Bridenstine Wants to Sell Naming Rights, Allow Astronauts to Seek Endorsements

Bridenstine Wants to Sell Naming Rights, Allow Astronauts to Seek Endorsements

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine today raised the possibility of selling naming rights to NASA rockets and spacecraft and allowing NASA astronauts to seek the same types of endorsements as sports figures. Those are just two of his ideas on how NASA can further embrace the commercial space movement.  He has created a new NASA Advisory Council (NAC) committee to advise him on regulatory and policy matters to determine what is possible and where there are barriers.  Maxar Technologies’ Mike Gold, a well known commercial space industry insider, was appointed to chair the committee.

Mike Gold, Maxar Technologies. Credit: NASA

Bridenstine met with NAC for the first time as Administrator today, energetically explaining the Trump Administration’s three Space Policy Directives (SPDs) and how they apply to NASA, especially SPD-1 which directs NASA to return astronauts to the Moon before setting out for Mars.  He repeatedly emphasized the “sustainable” aspect of SPD-1 as being the driver in the architecture NASA is creating.

He heralded the commercial potential of lunar resources, potentially “trillions of dollars” in platinum-group metals.  We do not know for certain they are there, he said, but they originate in asteroids, which strike the Moon, so it is possible and we need to be the ones who find them.

As provocative as that sounds, his interest in naming rights and allowing astronauts to seek endorsements seemed more surprising.  The idea of painting corporate names on NASA rockets is hardly new, but has been shot down in the past as unseemly.  Bridenstine said it might offset some of NASA’s costs.

As for NASA astronauts being allowed to seek endorsements — he mentioned being portrayed on cereal boxes like top athletes — Bridenstine made two points.  First, he thinks it will help inspire kids to think about becoming NASA astronauts or scientists instead of race car drivers.  Second, commercial astronauts, who will begin flying soon, will not be constrained so why should those who choose to work for NASA instead?

These are just ideas at the moment, not proposals.  NAC’s new Regulatory and Policy committee is tasked with looking into them and Gold is equally enthusiastic.  Regarding naming rights, or “branding opportunities,” he said it would “enhance the exposure of space activities in popular culture and begin to validate a business case” for future private sector operators.  And giving NASA astronauts the “freedom to pursue endorsements and other media opportunities” would allow their achievements to be “just as celebrated as any film or sports star” and help ensure they and STEM education “return to a place of importance in popular culture.”

A lawyer, Gold worked for Bigelow Aerospace for a decade navigating the complex Washington regulatory environment on behalf of that newspace company that is building expandable modules.  Along the way, he became chair of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) and a leader of efforts to reform the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) to make it easier to export space products.  That achieved considerable success, though there is still work to do.  He remarked today that “second only to gravity, the ITAR has been the greatest barrier to the liftoff of many commercial space enterprises.”

He moved to Space Systems Loral, now part of Maxar Technologies, in 2016 and subsequently became Maxar’s Vice President for Regulatory/Policy and General Counsel for its Radiant Solutions business unit.  He continues to chair COMSTAC, which is still working ITAR, and now he will look at it from a NASA perspective, too.

He spent several minutes explaining to NAC the broad scope of issues Bridenstine wants the committee to tackle.  In addition to the naming rights, astronaut endorsements, and ITAR reform, they include:

  • determine how to “free American astronauts to fully support commercial activities” on the International Space Station (ISS).  “American companies should not have to turn to Russian cosmonauts to execute commercial operations.”
  • identify ways to support private sector low Earth orbit (LEO) development using “equitable methods” with commercial crew providers to use excess seats for commercial activities and “for reimbursed funds from those seats to be leveraged” by NASA to “purchase volume and/or services on private sector habitats attached to ISS or free-flying commercial space stations.”
  • recommend ways to expand the Intergovernmental Agreement that governs ISS to cover private sector habitats and space stations.
  • identify how NASA can support SPD-3, which addresses Space Situational Awareness and Space Traffic Managment.
  • examine regulations “preventing the harmful contamination of the Moon, Mars, and other celestial bodies” to adhere to the Outer Space Treaty, but not unnecessarily hinder or prohibit commercial missions.

Other members of the committee have not been appointed, but Gold said they would be regulatory and policy experts on the “front lines of commercial space.”  He said he was looking forward to helping NASA “achieve escape velocity from red tape.”

Separately, Bridenstine announced he is creating another new NAC committee to focus specifically on science at the Moon.  It will be a collaboration between NASA’s human exploration and science offices. Currently NAC has separate committees: Human Exploration and Operations, and Science. The additional committee will look at synergies.  He did not provide details, but the NAC meeting continues tomorrow so more may be revealed then.

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