
The former Republican congressman and Navy pilot took the helm at NASA last April after contentious confirmation hearings in Congress, as NPR’s Nsikan Akpan reports. His ideas would be a major break with current standards.
“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,” WaPo’s Davenport points out.
Indeed, “unlike their Russian counterparts -- who have filmed commercials for Pizza Hut, RadioShack, and an Israeli brand of milk while in space -- American astronauts go to considerable lengths to avoid the appearance of promoting or engaging in commercial activities,” writes Marina Koren for the Atlantic in a piece that argues that “NASA’s space probes shouldn’t be tacky billboards.”
“In 1985, NASA agreed to bring modified cans of Coca Cola and Pepsi on board a Space Shuttle flight, but officials stressed the purpose was not to conduct a taste test, but to study the effects of microgravity on the containers. ‘NASA says other soft-drink companies are welcome to devise containers for shuttle testing,’ a New York Times article from the time said,” Koren adds.
But “Bridenstine is very keen on handing over the U.S.’s space activities to the private sector,” writes David Meyer for Fortune, citing the Trump administration’s desire to get companies to take over operation of the International Space Station. That plan “has hit resistance in Congress. There’s also the small problem of the ISS not being entirely the U.S.’s to give away, as the Russians, Europeans, Japanese and Canadians are also involved,” Meyer points out.
“‘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,’” reports Kenneth Chang for the New York Times.
“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,” Chang observes.
A new Regulatory and Policy committee headed by Mike Gold will explore the proposals.
“For better or for worse, one of the things that spaceflight has fostered is the idea of space being something of a pristine atmosphere,” Robert Pearlman, a space historian and founder of the website CollectSpace, tells the Verge’s Loren Grush. “We leave our problems behind, and for some people, branding has gone overboard here on Earth. That’s one of the objections that might be raised.”
Plus, there remains a huge unanswered question. Barring the branded rocket ship discovering a previously untapped audience of eager consumers somewhere in the vast universe, how much impact will a logo on its side really have?
Auckland (New Zealand) University marketing expert Bodo Lang told NewstalkZB’s Larry Williams “that it is a potential great idea,” according to a written account on the radio station’s website. But, Lang continued, “One of the downsides, in my opinion, is obviously the heyday of many, many millions of people watching rocket launches are well and truly gone. I’m not sure how many eyeballs they are going to catch.”