The Space Review

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 2)

In the first part of this essay, I investigated how NASA and the space exploration community have nearly killed the public’s interest in spaceflight during the past 30 years by their failure to engage the public through effective storytelling and with an emotional link to the people on the inside actually making spaceflight happen. Here I’ll offer some specific methods for how NASA can improve its storytelling style, employing its real-time manned mission coverage as a baseline medium. I’ll then explore the possibilities offered by different media types with regard to exposure and sustaining interest.

Looking over shoulders: methods of engagement

Telling the compelling story of spaceflight won’t involve only NASA flight controllers and manned missions, and the medium won’t always be real-time television. (Not many of us have the luxury to spend hours watching NASA TV anyway.) However, defining possible enhancements for this baseline arrangement will illuminate engagement methods (tools and techniques, really) useful in all media and applicable with adjustments across the entire spectrum of space exploration, from the seat-of-the-pants flight testing of a space tourism startup to a multi-government preliminary design review of a lunar outpost.

And while it might be more interesting to present my suggestions in full-up descriptive scenarios to illustrate their likely effectiveness, I’ll instead employ a quasi-bullet format, thereby appealing to one aspect of an entrenched culture while trying to revamp another. I’ll offer gold-plated versions first, then highlight scaled-back opportunities more suitable for non-governmental budgets and operations.

• Give the Public Affairs Officer (PAO) a back-room team of experts

Most of NASA’s Public Affairs cadre are not engineers, and even fewer of them spend time working in the technical disciplines they are expected to relate to the public and media. How much better could their commentary be if they had a team of experts on tap, whispering explanations and historical anecdotes in their headset as the mission unfolded? While one might suggest that such matters could be covered by a beefed-up press kit, a fundamental key to achieving an emotional connection with an audience is spontaneity, something that’s been lacking from most PAO commentary for decades.

Is there any better way to engage the public with what the flight control team cares about than to show it to them directly, letting them see the changing data as the team itself gets to see it?

Where could one find such a team of experts? In the Mission Operations Training Division right there at JSC! A dedicated team of instructors, each trained in specific disciplines, already supports each mission. Why instructors? Three reasons: First, the core of their everyday teaching jobs is to explain the complexities of spaceflight in easy-to-understand terms, employing both words and graphics fine-tuned to the task. No one is better suited to elaborate on the details of what’s going on during a space mission for the benefit of a nontechnical audience than the instructors in MOD’s Training Division. Second, the instructors are intimately familiar with the flight controller displays and the back-room communication loops since they train the flight controllers as well as the crews. They monitor these during simulations and flights to provide valuable feedback to the crews and flight controllers. As instructors they are tuned to discern the essential underlying threads of all the discussions taking place, which provides them with a special ability to bring forward the most important points while recognizing the most telling, illustrative data of the moment. And, finally, their duties as instructors demand that they maintain a broad, more encompassing view of the tasks and events of the mission. From this perspective (and thanks to their own support of the mission) they can provide the essential context (history of the design and development of the hardware and procedures, training experiences) and the necessary depth for infusing the commentary with a vital human touch that will ensure an emotional connection with the audience. The match is almost beyond perfect!

Scaleback option: If having an entire Instructor Commentary Team (ICT) whispering in the PAO’s ear is too much to manage, how about just one instructor sitting side-saddle at the PAO console, discipline-specific for the primary task taking place (e.g., the Rendezvous/Prox Ops instructor during the rendezvous, the Extravehicular Activity Instructor during the EVAs)? While this would reduce the volume of expertise at hand, it would still add depth and dynamicism far beyond that available today with just the PAO’s solo commentary. I must note that Public Affairs tried something similar in the ’90s with astronauts providing supplemental commentary. This worked nicely with experienced astronauts who had an instructional flair about them, not so well with others. But in either case it suffered from a serious, inexplicable handicap: it remained primarily just talking. Which is why the next suggestion is vital.

• Give the PAO full-up video-feed access to displays, diagrams, procedures

So much information is available to any operator in Mission Control that I remain stunned that the PAOs have never brought up any flight controller displays onto the video feed to show their audience what the flight controllers themselves are watching and using. With some guided explanation (especially from a supporting Instructor Team), just seeing the changing numbers (or even static numbers!) on these displays, especially via graphs and plots, would immensely enhance the experience of anyone watching a rendezvous, spacewalk, launch, or entry. Is there any better way to engage the public with what the flight control team cares about than to show it to them directly, letting them see the changing data as the team itself gets to see it?

Another possibility that might work in parallel would be to provide telemetry-driven emulations of the crew displays for inclusion in the video feed. The shuttle and station onboard computer displays are rarely identical with those used by the flight controllers on the ground. Coupled with having the checklists available (see below), showing the audience what the crew is seeing/doing via their computers would help link the audience to the folks in space.

