The gift shop at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida has been rightfully coined “the world’s largest space shop.” Spanning a whopping 15,372 square feet, the “Space Shop” is jam-packed with a sweeping variety of space memorabilia and gear bearing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”)’s well-known name and logos – or in other words, NASA trademarks. But a trek to the east coast of Florida is hardly necessary in order to get your hands on a NASA-emblazoned sweatshirt, windbreaker, or pair of sneakers.
As we speak, staple mall brands, such as PacSun, Aeropostale, American Eagle, and Urban Outfitters, are stocking inexpensive NASA tees. Forever 21 has NASA-branded crop tops and cargo pants. StockX, the NASDAQ-like marketplace for exclusive streetwear (and designer handbags), is offering up NASA footwear from a limited Vans collection. Bankrupt retailer Barneys is even selling cotton fleece sweatshirts and joggers, tech-fabric pants and jackets from Heron Preston that bear NASA iconography … at a steep liquidation discount. Still yet, it was not all that long ago that a white Hermès Kelly 35 bag bearing the distinctive NASA name – or as NASA calls the Danne & Blackburn-designed type, the “Worm” logo – on the front in red paint and signed by artist Tom Sachs sold for more than $50,000 at a Christie’s auction in London.
The wide variety of NASA wares currently on the market is a testament to the fact that virtually any company can use – and monetize – the NASA name and logos … free of charge, just as long as the designs are submitted to the Multimedia Division of NASA’s Office of Communications in Washington, D.C., and the agency approves the specific uses. And the space arm of the U.S. federal government usually does.
“We don’t discriminate,” Bert Ulrich of NASA’s Office of Communications told Quartz last year, save for “promotions related to drugs, alcohol or tobacco products.” Other than that, Ulrich says, “Anyone can basically make a request. And then we review it and make sure that the identities are being used correctly,” aka in accordance with its “strict regulations and restrictions on the use of any of the NASA identifiers, emblems or devices.”
To be exact, NASA, as a U.S. government agency, cannot and “will not promote or endorse or appear to promote or endorse a commercial product, service or activity.” This means that in order for NASA to approve any proposed commercial use of its name, logo, imagery, etc., that use must be exclusively decorative in nature, and not within the bounds of trademark use (i.e., not used as an indicator of source of the product upon which the name or logo appears).
So, while companies may use the NASA trademarks, they cannot do so “in a manner that suggests that NASA jointly created the product or that the producer of the product is sponsored or endorsed by NASA” or “in a manner that suggests ‘co-branding’ of products.” In other words, there are no NASA “collaborations” in play here.
Practically speaking, companies “cannot use the NASA name as a title or as part of a title for any collection,” per NASA’s guidelines, and when using any NASA mark, their own company logos and other trademarks or branding “should be separate from the NASA materials on the product.” For instance, a company’s “product hangtags should not include any NASA identifiers, emblems or devices.”
There are also limitations regarding the colors that may be used: “The full-colored NASA Insignia can only appear against a solid black, white, gray or silver background,” for instance, as well as edits to the designs, themselves: “The full-colored NASA Insignia should not be outlined.”
As for why exactly there has been a surge in NASA-related wares hitting the market, social media has a lot to do with it. “Social media has propelled us forward in a way I’ve never seen before,” Ulrich told Racked in 2017, confirming that there has been a surge in usage requests for its name and logos. More than that, he says, “Hollywood films, like Interstellar, Gravity, Hidden Figures, and The Martian, have caused a lot of interest in space.” Fashion folks point to the rise in demand for elements of nostalgia, and the role of the 60 year old agency in American history, as having a hand in boosting NASA’s appeal.
And interest is up. In the past, NASA’s Office of Communications typically received “maybe three or four requests a month.” More recently, Ulrich says he gets a request almost day – from Coach and Nike to H&M and Walmart. Whatever you do, just don’t call it a collaboration.