There’s a reason you’ve never seen NASA astronauts strolling onto a launchpad Armageddon-style wearing NASCAR-style outfits festooned with company logos as they boarded a multi-colored space shuttle advertising the release of the next Marvel film (to put it simply, government employees, especially highly visible ones, aren't supposed to do things like that), but that all could be about to change if newly-minted NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has his way.
Recently, Bridenstine met with advisors to discuss creating a new committee to consider opening up advertising and commercial revenue sources for NASA, and hinted at the idea of making the agency and its astronauts more than just household names, the way they were in the Apollo days. The former Congressman, who was only confirmed to his new post about six months ago, wants to turn the astronauts, and the agency that they represent, into a sort of household brand.
Apparently, being one of America’s most popular and venerated government agencies is not enough for the new chief, who wants to look into the idea of corporate sponsorship in the realm that most have considered off-limits for the better half of the last century.
"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 said during a NASA advisory council meeting. “I'd like to see, maybe one day, NASA astronauts on the cover of a cereal box, embedded into the American culture."
That’s right. As if corporations don’t have enough control of your life already, instead of “Be Like Mike," Bridenstine wants to usher in the era of “Be Like Astronaut Michael Hopkins.”
While it’s true that NASA has renewed its push into space through a revitalized human spaceflight program and invited newcomers like SpaceX and Boeing to handle shipments to and from the International Space Station, it has largely viewed its commercial partnerships more as a tango, and less as a quid pro quo affair.
Of course, the biggest roadblocks to clear even if this idea of “Spaceflight, brought to you by Verizon Wireless” is at all possible, are the laws and regulations that prevent (or are supposed to) government agencies and their public officials from using their offices for private gain.
In the '80s, NASA cut a deal with Coca-Cola to allow their astronauts to test a new Coke can in space. When rival Pepsi got wind of the agreement, they ramped up their efforts to design a space-friendly can and made a public spectacle of vying to beat the soda giant to space. Fearing the perception that the agency was endorsing one product over the other, NASA quietly let both companies continue development and eventually sent up both cans of Coke and Pepsi to outer space without any fanfare.
Similarly, in the '90s, NASA dodged the stigma of being associated with brand names by going to great lengths to ensure that the M&Ms they sent up to astronauts on the ISS were dubbed “candy coated chocolates.” The generic tone NASA takes has historically allowed it fly under the radar of public scrutiny, which might view the shopping of its iconic images and logos as beneath the virtue-laden mission it was created to uphold.
Since it began—NASA turns 60 this year—the agency has resisted the pull of corporate sponsorship, even though it has faced mostly a flattened budget, and has lost some of the glamor and dazzle that was part and parcel with the program back in the halcyon Apollo days. And that may not seem like a big deal, until you realize that not having that kind of glitz behind the agency can mean there's less reason for Congress, especially for those who don't have a JSC in their backyard the way Houston does, to kick in the extra funds that could allow NASA to actually go somewhere and do something beyond low-Earth orbit. Enter the appeal of all that sellable ad space.
After all, corporations love nothing more than to throw their dollars at spectacles that people will put their eyeballs on, and if companies started slapping their logos on spacecrafts, crew modules or space stations, NASA would stand to add millions of dollars by selling off the rights of their properties or the likenesses of astronauts as a whole.
Even if Coca-Cola never gets to paint the Orion capsule Coke red before it blasts off to Mars or the moon or wherever the powers that be in D.C. ultimately decide to send it, NASA will have to look at marketing itself in more appealing way to get future generations who know little about the agency outside of its logo on apparel—which NASA doesn’t make a dime off of, by the way—interested in continuing its mission.
Still, some see NASA’s role as above what’s happening down here on Earth and want to keep the agency’s eyes set on its path to navigating the stars and beyond.
“It’s going to be really hard for NASA or any government agency to put itself in a position where it can become a de facto endorser of this product or that product,” said former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria. “To me, it’s like nails on a chalkboard. It’s just not right.”