Another untapped resource is the dozens of diagrams and illustrations used during training in both briefings and simulator sessions. PAOs should create an electronic training diagram library ready for call-up to help their explanations along. While the computer animations sometimes shown today are helpful and look very slick, they are not necessarily optimum for getting across the nuts-and-bolts details of what the team is working on, certainly not to the level necessary for the audience to understand the white-knuckle concerns of the individual flight controllers for their systems.

Finally, the PAOs should have access to the crew procedures for display on the video feed; with instructor guidance, they could walk the audience through the steps as the crews execute their checklists. Talk about bringing the audience into the action!

Scaleback option: This one is actually already in place, but the PAOs don’t exploit it. A number of dynamic graphics packages display the shuttle’s or station’s attitude (orientation) as derived from either calculated or downlinked data, both pictorially and with pitch-yaw-roll numbers—but the PAOs never discuss what’s being displayed, or that it is in fact being driven by real data. Another display includes the groundtrack map, which contains a wealth of information about communications coverage, lighting, etc., all ignored by the PAOs in favor of verbally highlighting what particular landmass the spacecraft happens to be flying over. Finally, the PAOs sometimes insert (with little to no explanatory commentary) into the video feed ground-based versions of laptop computer tools the crew employ (such as the Rendezvous/Prox Ops Trajectory Program). If the PAOs, with instructor commentary backing them, spoke in detail to these displays instead of just using them as filler between on-board video downlinks, the audience would have another opportunity to care about what the flight controllers and astronauts are caring about.

As for scaling back on diagrams, at the very least the PAO could have a supply of training diagrams available in hardcopy for manually placing in front of a camera at their console (affectionately known in the MCC as the “Mr. Hand” technique).

Scaleup option: At least one team at NASA is in the business of thinking forward—far forward—to how we might better accomplish spaceflight operations in the coming decades and even the next century. One item on their plates is brainstorming how to optimize information flow for both crews in space and the folks back on the ground. Why not evaluate prototypes of their advanced, more-intuitive displays by running them by the public audience?

• Give the PAO a video trace pen

I have suffered no greater agony (this is someone who’s undergone a bone marrow biopsy speaking) than to listen to each and every PAO, mission after mission, fumble their way verbally around the geography of their own video feeds, trying to direct the viewers’ attention to this or that component of this or that module during a spacewalk. The amount of wasted words is astounding, considering the solution has been with us for years: a video trace pen, the kind nearly every football commentator manipulates every week! When I left JSC back in mid-’97 I suggested this very idea in my “departure essay,” but it apparently never made it over to Public Affairs. As far as I know, the only space-connected person to adopt the tool has been Miles O’Brien on CNN! (I’m not sure if he saw my essay.) If PAO adopts the prior suggestion of bringing up flight controller displays and instructor diagrams, implementing this suggestion is a must. There are no scale-back options on this one.

The amount of wasted words is astounding, considering the solution has been with us for years: a video trace pen, the kind nearly every football commentator manipulates every week!

Related to this concept, and vital for proper management of all those displays and diagrams, is the ability of the PAO to call up a picture within a picture, i.e., multiple windows on the video feed at once. This would permit them to show the dynamic approach data (distance, velocity, look angles) of the Trajectory Control Sensor laser while still showing the video downlink of the approaching space station docking ring—just to cite one example.

• Install minicameras and microphones at every console

As noted earlier, essential to connecting the audience with the team is ensuring that the viewers can see and hear the controllers up close as they perform their jobs. Installing small cameras and microphones unobtrusively into each console would alleviate the PAO’s need to constantly pan and zoom the wall-mounted cameras while following the action around the room. (Every spacewalker in an American spacesuit now has such a minicam mounted to their helmet.) Having each of the consoles’ camera/mic assemblies on tap for sending to the video feed would permit the PAO (ideally with instructor-team assistance) to truly immerse the audience into the action as it unfolded. Additional cameras mounted behind each console position would literally let the audience look over the shoulders of the folks in the trenches; it would be hard to develop a better means of connecting the two emotionally, specifically when coupled with having audio and the displays they’re monitoring available (picture in a picture, marked up with the trace pen) as well.

A companion element of letting the audience see and hear the individual flight controllers up close as they take on their technical challenges is to flesh them out into full-dimensional red-blooded humans (versus the distant automatons they are presented as today) that members of the audience can relate to—and root for. The easiest means of accomplishing this is simple on-demand pop-up overlays that list the given flight controller’s personal basics: name, position call sign, married or not, how many kids, hobbies, age, how long on the job, etc. While one might argue that such information is not the public’s business, one could counter that the privilege of working in NASA Mission Control brings with it certain “PR” obligations. (Such information is a standard component of the published biographies of the astronauts.) The objective is to emotionally connect the audience with the team members, and sharing even minimal personal information serves that objective decisively.

