NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is very keen on handing over the U.S.’s space activities to the private sector. Not only has he been trying to get companies to take over operation of the International Space Station, but he is reportedly also looking into the possibility of brands emblazoning their names on rockets—less NASA as we know it, and more NASCAR.
NASA studiously avoids endorsements of any kind, because it’s part of the civil service and astronauts are therefore barred from showing commercial preferences—the agency does allow some NASA merchandising, but makes no money off sales.
However, according to The Washington Post, Bridenstine recently promised to establish a committee to look into the idea of branding deals, where companies get to name rockets and spacecraft, and astronauts gain permission to appear in commercials.
“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? I’m telling you there is interest in that right now,” Bridenstine reportedly asked, adding that he did not know the answer. “I’d like to see, maybe one day, NASA astronauts on the cover of a cereal box, embedded into the American culture,” he added.
Former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly told the Post that the move would represent a “dramatic shift from the rules prohibiting government officials from using their public office for private gain,” but added: “I guess this is the world we live in now.”
President Donald Trump nominated Bridenstine, at the time a Republican Congressman with no experience within the space agency, as NASA administrator late last year. Soon after Bridenstine took over, NASA abruptly cancelled its efforts to put a rover on the moon.
The Trump administration is also not interested in funding the International Space Station (ISS,) although Bridenstine’s plan to hand over control to private companies has hit resistance in Congress. There’s also the small problem of the ISS not being entirely the U.S.’s to give away, as the Russians, Europeans, Japanese and Canadians are also involved.
The White House is however keen on establishing a “Space Force” as a branch of the military. Bridenstine has backed this idea, while stressing that NASA would not be involved as it wants to maintain independence from defense and national security issues.