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Mission control
Shots of mission control are staples of NASA coverage of shuttle missions, but without greater access to what is going on there such coverage can become extremely boring. (credit: NASA)

Space for improvement: re-engaging the public with the greatest adventure of our time (part 1)

The spaceflight community, and NASA in particular, has a serious problem on its hands. A substantial majority of the paying public, space exploration’s so-called constituency, doesn’t really care much about real spaceflight.

A recent poll of 1,000 American adults did indicate that a majority of those polled support space exploration [1], but asking someone if they support space exploration (in whatever recent policy label it is cast) is akin to asking them if they support world peace. That we explore space has become part of our culture, an accepted norm readily accessible as a source of parody or superlative. The actual space exploration itself, however, not just the notion of its existence, remains far removed from the public’s everyday consciousness. Worse yet, this indifference apparently borders on open hostility in the 18–24 age group [2], just those members of society who’ll be expected to foot the bill in the coming decades when the Vision for Space Exploration will be, we hope, hitting its stride.

For years now numerous editorials in trade publications and the popular press have declared the need to “re-engage the public,” but nearly all these essays ([3], [4], just to cite recent examples) have focused on justifying to the public the need to spend federal dollars on spaceflight, not re-engaging them. Rehashing the same spectrum of arguments, however, from technological spin-offs to manifest destiny (all valid to one degree or another), has had little impact on the general public’s level of interest in space exploration.

Justifying space exploration to the general public on practical terms is like trying to convince a teacher that a dog ate your homework; they really don’t care.

Let’s face it. For most people on the street, space activities, both private and government-sponsored (excluding the catastrophes, of course), constitute no more than an occasional 30-second “gee whiz,” and even that too often arrives colored with the news media’s editorial biases and only if it isn’t overridden by other “breaking news.” Yes, a few folks out there hunt down and digest more substantial information in magazines, Sunday supplements, on television, and on the Web, but those of us who are genuinely excited about space exploration belong to a shrinking minority. Why?

Selling point

Justifying space exploration to the general public on practical terms is like trying to convince a teacher that a dog ate your homework; they really don’t care. Take technical spinoffs, for example. Yes, our modern world of microelectronics stemmed in large part from the decision made by Apollo’s designers to employ integrated circuits [5]. Such spinoff technology is the gravy of any significant technological endeavor, and we’re all delighted with our cell phones and iPods. But do any of us really care who the gravy’s chef was? We appreciate weather forecasts enhanced by satellite data, but it hardly seems credible that the notion of sending people back to the Moon jumps into people’s minds when they click past The Weather Channel. NASA has published a library’s worth of material highlighting such contributions to our everyday lives, but most of the public hasn’t bothered to notice the connection. While practical benefits are a valid economic justification for exploring space, they’re merely taken for granted by the folks on the street.

No, for most people, space exploration is, and will forever remain, primarily an emotional pursuit. By this I mean that even as a spectator sport, exploring space makes us feel good: it inspires us to achieve grander goals, both personally and as a people; it opens our minds to possibilities and new ways of thinking; it entertains us with the inherent drama of real persons overcoming physical, technical, and social challenges; and, at its scientific core, it’s just plain fun to discover and begin to understand that which was not known before.

To truly re-engage the public with the unfolding story of space exploration, to get them to care again, we must acknowledge and embrace this emotional underpinning.

NASA public affailures

Tagging space exploration as primarily an emotional experience isn’t much better than offering up the manifest destiny mantra that exploration is in our souls. The key is to capitalize on the connection. Unfortunately, during the past three decades NASA’s public affairs organization has done nearly the opposite. Caught between trying to present NASA in a favorable light (NASA is, after all, dependent on public monies) and conveying often complex content (the stereotypical “rocket science”) to a mostly nontechnical audience, NASA’s Public Affairs Office (PAO) presents each new space mission as just another set of bland (yet always upbeat) statistics couched in a gee-whiz (but always understatedly competent) shell. Even though some of the accompanying pictures and videos have been spectacular, PAO’s fundamental approach has gone a long way toward convincing the public that spaceflight has no emotional content at all.

To make matters worse, NASA Public Affairs relies heavily on disseminating its information through the regular news media, a collective entity that down to its very fiber is designed to present bad news. Expecting the news media to get a particular message out is not unlike asking a beloved dog to bring a package of meat to a neighbor—some semblance of the wrappings may arrive, but don’t expect the contents to have their original weight or texture.

Yes, exceptions can be found on a few websites and during some television spots (some reporters are downright enthusiastic), but more often than not NASA’s drive toward monolithic formats and always perfect (or should I say “nominal”) reporting forces a numbing, shallow sameness on what most of the public gets to see of space exploration.

