Imagine: it’s 2020, and NASA is about to launch its next robotic rover to Mars. But its name isn’t something simple like Curiosity or Sojourner. Instead, it’s the Michelin Tire Trailblazer, named for the company that bought the mission’s naming rights and the famous Michelin man is adorned on the side of the spacecraft. During the mission, NASA astronauts live stream from space, stopping briefly to regale viewers about the merits of their Breitling watches: “It’s the best way to keep time above the Kármán line.”
This is only a hypothetical scenario right now, but it’s in line with concepts that NASA will start exploring over the next few months.
In August, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told advisers that he is forming a new committee focused on figuring out how NASA can go commercial. The committee, headed by Maxar Technologies’ Mike Gold, will pursue ways NASA could work with advertisers to brand its spacecraft and rockets as well as investigate how astronauts might engage in endorsements and media opportunities — both on and off Earth.
One of Bridenstine’s goals is to offset the costs of NASA missions by selling the naming rights of its hardware to private companies. By allowing astronauts to do advertisements like appearing on cereal boxes, such endorsements will help “enhance the exposure of space activities in the popular culture,” according to Gold.
“I’m telling you, there is interest in that right now,” Bridenstine said during the meeting of the NASA Advisory Council on August 29th. “The question is: is it possible? And the answer is: I don’t know, but we need somebody to give us advice on whether or not it is.”
Opening NASA to branding and endorsements would be a major change for the agency, which has been opposed to commercializing its missions. Since its inception, NASA has been restricted from promoting or even appearing to promote commercial products or services. This principle has guided NASA’s operations, influencing how astronauts and officials talk and what kinds of experiments astronauts work on. Changing this policy would seemingly require new legislation from Congress or changes to NASA’s charter.
Even worse for the plan’s long-term viability: advertising in space may not be that lucrative. NASA’s budget is limited, but its biggest projects run in the hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. Endorsements would probably offset only a fraction of that. And it seems unlikely that these deals will make the space agency more visible than it already is. In fact, it may be seen as a negative to fans of the agency who see NASA as a refuge from corporate interests.