Photo courtesy of NASA. Space Shuttle Landing.
Story by Alex Byers. December 28, 2012 04:46 AM EST.
One giant leap for mankind. One small step for the GoDaddy Martian Rover?
With NASA’s budget unlikely to see a boost anytime soon, legislators and policymakers are left looking for a financial fix. Enter one option: selling private sponsorships to future NASA projects or vehicles.
Robert Walker, a former Republican chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, floated that idea at a committee hearing on NASA’s strategic direction earlier this month.
Far-fetched? Maybe. But with federal appropriations declining each year since 2009, NASA needs to look outside Washington for a cash infusion, Walker says.
“Sponsorship brings in people who have no place in aerospace but see an opportunity to have their name associated with it,” he told POLITICO.
And lawmakers have more to grapple with than just the question of NASA resources: Washington can’t even agree on what exactly the agency’s job should be.
Congress and the White House have butted heads over NASA’s direction, with many on the Hill supporting new human exploration missions, such as going back to the moon. The White House, while not writing off that goal, has also promoted technology development and a research mission that would study samples of asteroids that come from deep space.
The two bodies were able to pass a space plan in the partisan political climate of 2010 that included components from both sides, noted David Weaver, the agency’s associate administrator for communications. But that deal has been described as a compromise that made no one happy rather than a road map for NASA’s future.
That lack of consensus among political leadership was the key finding of a report commissioned by Congress and released earlier this month. The administration, a National Research Council Committee concluded, needs to take the lead in “forging a new consensus on NASA’s future” and eliminate “the current mismatch between NASA’s budget and its portfolio of programs, facilities and staff.”
One way to do that, the report states, is by committing to cost-sharing deals with other government agencies and international partnerships. And, as Walker pointed out at the House hearing, there are private-sector options. That includes sponsorships, but it also encompasses partnerships that could solidify or increase NASA’s access to technology or projects developed by innovative space companies like Space X or Virgin Galactic.
That’s a key component of the administration’s space policy, Weaver said.
“We now are hiring folks to transport our supplies to the space station, and eventually very soon, we’ll be hiring companies to take our astronauts to the space station,” he said. “That’s going to save us money — money that we will then plow into the development of the most powerful rocket ever developed and a space capsule that will take our astronauts further than we’ve ever gone before.”
There’s no indication that the agency is talking about selling naming rights, and it’s not clear whether sponsorships would be a viable funding source. Proponents of the idea would need to contend with federal rules that prohibit government employees from endorsing a private-sector project, said Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University.
Frank Slazer, vice president of space systems at the Aerospace Industries Association, said the sponsorship idea has been floated before — Pizza Hut put its logo on a Russian rocket in 2000, for example. But once the novelty hits, he said, it can fade fast.
“I don’t think these things have long-term potential for long-term funding,” he said.
Lawmakers may not have a strong stance on the sponsorship issue yet — incoming House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) hasn’t made up his mind. But he noted the option.
“The commercialization of space and space exploration can inspire our nation and encourage new generations of astronauts, engineers and innovators,” Smith said in a statement to POLITICO. “As the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee begins working on a NASA reauthorization bill next Congress, we will examine ways to promote the commercialization of space that help modernize NASA’s mission.”
A spokesman for outgoing Chairman Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) said the lawmaker had no further comment on the naming rights issue. Immediately after Walker finished his sponsorship remarks at the House hearing, Hall, whose space priority is the International Space Station, did add, “and that’s the way it is.”
So far, at least one legislator is opposed.
“I’m very skeptical and the idea is distasteful to me,” Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) said in an interview. “I did not like the idea of selling naming rights to NASA missions, I don’t like the idea of astronaut spacesuits looking like a NASCAR uniform,” he added, concurring with concerns about the unreliability of corporate funding.
Naming rights are likely a long way off, if they come at all. NASA, Walker said, would have to restructure how some of its centers operate. And that possibility also depends on how well the commercial community can till the field.
“Everybody who looks at NASA says they are dramatically underfunded for the kinds of things they are asked to do,” Walker said. “This is just one idea.”
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