NASA is Considering Something Unprecedented and Unbelievable for Future Missions (And It's Probably Inevitable, Too)

As you can see in the photo above, there’s plenty of room for a few logos on NASA’s next manned spacecraft, set for its maiden test mission in 2020. 

But the agency’s new administrator, Jim Bridenstine, is interested in seeing more than just the iconic NASA “meatball” logo on the side of the Orion capsule and other pieces of space hardware.

“Is it possible for NASA to offset some of its costs by selling the naming rights to its spacecraft, or the naming rights to its rockets?” Bridenstine posed the question during a NASA advisory council in August.

In other words, NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System could become the Samsung Galaxy Space Launch System. Pretty brilliant, huh? (I’ll happily take a small finder’s fee on behalf of my country if that deal works out, Administrator Bridenstine.)

Bridenstine has formed a committee to look into everything from allowing commercial companies to use the International Space Station for experiments that could yield new products or filming advertisements in microgravity to letting astronauts pursue commercial endorsements. 

For decades NASA has taken pains to be quite non-commercial, refusing to even mention certain astronaut snacks like M&Ms by their brand name. This hasn’t been the case for other national space agencies, most notably Russia, which is always happy to make a buck sending paying tourists or even Pizza Hut’s logo off the planet

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NASA has been opening itself to the growing commercial space industry for some time now, turning over launch contracts to the likes of SpaceX and Boeing. In fact, a commercial Boeing astronaut is set to launch to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s commercial crew program that will send a Boeing-designed spacecraft to the ISS.

But is a Samsung Galaxy Rocket built with taxpayer dollars a bridge too far? Are there publicly funded ventures that must be held apart or above capitalism? Will selling naming rights somehow pollute the purity of an agency chartered to explore space for “peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind?”

The answer to the above questions may be surprisingly personal or perhaps generational. I remember being shocked by HBO’s acquisition of the landmark public television show “Sesame Street.” Even more shocking, however, was the revelation that a number of colleagues a decade or so younger than me saw the sale of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch as a positive move: Sesame Street was moving into a more stable, successful and hip commercial neighborhood.

In practical terms, it’s hard to argue against the gentrification of Sesame Street, as it’s still available on public TV, but for those of us who grew up in a generation before streaming and who might even remember the days before cable (gasp!) it just feels a little weird, if not downright icky.

I suspect the same may hold true for NASA. “Selling out” is simply less taboo than it was a decade or two ago. While it may always feel wrong, and arguably conflicts with the agency’s public mission, the momentum is with a Space Launch System that will take us closer not to other galaxies, but to Samsung Galaxy. 

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