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Product placement may help power NASA’s next big space mission

Logos on rockets and astronauts on cereal boxes

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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.

“I’m telling you, there is interest in that right now.”

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.

“one of the things that spaceflight has fostered is the idea of space being something of a pristine atmosphere.”

“For better or for worse, one of the things that spaceflight has fostered is the idea of space being something of a pristine atmosphere,” Robert Pearlman, a space historian and founder of the website CollectSpace, tells The Verge. “We leave our problems behind, and for some people, branding has gone overboard here on Earth. That’s one of the objections that might be raised.”

NASA has its restrictive policy essentially because it’s a government agency. Government employees are not supposed to endorse or even imply that they are endorsing a product. In fact, NASA has gone to great lengths to dispel any notions that the agency is endorsing something commercial. Since the beginning of the Space Shuttle program, for instance, NASA has been sending M&Ms into space for astronauts. However, rather than refer to them by name, NASA called them “candy-coated chocolates.”

In 1985, both Coca-Cola and Pepsi developed special cans that could dispense their beverages in microgravity. NASA agreed to let its astronauts try out the devices, but the agency was reluctant to publicize it. “There was a lot of resistance to even show pictures of that because it would be considered advertising,” Alan Ladwig, a former associate administrator for policy at NASA, tells The Verge.

Of course, brands pop up in videos from the International Space Station from time to time. Sharp viewers may spy astronauts using Huggies wipes to wipe down their workstations or bottles of Sriracha to spice up lunchtime. “You’ll see brands, but NASA will never acknowledge them, and no astronaut can say, ‘I really like writing with a Sharpie,’” says Pearlman.

NASA astronauts aren’t allowed to accept endorsements while working at the space agency either, and they’re even prohibited from working on certain commercial experiments in space if there’s potential that the experiment will be used for profit someday. And, of course, filming advertisements in space is strictly forbidden for NASA crew members.

These restrictions don’t apply to NASA’s international partners, however. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, for instance, famously sang David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” while on the International Space Station, and he was then able to sell that song — recorded in orbit — on an album when he got back to Earth. Meanwhile, Russian cosmonauts have filmed commercials on the ISS before: cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin famously hit a golf ball into orbit as part of a paid sponsorship by Element 21, a Canadian golf company. Russia has also beaten the US to selling ad space on its rockets: Pizza Hut reportedly paid Russia $1 million to display a 30-foot logo on one of the country’s Proton rockets. It also sent up a pizza on a Russian resupply mission.

NASA has found ways around its own commercial barriers, though. Since NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is managed through a partnership with Caltech, the university can license and sell the rights of spacecraft to commercial companies. That’s why there were Hot Wheels toys of NASA spacecraft, such as the Sojourner rover back in 1996: Caltech licensed and sold the rights to Mattel. And there have been previous attempts to bring NASA into the world of endorsements, with a big push to do so in the 1990s while Ladwig was at NASA during the Space Shuttle program. Ladwig headed up what was known as the “non-scientific payload program,” which flew just one item: an art project that the NASA astronauts were too embarrassed to photograph.

Image: NASA

“I think the internal feelings were that this is going to somehow cheapen the agency,” says Ladwig. “Do you want to be like a NASCAR racer? The feeling was that this wasn’t appropriate for a government agency to do.”

But that sentiment may be changing. Bridenstine has claimed multiple times that NASA will return to the Moon with the help of commercially made vehicles. NASA is currently working with two major aerospace companies, SpaceX and Boeing, to send astronauts to and from the International Space Station. And the logos of these companies will be emblazoned on the vehicles and rockets that launch crews into space, which was taboo in the early days of NASA.

“For years, you would not find commercial logos on NASA spacecraft,” says Pearlman. “The Space Shuttle didn’t have Rockwell’s logo, even though they built it. But in more recent years, we’ve seen SpaceX logos on Dragon, and you’re going to see Boeing logos on Starliner.”

“For years, you would not find commercial logos on NASA spacecraft.”

Selling advertising space on NASA vehicles and doing endorsements may bring in some cash, too. In 2000, a company called MirCorp made a deal with TV producer Mark Burnett to do a reality game show in which the winner would be sent to the Russian Mir space station. For that, the broadcast rights were around $50 to $60 million, according to Jeff Manber, the former head of MirCrop who is now the CEO of ISS partner Nanoracks. (The show never made it to air.)

Manber also coordinated with Russia to do advertisements on Mir, which ran between $500,000 to $1.5 million, he says. The Science and Technology Policy Institute estimated that a commercial space station could generate upward of $100 million in revenue doing media and advertising activities.

These are dwarfed, however, by the cost of doing business in space. Operating the ISS costs NASA between $3 to $4 billion annually. It would take hundreds of million-dollar endorsement deals to significantly offset those numbers. Plus, that money probably won’t go straight back to NASA; it’ll likely go back to the Treasury Department, unless Congress says otherwise. “Very few programs where fees are raised — such as licensing fees — few of those fees go straight back to the agencies,” says Mark Harkins, a senior fellow of Georgetown’s Government Affairs Institute. “They tend to go back to the Treasury, and then Congress will oftentimes match the appropriation with the fee that’s being raised. But they’re not required to.”

That means NASA may not get the money it raises through these endorsements. NASA can only spend what is appropriated by Congress, so Congress would have to determine how that new money coming in is spent. It could use that money to offset NASA’s budget, or that money could simply be spent on some other government agency. It all depends on how the legislation is written.

SpaceX’s logo on display on a Dragon capsule the company launched for NASA.
SpaceX’s logo on display on a Dragon capsule the company launched for NASA.
Image: SpaceX

And the taxpayers that fund NASA may not be very keen on the idea of the agency taking on too many sponsors. Some private companies don’t necessarily want NASA to get into the endorsement game. Many of NASA’s commercial partners strive to land endorsement deals themselves. But Nanoracks’ Manber is worried that advertisers will flock to NASA rather than work with commercial aerospace companies, which need advertising revenue to succeed.

“They expect me to say this is fantastic, but there’s a subtlety when we’re looking at private sector development,” says Manber. “We can’t have the government as a competitor.” If the public and private sectors are competing for the same thing, the government can potentially bid lower because it has a guaranteed source of income, Manber says.

And that leads to another question: should other government agencies follow a similar path? “If you let NASA do that, where does it stop with government agencies?” asks Ladwig. “Does the DOD start selling logos on its battleships?”

NASA is already embedded within the public consciousness. NASA can’t make money off of its own image, but the agency’s well-known Meatball logo can be licensed by commercial companies for use on their own products. That’s why you may have seen it on a friend’s shirt or hat. “When you have NASA logos showing up in The Martian, and First Man coming out in October, and you have a matchbox toy version of NASA’s space exploration vehicle concept as the latest toy car in stores now — all of that was done without changing any regulations,” says Pearlman.

NASA’s new committee will determine what, if anything, needs to change. And the new committee headed by Gold will figure out if any legislation is needed. But it’s clear that NASA officials are curious about whether or not the agency could act like a business.

“Capitalism works really well here on Earth. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be embracing it in [space],” Gold said at the meeting.