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Griffin
Because NASA administrator Micharel Griffin is limited in his ability to sell the Vision, he needs the support of advocates inside and outside the government. (credit: J. Foust)

NASA’s strategic communications problem

Speaking to the Goddard Symposium on Tuesday March 14th, NASA administrator Mike Griffin made the point that the agency’s scientists and engineers are not very good at explaining to the public why what they do is important. He mentioned Carl Sagan as a rare example of a scientist who did have the talent needed to communicate the wonder of astrophysics to the American people. He went on to say that there are plenty of people in New York who do have the skills needed to convince people that NASA’s goals are worthwhile, but that by law, he is not allowed to hire them.

For democracy’s sake this restriction is a good thing. There are very sound reasons why the government is limited in how much propaganda it can inflict on the American people. Few, if any, question the need for the government to pay for antismoking propaganda or for the need to browbeat folks into accepting basic public hygiene measures. Beyond that, the restrictions on what advertising government can and cannot do are, on the whole, a good idea.

The biggest single thing that has been hurting the ability of NASA to get its message out is the agonizing slowness with which the shuttle and other space launch systems operate.

This means that NASA will have to depend on people outside the agency to make the case for the civil space program, especially for the return to the Moon and the eventual human missions to Mars. In the past NASA has often been its own worst enemy: its public affairs offices are notorious for their lack of political sensitivity, as has been shown by the flap over climate change data from the Goddard Institute and elsewhere in the agency. James Hansen’s ability to run rings around them with the help of the New York Times may have embarrassed the Administration, but the real damage is NASA’s ability to even minimally control what its employees can say about the agency’s programs and goals.

In theory the politicians who write the checks should be the ones to make the case for the program, but since only the President and Vice President have access to the executive branch soapbox on this subject, they can only devote a sliver of their time for such explanations. Congressmen and senators have a harder time getting the message out, but in an ideal world they would keep at it until they succeeded. Obviously they have a lot of other things to occupy their time, including the essential business of getting reelected.

The big contractors regularly come out with professionally produced advertising campaigns that support those parts of the program that could increase their profitability. This is well understood by the public and these efforts are, by and large, taken with a few grains of salt. Moreover, they are not repeated often enough for them to be able to truly move public opinion.

So this leaves the apace advocacy groups, such as the National Space Society and the Planetary Society. These groups are independent and long ago ceased to be cheerleaders for NASA, but they are also pretty small and lack the ability to get the sustained attention of the major media.

NASA is a government bureaucracy in a democracy and thus, by its nature, lacks the nimbleness of the public relations and propaganda capability of a private sector entity. It’s no use complaining about this; all the arguments and anger in the world cannot change an elephant into a gazelle. The best that can be hoped for is that the press releases will cease to be as dysfunctional and/or counterproductive as they have been of late.

Convincing the American people to accept slow and steady progress towards a return to the Moon and a permanent Moonbase may be more difficult that building the spaceships to get there. It is obviously not a job for NASA but for NASA’s political supporters in and out of government.

The biggest single thing that has been hurting the ability of NASA to get its message out is the agonizing slowness with which the shuttle and other space launch systems operate. The recent postponement of the next shuttle mission from May till July may have been prudent for good safety reasons, but for the public it’s just another annoying delay, little different from an airline’s flight delay or a frustrating traffic jam. The fact that a space launch vehicle requires a massive and painstaking effort to prepare it for launch is irrelevant from the PR point of view. An airline may have good reasons for not being on time, but that does not matter to its customers. NASA’s customers are the American people and they are a notoriously impatient lot.

This may be unfair, since any accidents will be blamed at least in part on schedule pressure, but it is a fact of life. In his new book Flavor of the Month: Why Smart People Fall For Fads, sociologist Joel Best explains that “…we [Americans] tend to judge our progress against a tough standard—perfection.” and that “It is this gap—this inevitable gap—between the perfectibility to which we aspire and what we are able to achieve that guarantees our receptiveness to proposals for change, and therefore to institutional fads.” This describes the great danger for NASA’s long-term program.

Keeping the Vision for Space Exploration affordable and sustainable over the next four or five administrations forces NASA to stick to relatively conservative technology. The CEV capsule is a long way from the kind of manned spaceplane that NASA had hoped to build only a few years ago, but it can be properly and fully developed at a reasonable cost and within the limits of current budget plans. The Crew Launch System and the Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle are likewise technologically uninspiring but they probably can be made to work reliably and safely. That is, if NASA’s risk analysis is correct, and that’s a big if. The program will produce results around 2012 or 2013, with a Moon landing around 2018, which in political terms is a long time to wait.

Convincing the American people to accept slow and steady progress towards a return to the Moon and a permanent Moonbase may be more difficult than building the spaceships to get there. It is obviously not a job for NASA but for NASA’s political supporters in and out of government. The main argument that has to be made, and made repeatedly, is that humanity must move off this planet if it is to survive, and America must be the nation that leads the way.


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