Key Senator Questions NASA-Estée Lauder Deal

Key Senator Questions NASA-Estée Lauder Deal

The top Democrat on the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA wants to know how a deal NASA signed with Estée Lauder furthers commercialization of low Earth orbit (LEO). An Estée Lauder skin care product will be delivered to the International Space Station (ISS) next week and filmed inside the windowed Cupola that faces toward Earth as part of NASA’s new LEO commercialization strategy.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) at a Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee hearing on NASA’s budget, September 23, 2020. Screengrab.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) told NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at a hearing on NASA’s budget today that she personally is a fan of that skin cream – Advanced Night Repair serum — but does not understand how the $128,000 the company will pay NASA advances LEO commercialization.

I guess I am having trouble understanding how Estée Lauder’s effort is going to support the commercialization efforts of NASA because as I understand it, they’re expected to reimburse NASA about $128,000, which is a fraction of what the project will cost. … Can you talk about how shooting the cosmetics commercial advances NASA’s mission? — Sen. Jeanne Shaheen

She went on to ask if the company is prohibited from using the information in an ad or, if it does, will NASA get a percentage. “It seems to me that using our tax dollars in that way, to support a private company from the dollars of research, is something that we have to think about.”

Bridenstine demurred for the most part because he did not know the details, but said he did not think “shooting the cosmetics commercial is the intent of that particular mission.” Overall, it is part of the 5 percent of ISS resources NASA is setting aside to encourage more commercial use of the ISS, he added, pointing to other examples — flying Nickelodeon slime and brewing beer — that already have taken place.  “I can tell you that everything goes through a very competitively selected process and … scientists are the ones that are making this decision.”

NASA announced its new commercial policy last summer. An associated NASA Interim Directive (NID) allows U.S. government astronauts to conduct “coordinated and scheduled activities in support of commercial and marketing activities.”

Excerpt from NASA Interim Directive on Use of International Space Station for Commercial and Marketing Activities, June 6, 2019.

Estée Lauder announced the deal with NASA last week saying the serum “will be photographed for use on the brand’s social media platforms.”  It will be launched to ISS next Tuesday on Northrop Grumman’s NG-14 Cygnus cargo flight.

NASA is holding a media teleconference tomorrow to discuss the “science and business” payloads aboard NG-14. Phil McAlister, Director of NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Development Division, and Stéphane de La Faverie, group president, The Estée Lauder Companies and global brand president, Estée Lauder, will discuss this agreement.

Separately, as the hearing was coming to a close Bridenstine urged the committee to support NASA’s LEO commercialization efforts that are broadly focused on encouraging private companies to build commercial space stations for the post-ISS era.  NASA is requesting $150 million in FY2021. It made the same request last year, but Congress approved only $15 million.

“A day is coming when the International Space Station comes to the end of its useful life. In order to be able to have the United States of America have a presence in low Earth orbit, we have to be prepared for what comes next. ” — Jim Bridenstine

What NASA wants next is an era of commercially owned and operated space stations with NASA as one of many customers.

“But without NASA as a partner, commercial companies aren’t going to invest,” Bridenstine warned. China is building a space station and marketing it to NASA’s international partners. “I think it would be a tragedy if after all this time we were to abandon low Earth orbit” and “cede that territory to another country that doesn’t have our interests at heart.”

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