Washington: 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 US insurer 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 proposal by NASA's new administrator comes at a time when the Trump administration has lofty goals in space, but its 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.
"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," said Timothy Farnsworth, a spokesman for the Project on Government Oversight, an independent government watchdog.
Typically, federal employees are prohibited from endorsing commercial projects. 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 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.
New York Times