The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

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)

<< page 1: three obstacles

The drama is there

Anyone who has participated directly in spaceflight as flight controller, astronaut, launch prep engineer, spacecraft designer, or in any of hundreds of other roles, knows that space exploration, even the so-called “going around in circles” of the shuttle and space station, is inherently exciting. They realize, too, that merely getting something aloft isn’t what brings the deepest thrill; that’s just the gravy of satisfaction derived from a job well done.

No, their true excitement, their own emotional connection, is tied up in the day-to-day challenges they face before, during, and after each flight—teasing out the elusive compromise between heavily-strained crew time and payload battery life in mission timeline planning; driving a 250-ton bridge crane to gingerly mate the 100-ton shuttle to the external tank within millimeter tolerances; squeezing the last drop of propellant performance from an approach-and-docking trajectory design; training a crewmember to master a frustratingly convoluted cabin leak procedure in the simulator amid honking klaxons and flashing LEDs; wringing out optimum electrical power profiles constrained by a severe orbit-Sun angle, a balky solar array joint, and extremely tight thermal margins across seven different modules—the list goes on and on, in hundreds of different disciplines. Yet each person, in their own discipline, finds these tasks—what the public today views monolithically as incomprehensible rocket science—exhilarating, entertaining, and yes, even fun.

That fun, that personal emotional drama, which the people doing spaceflight are privileged to experience every day, that is the story we must share with the public at large—particularly the younger generations who weren’t around to experience it during Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. If we do not, and instead stay on the present course of keeping the public outside the fence with only an occasional watered-down gee whiz to gawk at, then they will lose whatever small interest in real spaceflight they currently have. And once both government and private space exploration fades even further from the public’s consciousness amidst a bevy of more engaging distractions on our constantly changing cultural landscape, then the exploration itself, regardless of any practical benefits, foreign competition, or even proclaimed manifest destiny, will disappear too.

What’s missing: the heart of good storytelling

To successfully tell a compelling story, whether it be fiction or true, the storyteller must connect their audience emotionally with the characters or players in the story. All good writers and directors know this—and so do journalists. The process is sometimes termed “having the audience relate to the characters.” While the specific techniques for achieving this vary depending on the particular medium (book, movie, documentary), they all share a common objective: immerse the audience in the character’s world and convey to them—usually through the perceptions, attitudes, actions, and outlook of the characters themselves—the concerns, goals, desires, and challenges of the persons in the story.

That fun, that personal emotional drama, which the people doing spaceflight are privileged to experience every day, that is the story we must share with the public at large.

By identifying with the players, by caring about what they care about, by seeing their world and what’s unfolding in it through their eyes and with their feelings, the audience becomes emotionally linked with a story’s characters and their motivations. When that happens, the story becomes the audience’s story, the conflict their conflict—this is the magic of becoming “caught up” in a story. With a good storyteller to guide us, we can’t help but share in this experience whether it is by book, movie, or well-crafted documentary. Participation in storytelling is as firmly ingrained in our nature—no, probably more so—than that deep-down desire to explore which we in the spaceflight community so often cite.

Thus, the task before us is to get a larger percentage of the public caught up in the story of real spaceflight again (support for spaceflight will follow naturally) by emotionally linking them to the people on the inside who are having all the fun.

Overcoming those three obstacles

First, though, we must overcome those three obstacles that have hindered NASA’s Public Affairs. They would constitute formidable barriers to achieving our desired emotional connection no matter what media we employ, and clearing them will unveil methods tuned precisely to the challenge we face. (The wider spaceflight community had best pay attention, too, because the impeding natures of these three obstacles are not unique to NASA and government-run spaceflight.)

Obstacle One: That overzealous tendency to put things in the best possible light for the sake of PR. Always putting a positive, hyper-competent spin on mission coverage sucks half the drama out of the story, and in a very important way is inherently dishonest. Part of any engineering process is failure [10], and NASA, as the government’s premier scientific and technical institution, should lead the way in getting the public, the news media, and Congress tuned in to this inescapable reality. (But see [11] for how NASA PAO can sometimes even exaggerate surmountable problems into complete catastrophes.)

The understandable and deep-rooted fear, of course, is that of a public agency (or even a private company) looking bad while providing critics in the press and Congress with fodder for their agendas. But presenting competence without the full context of the struggles and setbacks that test that competence is misleading—and dull. Perhaps a more balanced accounting of both good and bad news, shown in a technical context, might better highlight how extremely mistake-intolerant spaceflight is, and demonstrate how truly remarkable NASA’s record of success has been. How sadly illuminating it is that our society accepts failure so much more readily in the much less challenging world of sports than in the fields of science and engineering.

As it stands, the story coming from NASA today is simply too positive and upbeat.

While knocking the public, the media, and Congress off their unrealistically high mountain of risk-intolerant expectations won’t be easy, NASA must try. Letting the public experience the highs and lows of the people on the inside through an emotional connection may be the only way to properly convey the complete, imperfect reality of true science and engineering to those outside the fields: while almost all challenges can be overcome, doing so typically includes missteps along the way, some of which bring to light unanticipated solutions. The last shuttle mission to ISS with its solar array retraction problems offered just such an opportunity, but PAO’s old-school presentation style snuffed out the necessary emotional connection, turning a truly gut-wrenching few days for the team into another ho-hum sequence of events. And don’t get me started on the recent (mis)handling of the Ares I performance discussions in the press.

As it stands, the story coming from NASA today is simply too positive and upbeat. Leaving the bad news (even minor setbacks) solely for the news media to report just makes it come across worse.

