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Endorsing openness for NASA astronauts

The newest NASA astronaut class on stage at the Johnson Space Center for their debut in June 2017. Should they and their colleagues have the right to pursue commercial endorsements while at the agency? (credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The administrator of NASA seems to think that NASA’s astronauts could benefit from some commercial publicity. Speaking at last week’s NASA Advisory Council meeting, Jim Bridenstine talked about how kids knew all about athletes, but didn’t know about NASA astronauts.

“My children can tell you all of the players on the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team, or all of the players on the Houston Rockets,” he said in remarks broadcast on NASA TV. “They want to wear the shoes of the players on these teams. They’re embedded in the American culture in a way that is amazing… I’d like to see kids growing up, instead of wanting to be a professional sports star, I’d like to see them growing up wanting to be a NASA astronaut.”

Lots of kids do want to grow up to be an astronaut, but Bridenstine seemed to think that astronauts need to be as popular as athletes. “I’d like to see, maybe one day, NASA astronauts on the cover of a cereal box,” he said.

Bridenstine said that ways to get astronauts on the cover of cereal boxes, and more commercial activities, would be one area of attention for a new advisory committee devoted to regulatory and policy issues. “The committee will examine giving [astronauts] the freedom to pursue endorsements and other media opportunities,” said Mike Gold, the space industry executive who will run the committee. “Our astronauts are American heroes, and deserve to be treated as such.”

“One of the reasons I think that’s important,” Bridenstine interjected, is that commercial astronauts who will soon fly to the space station won’t have prohibitions on commercial activities. “If those astronauts are not limited in kind of the way they are able to promote themselves, then should NASA astronauts be limited in how we promote NASA?”

It’s not clear how exactly that would work, but Bridenstine and Gold seem to be harkening back to the early days of the space program, when then original Mercury 7 astronauts sold the exclusive rights to their life stories to Life magazine or got sweetheart deals on Corvettes. Those deals were later frowned upon—the astronauts, after all, are federal employees—and went away. By the early 1970s, the Apollo 15 astronauts got in trouble for stashing some postal covers on their flight for later sale.

If that’s their argument, it seems flawed for a few reasons. One is that it’s hard to make a case, looking at the big picture, that astronauts deserve special treatment. Others working for the government, including active-duty military personnel, don’t get the ability to do commercial endorsements. Why should astronauts get that privilege?

Even if they could, it’s hard to see them being able to win much in the way of commercial endorsements. Athletes win endorsements because of their individual achievements and team championships. Astronauts today, though, are carrying out relative mundane work on the ISS. Maybe one day, when astronauts return to the Moon, they’ll be able to leverage those accomplishments into endorsement deals, but the astronauts today who conduct experiments on and make repairs to the space station are pretty anonymous. (They can be popular, to be certain, particularly among children, but that doesn’t mean they’re commercially marketable.)

There’s also the argument that endorsements are needed so that astronauts, and NASA in general, are “embedded in the American culture.” NASA seems to be having a moment of cultural relevance of sorts. As noted in this publication, NASA logos are widely available on everything from cheap t-shirts to designer apparel (see “NASA as a brand”, The Space Review, August 6, 2018). Like the author of that article, I’ve noted the NASA logo pop up in everyday life, including places far away from NASA centers: far more often than I’ve seen t-shirts with the logos of the Oklahoma City Thunder or Houston Rockets.

Why the NASA brand is so strong is a question for debate, but it seems to show that the agency is currently popular without the need to allow astronauts to perform commercial endorsements. And while Bridenstine suggested in his comments that not enough kids grow up wanting to become astronauts, recall that the latest astronaut class set a record, with some 18,000 people applying for what was eventually 12 slots.

But let’s set those objections aside. Let’s say that there is both interest in allowing active-duty astronauts to accept commercial endorsements, and demand for such deals from companies. Doing would, at the very least, require changes in NASA regulations, and perhaps also changes to federal law as well.

Before we accept such changes, though, we should seek a quid pro quo from NASA. In exchange for allowing NASA astronauts to do commercial endorsement and media deals, we should seek some transparency from the agency in how it selects—or doesn’t select—astronauts for missions.

Two recent cases illustrate this issue. Early this year, NASA removed Jeanette Epps from the crew of a space station mission that launched in June. NASA never explained why Epps was removed from the mission, and Epps herself has claimed she doesn’t know why she was taken off the mission less than six months before its launch, and after she had completed her primary training. It’s resulted in allegations of racism, since Epps is African American, although people like former NASA administrator Charles Bolden called such claims “absurd” (see “NASA at 60-something”, The Space Review, July 30, 2018.) They may be absurd, but NASA has done nothing to explain why she was removed, allowing such rumors to fester.

Then, just days before Bridenstine spoke at the council meeting, the agency quietly announced that Robb Kulin, one of the members last year’s new astronaut class, was resigning just one year into his training. It was the first time an astronaut quit the agency while still in training since two of the scientist-astronaut recruits from a half-century ago resigned. Neither NASA nor Kulin explained why he was leaving.

Contrast that with the pro athletes that are so embedded into American culture, as Bridenstine put it. It’s big news when teams sign a free agent or top draft pick, but also when they’re released, traded, or demoted to the minor leagues. When a star player gets benched, it’s widely discussed. When a player ends up on the disabled list, the specific injury, and the expected time out, are reported.

If NASA wants to treat its astronauts like athletes when it comes to endorsements and media deals, we should expect them to be more open about personnel decisions, be they good news or bad. Potential sponsors would expect nothing less: the value of a deal with an astronaut would go down if she or he was removed from the crew of an upcoming mission or resigned from the agency. It’s good for ordinary people as well.

NASA for now is able to hide behind the argument that these are personnel decisions involving government employees. But even if the idea of endorsements for astronauts fails to lift off, a little more transparency in that process can do a lot to remove the mystery, speculation, and rumormongering that takes place today, an openness that will benefit NASA in the long run.


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