Commentary: Should NASA Sell Ads?

Before answering, we should admit how much we allow commercials to intrude in our lives.

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“A win-win situation,” he says.

Moreover, adds Uhran, because NASA understands the road to commercialism is a slippery slope (e.g., Jerry Springer), all involved will take great care in selecting commercial partners and limiting the scope of the partnerships. “We don’t want to do anything to compromise NASA’s image,” Uhran says, “and we won’t do anything to compromise NASA’s image.”

That sounds like a guarantee to me. So if Candlestick Park can become 3Com Park, and if half of America will sit through a six-hour, high-pressure time-share harangue in exchange for an off-season weekend at a crappy resort, and if millions of people commit to three expensive years of Compuserve to buy down $400 on a new computer, why should the National Aeronautics and Space Administration be held to a different standard?

Answer: Because it is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Because in an era in which government agencies are held in contempt by a skeptical, cynical public, NASA stands virtually alone in the public’s trust and esteem. Because in an era that is short on non-basketball-playing heroes, NASA astronauts are living icons. Because NASA, in dispatching these icons into space at their substantial peril, should be held to a higher standard.

Because no amount of revenue can ever repurchase your dignity, and if it starts lending its name to fast food chains or even software companies, dignity is what NASA would lose first. If Charlie Sheen won’t do a commercial in America, for crying out loud, why in the world would NASA?

The reason the agency is so cautious and conflicted on this subject is because the question isn’t how prudent explorations of commercialism might help the space program. The question is how they might destroy it. For starters, prudent explorations, once they begin generating cash, will quickly lead to imprudent explorations. When commerce drives decision-making in any way, shape, or form, how long will it take before commercial partners start throwing their $20.8 million “site bundle” weight around?

In fact, it doesn’t matter if the piper is calling the tune or not. The public, which, as we have seen, is experienced in these matters, will assume the piper is calling the tune, and that presumption of prostitution will rob NASA of its most precious asset: the faith of the people. That faith was shaken after the Challenger explosion. It is fragile still.

 So let’s think back a moment. Fifteen years ago, NASA flew a Carbonated Beverage Dispenser Evaluation “experiment” aboard the space shuttle, prominently displaying cans of Pepsi and Coke. Two years later came the Challenger tragedy.

Now suppose it had been the Challenger’s mission to test soft drinks, and seven astronauts were martyred to that cause. “I don’t even want to imagine that,” Mark Uhran says.

What NASA should do is imagine it— every time some tycoon makes an offer that looks too good to refuse. Then it should smile politely and walk away. Because spaceflight sponsorship isn’t TV sponsorship, and the price is simply not the point.

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