The commercialization of outer space is a vanity scam of epic proportions.
I respect a good grift. Hats off, for instance, to an OG swindler like John Tetzel, the German monk who sold indulgences. An enthusiastic fist bump to any and all snake oil salesmen. Much respect for whoever’s hawking healing crystals and getting away with it.
Joining those hallowed halls of dishonesty is the 21st century’s newest fraud squad: people who sell stuff from space.
By my count, there are two major offenders:
- Any of the dozens of companies that sell naming rights for stars.
- Uwingu, a company that charges you to name a crater on Mars.
Don’t get me wrong?—?I don’t support fellas like Bernie Madoff, who use deceit and cunning to defraud innocent folks. No, no, no. I’m more into the bald-faced flavor of lightening another’s purse. Think it’s a good idea to buy magic rocks online? Ego so big you want an entire celestial body named after you? Thank you for your monies, stupid.
Despite that, I’m not entirely comfy with the commercialization of space. So here’s some information about what it is and how to avoid it?—?do with this what you will.
The practice of selling star names is not new, and certainly not valid. Travel back to the internet’s childhood with me and witness one of the first official denouncements of this con. In the 1990s, NASA’s Astrophysics Science Division ran a website called StarChild, a “learning center for young astronomers.” One of the site’s features was a Question of the Month. March of 1999 brought us the following exchange between a StarChild and NASA’s own Dr. Alan Smale:
Q: How can I buy a star?
A: When you talk about “buying stars” or “naming stars” for yourself or a friend, you are most likely referring to the claims of one of the commercial companies who promise to do this for you for money (something of the order of $US 50). You can do this, but it is not official. Your name will not be listed in any file except the one the company who takes your money keeps. In fact, one of these companies was even issued a violation for deceptive advertising by the State of New York Department of Consumer Affairs.
That was in 1999, folks. 1999. “Spongebob” was premiering on Nickelodeon. Wayne Gretzky was still playing hockey. “Shakespeare in Love” was beating out “Life is Beautiful” and “Saving Private Ryan” for Best Picture. You’d think the nearly two decades since then would be enough time for people to wise up.
Not so. Instead, a Google search for “naming stars” yields nine businesses ready to rob you blind?—?and that’s just on the first page.
The body responsible for actually naming stars is called the International Astronomical Union (IAU), and its website has drawn up a comprehensive guide on how stars are named and why it’s not a good idea to shell out for your own naming rights. For a global scientific organization, they’ve got a pretty scathing sense of humor about it. From their FAQ:
Q: Can you tell me who sells stars and where I can buy a name?
A: Sorry, we are a scientific organization, not a branch of the entertainment industry. We cannot distribute addresses of enterprises selling fictitious goods.
Q: OK, I found a dealer myself; what will I get from them?
A: An expensive piece of paper and a temporary feeling of happiness, like if you take a cup of tea instead of the Doctor’s recommended medicine. But at least you do not risk getting sick by paying for a star name, only losing money.
Read through the rest at your own leisure?—?there are plenty of mic-drop moments from the IAU staff.
One company caught my eye in particular. They’re called Uwingu, and they’re cleverer than the ubiquitous star merchants because they corner a niche market. Anybody can sell the name of a star, they figure. But is anybody selling the names of CRATERS ON MARS?
That’s right?—?by navigating an interactive map of Mars’ surface, you can choose a crater and pay to name it. Don’t want to fool around with the map? Just input your budget and the good folks at Uwingu will choose a crater for you, those saints.
The cost depends on the size of the crater. The lowest price tier is called Surveyor, and gets you a tiny crater for $10. The highest is Apollo, and will run you a cool $5,000. Small price to pay for your own unofficial crater on an uninhabited planet 141 million miles away.
Uwingu also lets customers nominate and vote for the names of some 160 billion planets in our galaxy. For just $9.99, you can nominate a planet name. Better yet, voting on those nominations only costs 99 cents! You know what they say about democracy?—?it shouldn’t cost more than a dollar to vote.
(NB: Some might cry foul on my criticism of Uwingu. Yes, a portion of the company’s proceeds go to The Uwingu Fund, which gives grants out to a bunch of private space-y organizations. But the IAU has condemned the company’s practice as a scam, and Uwingu itself admits it’s a for-profit enterprise.)
Though I balk at fattening my own pockets with ill-begotten money, I have a grim respect for the schemers and dreamers of Uwingu and its ilk. Cons have evolved with the ages?—?it was only a matter of time before some clever grifter would start harvesting money from the final frontier. As the IAU puts it:
“Charlatanry has survived and thrived for countless centuries in many disguises?—?some far more dangerous than this particular example. All we can do is warn the public and try to prevent the abuse of our name and scientific reputation to mislead well-meaning customers.”
So buy a star or a crater, if you want.