Congress, NASA

Calvert pressing ahead on sponsorship bill

This week’s issue of Space News features an op-ed (not available online) by Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA) where he provides an update on his plans to give NASA a new funding mechanism. At the National Space Symposium in Colorado in April, Calvert said he was planning legislation to allow NASA to, in effect, sell advertising or sponsorships on its missions. The money raised through those deals would go to support prize competitions run by the agency through the Centennial Challenges program.

In his Space News essay, Calvert said he planned to introduce the NASA Innovation Fund and Sponsorship Act in September, when Congress reconvenes after the summer recess. The general intent of the bill remains the same: NASA would solicit, review, and select sponsorship proposals from the private sector. The money from those deals would go into an Innovation Fund that would be used to support prize competitions. Calvert said he modeled this approach after the National Park Foundation, a private organization chartered by Congress to support the national park system “by raising private funds, making strategic grants, creating innovative partnerships and increasing public awareness.”

Calvert emphasized in his essay that the legislation would “explicitly prohibit product placement on NASA assets that the public would find objectionable or inappropriate”, citing examples like “decals on the space shuttles” and “blinking neon lights” on the ISS. (I wonder what he would think of Bigelow Aerospace’s projection system.) How is “objectionable or inappropriate” defined? Calvert said the bill would create a seven-person Sponsorship Board that would review proposals; its membership would include the NASA administrator, NASA strategic communications chief, and “five private citizens who have a stake in NASA’s reputation and future”. Sponsorship proposals would also have to have some kind of educational component as well. What’s not clear from the essay, though, is whether the legislation will address concerns from the private sector about competing with NASA for sponsorship dollars.

9 comments to Calvert pressing ahead on sponsorship bill

  • Chance

    There will always be someone who finds something to object to. If this board is as sensitive as I’m willing to bet it would be, nothing will ever get approved.

  • anonymous.space

    Ridiculous…

    If Congress wants NASA to offer more or bigger prizes, then just fund the dang program. Even in these tight times, there’s no reason $10, $20, or $30 million can’t be squeezed out of NASA’s annual $17 billion-plus appropriation. Maybe if Calvert spent a little more time lobbying his fellow congressmen on the relevant appropriations subcommittees and a little less time pursuing goofy legislation, it might actually happen.

    But no, instead we’ll wait a year or two for this legislation to pass (if ever); then spend some number of months assembling a board; then another number of months soliciting proposals; then another number of months while the board evaluates those proposals against vaguely defined criteria for objectionable, inappropriate, and educational advertising; then wait for the inevitable challenges from private space advertising providers to work their way through the courts; then wait some indeterminate and unknown amount of time for NASA’s human space flight managers (who will have no stake in the process) to actually fly the advertisements, and then maybe, just maybe, if the paying customers havn’t moved on to some other advertising platform, some number of dollars will flow into a kitty for space prizes.

    What a lengthy, uncertain, and utterly ineffectual way to get at the end result — funded prizes — while creating huge and unnecessary uncertainties in the nascent space advertising market. If we want to fund space prizes, then we should just fund NASA’s prize program. Why does Congress insist on mucking up the one program to come out of Exploration Systems that’s actually working and screwing up a private marketplace to boot? If Congress can create earmarks for every other goofy idea to come across their desks, why not NASA’s prize program?

    Please, someone hit Calvert and his staffers over the head with a clue-by-four or get them removed from NASA’s subcommittee.

    Sheesh…

  • I don’t see any reason for the competing sponsorship opportunities to object. These are new opportunities that would otherwise go fallow (i.e., blank or NASA only) so the new sponsorship opportunity comes with new eyeballs that would otherwise be looking at nothing or the NASA meatball vs. some other sponsor’s logo at some other event.

    Even if we do think that NASA would steal advertising dollars, the total advertising market is 2% of GDP or $260 billion. A few million spent on a NASA opportunity is small beer.

  • anonymous.space

    “These are new opportunities that would otherwise go fallow (i.e., blank or NASA only) so the new sponsorship opportunity comes with new eyeballs that would otherwise be looking at nothing or the NASA meatball vs. some other sponsor’s logo at some other event.”

    This is hardly my area of expertise so Mr. Dinkin should correct me if I’m wrong. But when I look at this, I can’t help but argue that advertising on government assets competes with advertising on similar private assets, regardless of whether the government asset represents a new advertising platform or not.

    For example, any given company is only going to have so many marketing dollars, especially “space” marketing dollars. Where that company chooses to spend those dollars is directly affected by the choices that the company has available to it. Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see how a government advertising platform, say the U.S. segment of the International Space Station, can’t help but to compete with a private advertising platform, say a Bigelow space station, for said company’s limited marketing dollars.

    “Even if we do think that NASA would steal advertising dollars, the total advertising market is 2% of GDP or $260 billion. A few million spent on a NASA opportunity is small beer.”

    To the overall advertising market, sure. To a single, especially small or startup, company competing for a small slice of that market, a few million dollars is huge.

    Ultimately, I think this conversation is hypothetical. I doubt this legislation ever makes it to the House floor, nevertheless gets picked up in the Senate. And even if passed, I’d bet dollars to donuts that between the confused selection criteria and a NASA human space flight management team with no stake in the process, no advertising will ever fly on NASA vehicles.

