Commentary: Should NASA Sell Ads?

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

You probably know the joke: At a party, a wizened old tycoon approaches a curvaceous blonde. “If I gave you a check for $5 million,” he asks her, “would you sleep with me tonight?” She looks at him, stunned. He’s a revolting specimen, but five million bucks would take care of her sick parents and set her up for life. “All right,” she replies, gulping. “I’ll do it.” Thereupon the old guy hands her a $5 bill and starts to lead her away. “Five dollars!” she cries. “What do you think I am?!” The old man glowers at her: “We’ve established what you are. At this point we’re just haggling over price.”

Now then, about the space program...

So NASA is preparing to lease parts of the International Space Station and associated missions to private interests. And the space agency is even considering making itself available to advertisers—advertisers!—for brand promotion and who knows what else. And that all seems so unsavory, so indecent, so corrupt. First they’re launching commercial satellites, then maybe subletting square footage in the space station to, say, Intel ($20.8 million per “site bundle”), then—what?—Tang commercials in orbit? Ugh. There are some things you just don’t do for money, because once you do, you have established what you are, and thereafter it’s just talking price.

 Yessiree, it’s easy to approach NASA’s flirtation with commercialism with raised eyebrows and the sort of scorn we tend to heap on the morally inferior. But before we start condemning the space agency for even thinking about prostituting itself, perhaps we ought to get in touch with our own inner whores.

We the people, I’m talking about.

We who endure television commercials because we get the programming for free. There’s no way to know what pay TV would fetch for “ER” or “60 Minutes” or “The World’s Most Infected Animal Bites” or whatever, but no doubt the tariff would be steep. So we sit through the spots for Correctol and pretty much without complaint. Likewise, we suffer Internet billboard ads, because we get Web content for free. We let our kids watch TV spots in homeroom on video equipment provided, gratis, by our good friends at Channel 1. Many people are letting their private long-distance phone calls be interrupted by ads in exchange for toll-free conversation. With lesser degrees of acquiescence, we get pummeled by advertising in the supermarket, at the gas pump, on the golf course, in the bus, at the beach, and—in a most peculiar exercise of mutually indecent exposure—at the barroom urinal.

That’s because as a society, we’ve long since demonstrated that we will accept, even embrace, advertising messages almost anywhere, provided there’s an acceptable quid pro quo. And there’s not a thing wrong with that. You can plumb the anthropological depths all you want to discover how a culture can so blithely surrender its peace and quiet, to say nothing of privacy, in exchange for “Baywatch.” You can rail against the environmental evils of the consumer society and advertising’s incendiary role within it. And you can certainly excoriate a large percentage of the ads themselves for breathtaking stupidity. The fact remains, however, that the American people, in their media consumption and their mortgage payments alike, are accustomed to being subsidized.

Sure, it is a deal with the devil, and one need only look at the programming on commercial TV to see that the devil’s got the upper hand. But it’s a deal we made long ago, with our eyes wide open. Truly, it is the American way. So at a time when the balanced federal budget has imposed austerity across the board, why wouldn’t NASA want to benefit the same way—i.e., by subsidizing the taxpayers’ share of space exploration with a reasonable percentage of commercial revenue?

This is precisely the question posed by Mark Uhran, director of the agency’s Space Utilization and Product Development division. “The way I look at it,“ Uhran says, “it’s not just a case of saving money. We could increase the capability of the space station without having to return to the Congress for further appropriations.”

For instance, Uhran supposes, what if NASA wanted a telecommunications upgrade for the station that wasn’t budgeted? Instead of going back to the appropriations committee hat in hand, the agency could tap its reservoir of commercially generated revenue. The commercial partners would be happy. Congress would be happy. The telecom contractors would be happy. The astronauts and mission control would be happy.

“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.

 Bob Garfield is a columnist for Advertising Age.

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