Obstacle Two: Mission Control’s two-way firewall that restricts information coming from the control center to only that funneled through the PAO. The actual benefits of this, from the flight controllers’ perspectives, are fourfold: it keeps reporters out of the way; it prevents the presence of reporters or cameras from unduly influencing the flight controllers in their jobs; it avoids misrepresentation of overheard backroom discussions; and it protects the team from the second-guessing (“help”) that would ensue if the press (and any outside experts they have on tap) had access to all the data in real time.

While it makes sense to keep reporters physically out of the way in the control center (even non-flight-control employees are restricted for this reason), do the concerns behind the other three benefits remain valid? The controllers in Mission Control, at least in the front room, are already on TV today via numerous wall-mounted cameras. Most controllers don’t give those cameras any thought; they’re all too busy minding the data, running their computations, and keeping tabs on the events taking place in space. Having more close-ups of individual flight controllers doing their jobs by itself shouldn’t cause any interference. And I’m afraid it’s close-ups we need—reading body language and facial expressions is a primary avenue for sensing (and relating to) the emotions of others.

But what about granting monitoring access to all the backroom comm loop discussions and flight controller displays? The news media (along with their hired experts) certainly don’t restrain themselves from offering criticism in real time even without all that data available to them. Would providing more information cause additional trouble for the flight control teams?

I would offer that as long as the outward-facing firewall remains up around Mission Control (i.e., no extraneous information or outside “help” gets in), letting more information out could only benefit the situation. So what if a reporter latches on to a particular backroom discussion that he overheard? With the press as they are, the flight directors already find themselves defending their decisions in their post-shift press conferences anyway. Word choice, tone, and inflection collectively serve to convey emotion, so broadcasting those conversations might help achieve our desired link between the public and the guys in the trenches.

Yet broadcasting all the backroom loops for public consumption may just be a matter of too much information to digest. A given flight controller has enough of a challenge keeping straight the dozen or so loops they’re required to monitor, and they know the lingo. Putting 50+ audio streams of technical gibberish at the public’s Web-linked fingertips might even contribute to inhibiting our desired emotional connection.

And the same may go for flight controller displays. Bringing up actual displays during Apollo and early Shuttle wasn’t viable since they were so cryptic (know hexadecimal, anyone?) While most displays today are less so, access without interpretation would be nothing more than a barrage of “incomprehensible rocket science” put into a windows format. While having such access would provide a certain thrill to the average citizen, a better way might be found to make the data (and those comm loop discussions) available so as to help along our desired emotional connection to the people actually using them.

Letting the public experience the highs and lows of the people on the inside through an emotional connection may be the only way to properly convey the complete, imperfect reality of true science and engineering to those outside the fields.

Which comes to Obstacle Three: the presumption that the public doesn’t care or can’t understand the underlying tech of spaceflight. While it’s true that not everyone out there cares one whit about the difference between an APU and an IMU, the truth remains that a sizable percentage of the public does. The number of hits on some NASA websites (e.g., Mars Pathfinder, Deep Impact, and the Mars Exploration rovers) have set records, and all those sites (as compared to, say, the pretty viewgraph engineering illustrations found on the Exploration and Constellation sites) possessed or possess a certain technical flavor. And the popular success of Apollo 13, a film wherein we all knew the outcome but still remained on the edge of our seats through many technical twists and turns, demonstrated this. Despite some glaring historical and technical gaffes (you’d think they’d at least paint the rocket correctly), this film remained inherently honest regarding the underlying engineering challenges faced by the flight control teams. In fact, those challenges served as the backbone of the story, yet the public enthusiastically came along for the ride by getting caught up in what the players/characters themselves cared about: real rocket science.

As for the haughty out there who still maintain that the technical guts of “rocket science” are simply beyond the understanding of the public at large, I can only offer one of my father’s pearls of wisdom in rebuttal: “If you can’t explain something to a ten-year-old then you don’t understand it yourself.”

So, again, the challenge we face is to emotionally link the public with the people on the inside actually doing spaceflight (the folks having all the fun) through more effective storytelling. Next week I’ll explore some methods for doing this, and evaluate the possibilities offered by different types of media.


[1] “Public Opinion Regarding America’s Space Program”, The Gallup Organization, for The Space Foundation on behalf of The Coalition for Space Exploration, August 2006.

[2] “Building and Maintaining the Constituency for Long-Term Space Exploration”, Report on the Workshop hosted by the Center for Aerospace Policy Research in the School of Public Policy of George Mason University, July 31-August 3, 2006.

[3] Camhi, Elaine, “Making the Case for Space”, Aerospace America, September 2006.

[4] Jones, Tom, “Space exploration’s biggest challenge: Explaining why”, Aerospace America, October 2006.

[5] Ceruzzi, Paul E., Beyond the Limits: Flight Enters the Computer Age, MIT Press, 1989.

[6] Murray, Charles, and Cox, Catherine Bly, Apollo: The Race to the Moon, Simon & Schuster, 1989.

[7] Kraft, Christopher C., and Schefter, James L., Flight: My Life in Mission Control, Penguin Putnam, 2001.

[8] Kranz, Gene, Failure is Not an Option, Berkley, 2000.

[9] Dethloff, Henry C., Suddenly Tomorrow Came: A History of the Johnson Space Center, NASA, 1993.

[10] Petroski, Henry, To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, Vintage, 1982.

[11] Chaisson, Eric J., The Hubble Wars, HarperCollins, 1994.