Cruz and Bridenstine
Sen. Ted Cruz (left) talks with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine after a Sept. 26 hearing by the Senate space subcommittee, which Cruz chairs. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

WASHINGTON — As NASA shows growing interest in commercial activities, from space station research to merchandise, one senator wants the agency to financially benefit from them.

During a hearing of the Senate space subcommittee Sept. 26, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the subcommittee, mentioned commercial research performed by major companies on the International Space Station through partnerships with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the nonprofit that operates the portion of the ISS designated a national laboratory.

Cruz, in his comments, cited specific research by Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and pharmaceutical company Merck when asking if that work should be subsidized by taxpayers, as is the case today through access to the station and crew time by astronauts there.

“Do you believe that NASA and Congress should reexamine these agreements to ensure that the American taxpayers are receiving fair compensation for the research that is being conducted by iconic Fortune 500 companies and may result in giving these companies a competitive edge in their respective industries?” he asked the hearing’s sole witness, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

Bridenstine agreed that such relationships should be reexamined, but cautioned about deterring such customers from using the ISS. “We want those kinds of activities happening inside the United States of America,” he said. “There is no shortage right now of enthusiasm on the part of our largest peer competitor, China, to have these activities going on on their space station that they’re building.”

Another issue, he said, is whether any revenue NASA collected flying commercial payloads could be retained by the agency. “To the extent that we were to receive some kind of proceeds from those activities,” he said, “my concern would be NASA would be doing all the work, and then those proceeds could end up going to the general Treasury.”

Cruz also mentioned the growing use of the NASA logo in apparel and other merchandise, ranging from t-shirts available at department stores to far more expensive items produced by fashion designers. NASA licenses the logo but does not receive any revenue from the sales of such items.

Bridenstine said he wanted to balance the potential revenue that NASA might receive from charging for the use of the logo with the benefit it receives from the free publicity such items provide. “I don’t know what the right answer here is,” he said. “I love the fact that I see so many NASA logos on the streets.”

Cruz mentioned in particular items like a t-shirt from a fashion designer with the NASA “worm” logo that retails for $270. “If somebody’s paying $270 for a t-shirt, a chunk of that ought to go NASA and actually help fund getting to the moon and getting to Mars,” he said.

That exchange came after recent media attention to an announcement made by Bridenstine at last month’s NASA Advisory Council meeting that he planned to establish a new committee within the council to examine regulatory and policy issues. Among those topics for the committee to consider, he said, included selling commercial sponsorships for NASA missions.

“Is it possible for NASA to offset some of its costs by selling the naming rights to its spacecraft or the naming rights to its rockets?” Bridenstine said at that Aug. 29 meeting. “There is interest in that right now. The question is, is it possible?”

Asked about those plans during an interview at a Washington Space Business Roundtable luncheon Sept. 24, Bridenstine emphasized NASA’s plans to hand over operations in low Earth orbit to the private sector as the agency focuses on its plans to go to the moon and Mars. He specifically discussed allowing “non-traditional” partners to sponsor commercial crew or cargo launches to the station.

“They might be customers that we don’t think of every day. In fact, they might be customers that have nothing to do with space whatsoever, but they want to cobrand with a mission that’s going to resupply the International Space Station,” he said. “If they put a little bit of paint on a rocket and drive down our costs by $10 million, why would we not allow our commercial partners to do that?”

That extends, he said, to potential sponsorships on the ISS itself. The new committee will look into that and make proposals, Bridenstine said, adding that he has not formally recommended that such sponsorships be permitted.

“One of the reasons we might consider these kinds of activities is because it proves a market,” he said, which could make it easier for companies planning commercial space stations to close their business cases. “We’re living in a new era in spaceflight and we need to consider all the options.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...