Cor­po­rate-branded rock­ets and as­tro­nauts on ce­real boxes. NASA chief asks, ‘Is it pos­si­ble?’

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - BUSINESS - By Ken­neth Chang

Jim Bri­den­s­tine, NASA’s ad­min­is­tra­tor, posed a ques­tion two weeks ago.

“Is it pos­si­ble for NASA to off­set some of its costs by sell­ing the nam­ing rights to its space­craft?” he asked dur­ing to a meet­ing of a coun­cil that ad­vises NASA. “Or the nam­ing rights to its rock­ets? I’m telling you, there is in­ter­est in that right now.”

Don’t ex­pect to see as­tro­nauts in Coca-Cola com­mer­cials any time soon, or NASA’s Mars rover re­branded as Cu­rios­ity, brought to you by Aflac. But Bri­den­s­tine has asked a com­mit­tee of the NASA Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil to ex­plore whether it might be done, de­spite reg­u­la­tions or laws that seem to pro­hibit such ac­tiv­i­ties. He also raised the pos­si­bil­ity of al­low­ing NASA as­tro­nauts to sign en­dorse­ment deals.

“The ques­tion is: is it pos­si­ble?” 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.”

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 Don­ald 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.

In an in­ter­view on Tues­day, Bri­den­s­tine pointed to the rock­ets tak­ing cargo to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion. “We have brand­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties right there,” he said.

Per­haps NASA as­tro­nauts could beckon to chil­dren from ce­real boxes like sports stars, or help raise aware­ness of NASA’s mis­sions, em­bed­ding the agency in pop­u­lar cul­ture and help­ing spur chil­dren to pur­sue ca­reers in space, he said.

But some crit­ics worry that a de­ci­sion by NASA to make en­dorse­ment and brand­ing deals could cre­ate con­flicts of in­ter­est and di­min­ish the agency’s stature and pub­lic mis­sion.

“Com­pa­nies be­ing able to spon­sor rock­ets or as­tro­nauts re­ally calls into ques­tion who’s re­ally calling the shots,” said Ti­mothy Farnsworth, a spokesman for the Project on Gov­ern­ment Over­sight, an in­de­pen­dent gov­ern­ment watch­dog. “If as­tro­nauts are re­ceiv­ing com­pen­sa­tion from cor­po­ra­tions with busi­ness be­fore NASA it could cre­ate the ap­pear­ance of di­vided loy­alty be­tween a pri­vate com­pany and pub­lic ser­vice.”

Typ­i­cally, fed­eral em­ploy­ees are pro­hib­ited from en­dors­ing com­mer­cial projects. Kellyanne Con­way, a coun­selor to Trump, was ac­cused of vi­o­lat­ing gov­ern­ment ethics rules last year when she told peo­ple to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff,” en­dors­ing the cloth­ing and jew­elry of Ivanka Trump.

The Onion, the hu­mor pub­li­ca­tion, weighed in on the sub­ject 14 years ago: “Coke-Spon­sored Rover Finds Ev­i­dence of Dasani on Mars.”

NASA’s own doc­u­ments ap­pear to pro­hibit such ac­tiv­i­ties. A web­page from the agency’s gen­eral coun­sel of­fice states: “The rule is sim­ple: we may not use our pub­lic of­fice for pri­vate gain. This in­cludes our own pri­vate gain, or that of any­one else.”

It adds, “Fed­eral em­ploy­ees may not en­dorse through their gov­ern­ment po­si­tions, ti­tles, or other au­thor­ity the prod­ucts, ser­vices, or ac­tiv­i­ties of non­fed­eral en­ti­ties.”

In the in­ter­view, Bri­den­s­tine ac­knowl­edged that fed­eral em­ploy­ees are gen­er­ally not al­lowed to en­dorse prod­ucts, but said the com­mit­tee would ex­plore pos­si­ble ex­cep­tions that would al­low NASA as­tro­nauts to do so. He noted that soon there will be as­tro­nauts em­ployed by com­mer­cial com­pa­nies like SpaceX and Boe­ing who will not be fet­tered by the tra­di­tional re­stric­tions that ap­ply to fed­eral em­ploy­ees.

The mil­i­tary has trou­ble re­tain­ing pi­lots who can earn more and work less fly­ing com­mer­cial jet­lin­ers, he said. “We could end up spend­ing mil­lions of dol­lars train­ing each as­tro­naut only to have them go work for some­one else as soon as they’re trained,” he said.

Be­cause NASA does not op­er­ate the rock­ets go­ing to the space sta­tion, the agency might not get a cut of the brand­ing rev­enue, but the rocket com­pany could then make a lower bid on what it charged NASA, Bri­den­s­tine said. The cargo mis­sions are op­er­ated, un­der com­mer­cial con­tracts with NASA, by SpaceX and Northrop Grum­man.

The com­mit­tee is likely to make rec­om­men­da­tions at the next quar­terly meet­ing of the NASA ad­vi­sory coun­cil, he said.

Com­pa­nies have long tried to tap mar­ket­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties in outer space. From 1968 to 1971, Pan Am is­sued more than 93,000 cards for its First Moon Flights Club. In 2000, the Pizza Hut logo ap­peared on a Rus­sian rocket, and the fol­low­ing year, a Ra­dio Shack com­mer­cial fea­tured Rus­sian as­tro­nauts aboard the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion open­ing a Fa­ther’s Day gift.

“It’s ironic that Rus­sia is ahead of us in tak­ing ad­van­tage of com­mer­cial ac­tiv­i­ties on the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion,” Bri­den­s­tine said.

More re­cently, KFC said in a pro­mo­tion that it was send­ing a fried chicken sand­wich to space on a high-al­ti­tude bal­loon. (It only reached the strato­sphere, which is be­low the 62-mile al­ti­tude that is gen­er­ally re­garded as the bound­ary of outer space.)

In the past few years, NASA has made a big­ger push to bring cap­i­tal­ism to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, open­ing up op­por­tu­ni­ties for com­pa­nies to con­duct re­search there and hir­ing com­mer­cial com­pa­nies for trans­porta­tion of cargo and as­tro­nauts. Pri­va­ti­za­tion of the sta­tion has been dis­cussed and de­bated.

Brand­ing and ad­ver­tis­ing are among the next steps, Bri­den­s­tine said, that fu­ture com­mer­cial space sta­tions might tap into. “This is yet another op­por­tu­nity to prove out a mar­ket.”

Bill Ingalls / New York Times

In an era of flat bud­gets but lofty goals for the agency, NASA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Jim Bri­den­s­tine broached the pos­si­bil­ity of cor­po­rate spon­sor­ships for NASA mis­sions, propos­ing brand­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for rock­ets and en­dorse­ment deals for as­tro­nauts.

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