Commercial branding on spacecraft? Five key points in NASA’s evolving space vision

As a joke, NASA spacewalker Dale Gardner holds up a “For Sale” sign during a shuttle mission in 1984, in an era when the space shuttle fleet took on commercial satellite servicing tasks. (NASA Photo)

Why can’t commercials be filmed on the International Space Station? How about astronaut endorsements of energy drinks or tennis shoes? And instead of saying “The Eagle has landed,” why not get paid for saying “Here’s your orbital Pizza Hut delivery”?

The final frontier is edging farther into the commercial frontier: That’s one of the top takeaways from this week’s meetings of the NASA Advisory Council at Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and other officials and advisers provided a preview of the trends we’re likely to be seeing in the months and years to come. Here’s a quick rundown on five places NASA is going toward:

Going commercial

Bridenstine said a new advisory committee, headed by Maxar Technologies executive Mike Gold, would look into the prospects for parlaying commercial opportunities.

“Is it possible for NASA to offset some of the costs by selling the naming rights to a spacecraft, or the naming rights to its rockets?” Bridenstine asked.

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Gold said the possibilities could include having NASA receive reimbursement when commercial space companies sell spots on spacecraft heading for the International Space Station, and leveraging those funds for access or services on future private-sector space stations.

“Our companies should not have to turn to Russian cosmonauts to execute commercial operations,” Gold said. “When new industrial substance are created, commercial experiments conducted, or even advertisements filmed, American astronauts should lead the way.”

In the past, Russia’s space effort led the way in commercial activities, ranging from bringing fare-paying spaceflight participants on board the space station to filming Pepsi and Pizza Hut commercials. In a famous case from 2000, a Russian Proton rocket was emblazoned with the Pizza Hut logo for $1 million.

Former NASA official Lori Garver tweeted that U.S. companies have long sought similar exposure through NASA.

“We considered this in the ‘90s,” she said. “Nike would have paid hundreds of millions for swoosh on the shuttle tank. It was too controversial. Maybe it will work this time!”

Going to the Gateway

Bridenstine and other NASA officials made clear that they were all in on the Gateway, an outpost that’s due to be built in lunar orbit during the 2020s. The Gateway would host crews of astronauts but could also take care of itself in between 30- to 90-day-long missions.

Its go-to orbit is known as a near-rectilinear halo orbit, which would come closest to one of the lunar poles (most likely the south pole) every six days to facilitate the potential transfer of supplies and crew to the moon’s surface.

But Bridenstine said the Gateway’s solar electric propulsion system could push it into a wide variety of orbits, depending on the mission, or even to the Earth-moon L1 and L2 gravitational balance points, tens of thousands of miles from the moon.

Going reusable

Bridenstine scoffed at the idea of merely leaving “flags and footprints” on the lunar surface, as was the case with the Apollo moon program of the 1960s and early ’70s.

“This time, when we go, we’re going to go to stay,” he said, echoing one of Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ space mantras. “We’re going to go sustainably.”

The biggest factor behind making the future moon campaign sustainable and affordable will be making sure the spacecraft are reusable. That applies not only to reusable rockets, such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Blue Origin’s yet-to-be-built New Glenn, but also to “reusable tugs to go from Earth orbit to lunar orbit,” plus lunar landers that can be refueled and reflown, Bridenstine said.

NASA’s heavy-lift moon rocket, the Space Launch System, is not currently designed to be reusable. But at one point Bridenstine seemed to suggest that future incarnations could incorporate more reusable elements.

Going for lunar resources

Bridenstine said another difference from Apollo would be increased reliance on lunar resources. “That’s another change in our policy as a country,” he said.

Recent scientific findings have given a boost to hopes that deposits of lunar ice could be converted into breathable air, drinkable water and rocket propellants for refueling depots. But Bridenstine voiced even more ambitious hopes, focusing on the potential extraction of platinum group metals or rare earth metals from lunar soil.

The administrator acknowledged that it’s not yet clear how much of such materials will be found on the moon. “But to the extent that they exist, we need to be actively working to make sure that we find them rather than somebody else,” Bridenstine said.

Commercialization of lunar resources could eventually spark a tussle with other nations. U.S. law already gives more weight to private claims on space resources, and Gold said his committee would be looking at ways to interpret the Outer Space Treaty so as not to hinder appropriate commercial activity.

Going once … Going twice?

The way Bridenstine sees it, the Gateway in lunar orbit would serve as a model for even farther-out space gateways. “We want to be able to replicate that at Mars,” he said.

But the key challenge goes back to the famous phrase attributed to Mercury astronaut Gus Grissom: “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

A quarter-century ago, President George H.W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative fell short of its moon-and-Mars goal, in large part due to a lack of money and political will. Nearly a decade ago, President George W. Bush’s back-to-the-moon Constellation program suffered a similar fate.

Will the current campaign go farther? Keith Cowing, editor of the independent website NASA Watch, is wary:

But retired Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles, chairman of the NASA Advisory Council, voiced hope that the strong commitments from the White House, the National Space Council and Bridenstine will lead to a full follow-through this time around.

“No pun intended, I think the stars are aligned right now,” Lyles said.