And then there is NASA’s own TV coverage. Most communities out there don’t have the NASA channel on their cable lineup, but one gets the impression that those who reside in the bubbles of their own space communities (Houston, Washington, Huntsville, Cocoa Beach, etc) believe that it is out there for easy public consumption, successfully getting the message (or at least the spectacular downlinked video) out past the regular media to an eager, awed public.

Well, we should all be happy that it isn’t. NASA’s mission coverage is quite possibly the most mind-numbing television ever created. Hours upon hours of static imagery (Oh, wait, somebody moved!) showing flight controllers sitting at their consoles in Mission Control, interspersed with downlinked video of continents and oceans rolling by. Even with something dynamic like a rendezvous or a spacewalk, the presentation remains equally snore-inducing: downlinked video and audio (or, when the signal is lost, nearly static computer graphics) overlaid by a public affairs officer’s monotone commentary that possesses the technical depth (and corresponding fascination) of a flight attendant’s safety spiel.

NASA’s mission coverage is quite possibly the most mind-numbing television ever created.

The net consequence of this relentless onslaught of blandness? A majority of the public now views space exploration as a distant, incomprehensible pursuit performed by automaton-like geeks who never experience bad days (except for the occasional catastrophe, of course), sprinkled with a few special effects and some pretty pictures.

As Al Reinert observed at the Houston premiere of his wonderful Apollo film For All Mankind, “Only the federal government could make flying to another celestial body boring.” With such a spectacular story to tell, how could NASA be blowing it?

Real constraints and mistaken presumptions: three obstacles

Let me be absolutely clear. NASA Public Affairs is an impressive group of people who do numerous tasks exceptionally well. I owe many thanks to PAO personnel at nearly all the NASA centers for handling my own queries dating back even to grade school. They provided wonderful material on many topics with outstanding professionalism, and in part inspired me to achieve my own dream of working directly in manned spaceflight. (John McLeaish, who passed away recently, was particularly helpful and kind.)

However, PAO has fumbled badly in the task of engaging the public with the unfolding story of real space exploration, leaving most people emotionally detached from the greatest adventure of our time. But it turns out that it’s not all their fault. Three critical obstacles have interfered, especially with manned flight coverage.

First, Public Affairs is the public relations wing of NASA, an organization dependent on public monies appropriated by an oft-confused, agenda-driven, and always risk-averse Congress. They naturally try to shine the best light on unpleasant circumstances while accommodating conflicting directives from different elements of NASA’s larger organization. (It doesn’t help that the head of PAO is, in recent times, a political appointee, either.) Unfortunately, this means that everything, even ordinary day-to-day mission coverage, gets a nauseatingly positive spin. One example: after the tethered satellite broke free and was lost during the 1996 STS-75 mission (an agonizing event for those of us who had worked the flight), PAO’s commentary on TV and in print nearly painted the tether break as a planned part of the mission!

The second obstacle that has constrained PAO’s storytelling style involves technical issues deeply rooted in history. Early in the development of Mission Control [6,7,8,9], the engineers of the Space Task Group recognized the criticality of information flow protocols and the need to preserve their integrity. The flight director needed his team of flight controllers to stay focused on their data and always be available for consultation. The last thing they needed in the Mission Control Center (MCC) during a critical decision-making moment was a gaggle of news reporters toting boomed microphones, glaring spotlights, and bulky cameras. Such a contingent might get in the way directly (e.g., Gene Kranz’s Gemini experience, [8]), or they might influence the flight controllers’ behavior (since the controllers would be aware that their words and actions might be getting broadcast to the world), or the reporters might misconstrue the back-and-forth discussions on the network of communications loops as incomplete or indecisive thinking on the part of the Mission Control team.

By assuming a disinterested and unintelligent public, PAO and the mainstream media have missed out completely on letting the public share in the true drama inherent in space exploration.

Thus the MCC position of the Public Affairs Officer (also PAO) was born. While the PAO’s primary role was to funnel the unfolding story out to the public, the flip side of the arrangement minimized interference by keeping the press (and the public) at a distance. During mission activities, the public would only see and hear what the PAO fed them, and early on this was very limited indeed. Initially, only one camera was installed in the main Mission Control room. The PAOs were understandably hungry for downlinked video from space because their only alternative for filling the TV signal going out to the world was either an occasional spacecraft animation (typically of mediocre quality) or that one fisheye panorama. (More cameras were added later, but front or back, long shots of people sitting at consoles doesn’t make for particularly interesting television.)

