Bacteria survive in NASA’s clean rooms by eating cleaning products
A NASA spokesperson told me on Tuesday that Bridenstine hasn’t yet appointed members to this committee that hasn’t been set up yet. A NASA economic adviser pointed me to a study from last year, by the Science and Technology Policy Institute, a federally funded research center. The study found that corporations like Citigroup, Barclays, Metlife, and AT&T pay about $20 million annually to maintain naming rights for sports stadiums across the country. Perhaps a corporation may want to do the same for the International Space Station.
There’s certainly a market for this idea, and has been for decades. In 1966, Tang, the orange-flavor powdered drink, ran commercials showing astronauts pouring the mix into a “zero-G pouch” during a Gemini flight. More recently, Red Bull sponsored a skydiver’s jump from the stratosphere in 2012, and KFC paid a company to send a chicken sandwich to the edge of space last year.
Space clearly sells. But NASA shouldn’t be on the market.
As a government agency, NASA has spent its nearly 60-year existence avoiding endorsing any brands. 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. 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.
NASA doesn’t charge fees or require licenses from companies and other entities that want to use its logo. It even goes so far as describing M&Ms, which astronauts can have on the International Space Station, as “candy-coated chocolates,” as Christian Davenport points out at The Washington Post. The space agency doesn’t want to appear to favor one thing over another. Space, its mission says, is for everyone.
Bridenstine’s proposal would set a dangerous precedent for NASA’s future. By suggesting that commercial partnerships could help fund NASA’s missions, it implies that the agency is not worth funding through the usual means—annual budgets carefully negotiated and ironed out by lawmakers. And their constituents believe that the space program is important; according to a study from the Pew Research Center in June, 72 percent of Americans say it’s essential for the United States to continue to be a world leader in space exploration. If Nike is ready and willing to drop millions of dollars to sponsor the next mission to Mars, why should lawmakers bother spending any taxpayer money on it? The world’s premier space agency shouldn’t have to resort to brand sponsorships in the absence of political will. And even if brands could float the first few years of a mission, they might not have the stomach for the years, or even decades it sometimes takes for NASA’s most ambitious missions to come to fruition.