Scaleback options: The only scaleback option here would be to keep panning and zooming the wall-mounted cameras. The more critical concern is that this suggestion might meet the greatest resistance for fear that such video intimacy would interfere with the controllers doing their jobs or instill a “zoo” feeling. While such concerns have merit, I think it comes down to a matter of priority and long-term survival—if the space community fails to engage the public in powerful and compelling ways, the space community might just fade away for lack of public (and in turn executive and congressional—or investor) interest.

And one must remember that every utterance the flight controllers make while keying their mics is recorded and is made available to historians with no intervening editing. Is asking for a visual accompaniment, preferably one available in real time, too great a request? At the very least, such visual material could be recorded such that it would be available for use in post-flight documentaries (which I’ll discuss below).

As for scaling back on the personal information pop-ups, just displaying individual flight controller names for the audience is a step toward portraying them as accessible humans versus unreachable robots.

• Fill dead time with mission design, flight techniques, and training clips

One challenging factor we face in trying to jazz up NASA’s real-time television coverage is the unavoidable reality that large segments of spaceflight, particularly orbital operations, move slowly and very deliberately. This isn’t to say that things don’t hop along quickly sometimes; the problem is that more often than not the “sometimes” are separated by sizable chunks of sloooooow interludes. While most of the flight controllers are each keeping tabs on dozens of parameters through it all, when things are running smoothly those numbers don’t change, or they change very, very slowly.

Remember: good storytelling doesn’t require exaggeration or misrepresentation of the facts; it only requires that the storyteller be proficient in the skills and tools that emotionally connect the audience with the characters/players in an unfolding, well-structured story.

The solution isn’t to show a room full of flight controllers sitting at their consoles, or to display a barely-moving ground-track map with no accompanying commentary. No, the fix would be to fill in the “dead” time with video samples of more exciting snippets from the mission’s preparation: interviews with flight designers as they developed their trajectories or power profiles; the heated arguments at flight techniques meetings that hammered out the particular procedures being employed; or a training session with the crew (or even with the flight control team) addressing some of the possible off-nominal scenarios. Such flashbacks, when connected verbally with current operations, would provide the public with a much more rounded understanding of the entire process of spaceflight, in stark contrast to the isolated gee-whiz moments they see in the news media today. (Another possibility would be to run a video highlighting how similar operations were accomplished—or not—on other shuttle or earlier missions; this would provide an even broader context for the here and now.)

To pull this off would require cameras and mics in all of these facilities, but this isn’t really too much of a stretch—every conference room at NASA is wired for teleconferencing, and many already have videoconferencing available, too. Some of the simulators are also similarly wired for both video and sound.

Scaleback options: Videotaping every crew training session and every flight techniques meeting might seem excessive and even invasive, so a compromise might be struck by taping select ones to provide the PAOs with a catalog sufficient to capture a dynamic spectrum of a mission’s preparation. Perhaps a consultation between the crew commander, flight director, instructor team lead, and the mission’s chief public affairs officer at the start of mission preparation could serve to “target” which sessions should be taped.

• Send the PAOs to “compelling story” school

Since the most important component of re-engaging the public with space exploration involves embracing the fundamentals of effective storytelling, all people charged with that task (Public Affairs Officers, Instructor Commentary Team members, NASA’s Speakers’ Bureau, etc) should get themselves refreshed in the basics, preferably through a short instructor-led course in the subject. (This is above and beyond the need for all personnel who speak to the public to learn how to do so; some presentations by NASA and industry upper management have bordered on groaningly horrific.) In all reality, everyone involved in spaceflight could benefit from such a course. And remember: good storytelling doesn’t require exaggeration or misrepresentation of the facts; it only requires that the storyteller be proficient in the skills and tools that emotionally connect the audience with the characters/players in an unfolding, well-structured story.

Scaleback option: Have the PAOs read two or three of the dozens of books available on this subject.

• Hire a TV news director

If the space operations team as a whole and the Public Affairs Team in particular embraced the above suggestions, the PAO’s greatest challenge would be to keep the amazingly extensive material that is or could be available (real-time telemetry, minicam/mic console feeds, diagrams, prerecorded video spots, instructor-team commentary) from overwhelming the viewer with an uncoordinated video/audio tsunami.

The solution could be to designate a director, preferably by hiring one with television news experience—no operation/task compares better. Imagine the Instructor Commentary Team manning consoles in a back room, supervised by a director and a real-time video editor having access to all of the above resources. Such an arrangement could produce (with adequate pre-mission planning and materials development) not only an exciting real-time presentation but a downright compelling one—provided the overarching vision remains that of emotionally connecting the audience (the taxpaying public) with the teams on the inside having all the fun.

While the above suggestions are non-inclusive and are cast in the specific context of improving NASA’s real-time television mission coverage, each can serve to spark ideas for better engaging the public in the story of spaceflight (both public and private) via all possible media. Next let’s assess those media and evaluate each, especially regarding their ability to provide exposure and to sustain engagement. The two are not necessarily compatible.

page 2: the media for the message >>


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