    But even in the hypothetical, Congress should not create entities that duplicate private sector capabilities and that compete with commercial companies. The public/private divide that we all learn about in Government 101 tells us that this is one of the most wasteful ways to spend taxpayer dollars.

    Even worse, this legislation would do so to replace taxpayer funding for a program to stimulate technological innovation that is very clearly within the government’s roles and responsibilities. Regardless of the private sector competition issue, Congress should not forgo its duty to appropriate adequate funding for a well-run prize program that falls well within the public’s interest.

    Oy vey… (directed at Rep. Calvert and his staff, not Mr. Dinkin)

  • Ray

    See the old comments by JP Aerospace here:

    http://www.hobbyspace.com/nucleus/index.php?itemid=3812#c

    NASA Watch also has a post in their recent “Ask the Administrator” series of posts that seems relevant. It gives some insight into NASA Administrator Griffin’s thoughts on this type of funding approach:

    http://www.nasawatch.com/archives/2007/05/todays_ask_the.html

    I agree with anonymous.space’s urging to fund Centennial Challenges better the old fashion way. Even 1/1000th of NASA’s annual budget would go very far.

  • Let’s see — nobody watches shuttle launches or cares about space flight anymore, and the answer? Let’s solicit advertising dollars?

    It’s the exact opposite of a business plan. They are finding their weaknesses, and trying to capitalize on them.

    A lot of people seem to like the prize programs (me included), so let’s stick with that. And allow prize competitors to have advertising support their efforts. That way, the advertising dollars go directly to support the prize teams. Or we could create a huge new program. Gee. Hmmm (sractches head)

  • al Fansome

    I agree with Anonymous. The most likely result of the creation of this program is to hurt Centennial Challenges.

    This legislation is an example of “The road to hell is paved on good intentions.”

    - Al

  • Charles Lurio

    The fundamental reason why Congress has a problem with Centennial Challenges is that unlike other NASA programs, they can’t be sure ahead of time that the prize money will end up in one of a limited number of predictable districts containing a contractor that they know will help raise campaign dollars for election years.

    This is not my thesis. Jim Muncy of Polispace explained this at Space Access ’07 in March. As so often the case, in DC the cynical explanation is indeed the accurate one.

    Calverts’s ‘solution’ is competition with the free market and I object to it, but unless you want to change something at a more fundamental level (that I can’t at this point see) in the way that national space overall is funded, CC is caught in a funding cul-de-sac that I don’t see a way out of.

  • anonymous.space

    “The fundamental reason why Congress has a problem with Centennial Challenges is that unlike other NASA programs, they can’t be sure ahead of time that the prize money will end up in one of a limited number of predictable districts containing a contractor that they know will help raise campaign dollars for election years.”

    This is not a legitimate excuse for not funding NASA prizes, for two reasons:

    1) Uncertainty about winners during Congressional appropriations is hardly unique to prizes. To a lesser or greater degree, every procurement or announcement of opportunity that Congress appropriates money for has unknown awardees. When Congress appropriated money for the last round of NASA’s science grants, they had no idea which university PIs would submit research proposals, nevertheless win those grants. When Congress appropriated money for the last round of Discovery Program mission selections, they had no idea which university/contractor/NASA field center teams would submit which mission proposals, nevertheless which of those teams would win. When Congress first appropriated money for COTS, they had no idea that there would be 20-odd applicants, with six finalists and two awardees, nevertheless that Space-X and Kistler would be those two awardees. Even when Congress first appropriated money for Orion, they had no idea how LockMart, Boeing, Northrup Grumman, and other major aerospace firms were going to team, nevertheless which team would win. How is any of that any different from not knowing which team(s) will win any particular prize competitions?

    2) Even if it were true that all awardees are known in every NASA (or government) program before Congress appropriates the dollars for those programs, cynical earmarking does not generate good programs and investments of taxpayer dollars. If that were the case, Congress might as well bypass all the departments and agencies like NASA and just have the Treasury send checks for vote bribes directly back to their constituents.

    “unless you want to change something at a more fundamental level”

    Two things need to change:

    1) Senior NASA management attention to and support for the program. Griffin used to mention prizes regularly in his speeches, the program used to be tied to a mission directorate in ESMD, and the program used to have an outyear budget in the low tens of millions of dollars in NASA’s annual budget submission to Congress. Now the program is exiled to the boonies of IPP, gets little or no funding in NASA’s annual budget submissions to Congress, and doesn’t even get any promotion from the Administrator, other senior managers, or even agency PR outside of what the program provides for itself at competition events.

    2) Congressional focus. Those Congressmen and staffers that are interested in the program (like Calvert) need to stop trying to bypass the appropriations process with goofy legislation that does more harm than good and directly lobby the appropriators for the programs that they like. C’mon, people (directed at Calvert and staff, not Mr. Lurio.), how hard can it be to get a lousy $10 million or so earmarked for such a proven and highly effective engine of technical innovation with such low overhead? Surely that’s a faster and easier way to fund space prizes than getting a stand-alone bill passed through Congress, getting a board appointed, getting applications received and reviewed, and getting advertisements flown on NASA spacecraft?

    Ugh…

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