Branding In Space

There seems to be a lot of concern in the science journalism community about Bridenstine’s potential proposal to allow sponsorship of missions:

Bridenstine’s proposal would set a dangerous precedent for NASA’s future. By suggesting that commercial partnerships could help fund NASA’s missions, it implies that the agency is not worth funding through the usual means—annual budgets carefully negotiated and ironed out by lawmakers. And their constituents believe that the space program is important; according to a study from the Pew Research Center in June, 72 percent of Americans say it’s essential for the United States to continue to be a world leader in space exploration. If Nike is ready and willing to drop millions of dollars to sponsor the next mission to Mars, why should lawmakers bother spending any taxpayer money on it? The world’s premier space agency shouldn’t have to resort to brand sponsorships in the absence of political will. And even if brands could float the first few years of a mission, they might not have the stomach for the years, or even decades it sometimes takes for NASA’s most ambitious missions to come to fruition. [Emphasis added]

There is a false assumption here that a) the purpose of NASA spending is “space exploration,” and that the negotiations and “ironing out” have much to do with “space exploration” as opposed to zip-code engineering. The sooner that we recognize that there is in fact an absence of political will, and accept that space exploration should be privatized, the way it was until the end of WW II, the sooner we’ll start to make more progress.

[Update a few minutes later]
More from Ken Chang.

18 thoughts on “Branding In Space”

  1. That comment about carefully crafted congressional budgets is my view of what is destroying NASA. Designs are less about what’s best for space exploration and more about how to get as much budget from Congress. So components are spread across as many zip codes as possible.

    I saw this illustrated by Lockheed Martin advertising Orion with a billboard that said “Orion is built by me” with stars all over a map of the US for all the locations that parts are developed. This was next to a mockup of what Orion might be. Next to it was the first flown Dragon module.

  2. From the Atlantic article:

    “Space clearly sells. But NASA shouldn’t be on the market.”

    That leaves the only alternative being what NASA has had since 1972, being sold pork through “zip code engineering” that leaves us with the ratio of costs like those found between SLS ($24 Billion up to first flight) and Falcon Heavy ($500 million up to first flight), or 48/1. This is acceptable *only* if “zip code engineering” is the whole point in the first place.

    1. On Cable TV I was watching a British film companies going on and on about how an Airbus jetliner was built. This section built in Germany, then *flown* for goodness sake in a special cargo plane, to another plant in France to mate with wings made and shipped from England. The narrator thought it was ingenious … I thought it was economically insane.

      1. That’s the European model of manufacture across a ‘part’ of a continent as part of the political work share agreements. No different to across US states.

        However, you can always go the B797 route have it manufactured across the world 😉

        1. No, it’s different. In Europe, the agreement is explicit that each state gets work commensurate with its contribution. Here, the money is funneled via political preferences of the congresspeople on the space committees, so a lot of states with no aerospace work ship money to (e.g.) Alabama.

    2. How is it that some of the most educated who have a large amount of raw intelligence can be so unwise? Commerce is what makes everything the government and scientists do possible.

      The more commerce, the more money and the more chances for innovation and creation that can cross pollinate into the sciences that enable more research to be done in a greater number of areas. This creates a reciprocal relationship where unpredictable advances in science are transferred to not just the commercial sector but science, healthcare, education, and every other sector of society.

      It is not like there is a two dimensional progress tree that progress follows. There is a three dimensional cloud of bubbles interacting in unpredictable ways but all of them feeding off each other. It would be nice if more people in the science community understood and respected how the efforts of others enable them to exist.

      1. The academic field of History of Science is harshly critical when someone tries to play the game of “inevitability of Discovery-A automatically leading to Breakthrough-B“… For example, why didn’t the Imperial Chinese develop Calculus independently?

        More resources, more prosperity and we will have more people with the luxury to ask “What if I did this…?”

      2. How is it that some of the most educated who have a large amount of raw intelligence can be so unwise?

        Graft. The claim that the corporatist are the greedy ones is just projection.

  3. Why would a company want its logo associated with a loser organisation like NASA?
    I’ve sold stuff to NASA. I have no idea what they are doing with it. I wish the NASA people would talk to me because I could tell them where the edges and corners of the design envelope are.

  4. Space clearly sells.

    Uh, no. For the most part, space doesn’t sell. Examples like Tang are the closest but there are other more recent examples that are far more relevant and illustrative of how companies promote their activities in space to appeal to an audience outside the industry.

    The audience for ads and logos on rockets is small, same with naming rights. Everyday Astronaut only has 145k subscribers. There just isn’t a lot of people interested in this stuff. The audience would be a niche of a niche of people interested in space, very tiny. But part of that extremely small audience is government, and that would likely be the intended audience.

    But nasa shouldn’t be on the market.

    This I agree with. NASA isn’t a business. It can’t, and shouldn’t, be run like one. NASA should enable commerce though, which has been happening because businesses that provide services to NASA are now free to market those services to other customers. Because of this, we will see businesses talking up what they do for NASA in an effort to get more customers. NASA has also struggled over the years to do this very promotion to justify what looks like pointless spending to tens of millions of people.

    Would NASA have its budget cut if it was getting money through means other than congress? It is tough to say but either way, it says little about NASA’s relative worth. What comes through in the piece isn’t a fear of NASA turning into a business but the fear that NASA and the “science” community will lose gravitas and control as commerce moves into space. This is the exactly wrong view to have as commerce will be the great enabler of science in space.

    1. I agree that NASA, or any government agency, shouldn’t be in the business of selling its brand or selling marketing for other brands. Either they do is important or not. If important, then act accordingly and run it efficiently.

      BTW, watched a YouTube video on the first RS-25 test at Stennis. Sorry, no link but easy to find if you look. The first half of the video is regarding the money spent to renovate the test stand for the new tests after it was noted the engine is the same as used for STS and previously tested at Stennis. Yeah money for Mississippi! (I’ll admit to taking some of that sweet federal money sent to Stennis over a summer, it was a great summer. Thank you, taxpayers)

    2. On the one hand, I disagree. I was saying back in the day that the Space Shuttle should have been adorned with a massive Coca-Cola logo across that huge billboard space on its belly, and the proceeds used to help the budget.

      On the other hand, the opportunities for graft, and the expectations of quid pro quos, are palpable. It might be impossible to prevent that. We might start by limiting the number of sponsorships from a given company within some number of missions. Or, something…

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