Atop any video feed (from space or the main control room), the PAOs provided verbal commentary, doing their best to convey to the news media and the public the main points of the heart-of-the-action technical exchanges taking place on the Flight Director comm loop. Only the Air-to-Ground loop—the exchanges between the astronaut Capcom and the crew in space—was broadcast in real time. The dozens of other loops in Mission Control, those carrying the flight controller discussions, remained “inside the building.”

As NASA moved from Apollo to Shuttle, the same basic format remained: PAO commentary has accompanied downlinked video, Air-to-Ground exchanges, and occasional animation (now created with computer graphics driven by actual flight data). To be fair, in relatively recent times explanatory videos containing both flight controller and crew preflight interview clips (along with some animated diagrams) have been inserted around the main “action,” but the flavor of these spots remains in line with that which has gone before: matter-of-fact boring.

Yet while this programming format has serious limitations, it doesn’t by itself necessarily create emotionally flat, public-disengaging storytelling. No, the third and primary obstacle to providing a dynamic presentation has been a matter of presumption on the part of somebody at NASA (I’ve no idea who or when). This presumption has seemingly been handed down to (or imposed upon) each new generation of PAOs, and it has colored all mission coverage a whiter shade of dull for decades.

The presumption? That the public can’t understand or won’t appreciate the deeper technical issues of spaceflight. By assuming a disinterested and unintelligent public, PAO and the mainstream media have missed out completely on letting the public share in the true drama inherent in space exploration. The PAOs present every single event, from launch countdown through post-landing, as nothing more than the passing of the event itself, serving up each as uninterestingly as just one more tick on a clock. Even a painter watching his paint dry possesses some emotional investment in that process; the way PAO presents these operations creates the impression that going to sleep is a more engaging, emotional experience than flying in space.

Take shuttle orbit-adjust engine firings. Executing a shuttle engine firing involves at least two dozen people in the Mission Control building, along with military personnel at radar tracking sites around the world, all marching to a relentless orbital timeline that doesn’t permit “go-arounds.” The flight dynamics team must coordinate and assess ground radar tracking data, then compute the velocity changes required to push the shuttle onto the next leg of its desired trajectory. The guidance and control team must compute the burn solution (the thrust components and required shuttle orientation) that will achieve those velocity changes, then feed this data to the communications team who’ll uplink it to the shuttle’s computers. The propulsion team must recommend which engine(s) to use and then monitor their health to ensure proper combustion. Meanwhile, the crew aboard the shuttle keeps in step as they march through their checklist to execute the burn—while all those flight controllers telemetrically peer over their shoulders, right down to monitoring their individual keystrokes. Finally, like an orchestra conductor, the flight director, the person most singly responsible for overall mission success, oversees it all.

How does the PAO handle this incredibly complex, even exciting, technological symphony? Without fail, for more than twenty years, the PAOs have described each and every one of these impressive orbital orchestrations as “a minor refinement of the shuttle’s trajectory.” That’s it. No peek at the radar data’s convergence. No walkthrough of the crew’s checklist. No display of the jump in combustion chamber pressure or temperature to indicate the kick of ignition. Not even a summary listing of who’s talking to whom about what!

By sticking with the same information flow formula for the past thirty years, NASA has disconnected the public at large from the emotional adventure that’s been there all along: the doing of spaceflight.

Why have the PAOs kept this roiling sea of intense activity, that’s always there, away from the public? Do they believe that showing a nearly static computer graphic of the shuttle for tens of minutes on end is more exciting? Or do they truly presume that the public wouldn’t be interested in, or worse yet, that they’d never be able to understand, the goings on underneath that nearly static shot of the control room?

Based on my speaking with decidedly nontechnical people about this very question, both generally and through feedback on my novel (which delves into such operations as the fabric of its story), I believe that both presumptions would be dead wrong.

So these three obstacles—NASA’s “PR” positiveness, restrictions on access to information in Mission Control, and a presumption of the public’s disinterest and/or inability to understand the fundamentals of “rocket science”—have conspired to seriously degrade the storytelling of NASA’s Public Affairs organization, the very team tasked at NASA’s inception with getting the exciting story of space exploration out to the “paying customers.” In the early days when spaceflight was new, the arrangement actually worked despite these constraining factors. The public was caught up in the ride, back when we were racing the Russians and the news media provided sufficient coverage in adequate detail (since it fit their editorial proclivities at the time). But when times changed and the media coverage shrank, NASA didn’t adapt. By sticking with the same information flow formula for the past thirty years, NASA has disconnected the public at large from the emotional adventure that’s been there all along: the doing of spaceflight.

page 2: the drama is there >>

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