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 2)

<< page 1: looking over shoulders: methods of engagement

The media for the message

Much discussion has been spent lately on the need to engage Generation Y with those forms of media they themselves most employ, but such talk is missing the core problem: if we don’t make that emotional connection between whichever constituency we target and the folks on the inside, i.e., achieve the goal of getting the audience “caught up in the story,” it doesn’t matter what fancy new media you dress the message up in—blogging, podcasting, MySpace—or whether or not the media is “participatory” or “passive.” (See “The medium and the message”, The Space Review, January 2, 2007) Humans are still humans, and the fundamentals of good storytelling have been with us from Generation AG (i.e., the Ancient Greeks) to today’s web-’sorbed ADD-prone young adults. Each media option must be considered with this essential goal of emotional connection in mind; then “the message” can be packaged appropriately.

Once again (sorry), it’s time to bulletize.

• Television

Real-time television, as all the suggested methods above imply, contains immense potential as a medium for engaging the public. The challenge, however, is two-fold: getting the improved NASA broadcast in front of the public, then getting the public to keep watching it.

While NASA TV is available on some cable and satellite TV lineups, it isn’t regularly available on good-old-fashioned broadcast television. One option would be to have corporations fund special mission coverage on public television stations, permitting them on high-activity days to insert the NASA feed in place of their regular programming.

A significant issue, however, involves the sheer volume of broadcast time for any given space operation: a given spacewalk may last more than seven hours, and the rendezvous timeline through docking can last five hours or more. Very few people have that much time on their hands to get caught up in the story of spaceflight no matter how exciting we make it; however, some might very well leave such coverage on in the background of their days, much the same way they play music in their workplaces. As an alternative, the PBS stations might follow the example of C-SPAN, playing prerecorded segments late at night for those truly interested. And, of course, there’s always the Internet webcast for PC-anchored people to run in their backgrounds.

One means of squeezing a smaller block of NASA television into more people’s days (again, on PBS) would be to run special 30-minute daily summaries (not the current “Video Highlights” please) in proximity to The NewsHour or at the end of the broadcasting day, with advertising across all media directing people to the summary’s existence.

If we don’t make that emotional connection between whichever constituency we target and the folks on the inside, i.e., achieve the goal of getting the audience “caught up in the story,” it doesn’t matter what fancy new media you dress the message up in or whether or not the media is “participatory” or “passive.”

Additional options exist for getting NASA TV “out there.” Getting the public to watch, however, no matter which broadcast avenue is considered or which medium is employed, is a matter of getting them hooked—and the only practical means of doing that is standard advertising across all media. If the public can be enticed to watch people skin rats on “deserted” islands and double-cross each other in quasi-reality households, I think the wizards of Madison Avenue might be able to convince a sizable percentage of them to investigate a show containing the exhausting exploits of self-assured hard chargers in hazardous locales where equipment breakdown could lead to failure or even death. The models for capturing an audience a first time are out there, as firmly established as the fundamentals of good storytelling; the challenge is to keep the show interesting enough to draw them back a second and third time.

Post-flight television documentaries might fit the mainstream networks more readily since they can be packaged more neatly than real-time mission coverage. NASA could air a documentary every quarter or half-year that reviews both manned and unmanned missions that have taken place since the previous summary, again focusing on the human drama behind it all to ensure the emotional connection with the audience. Perhaps co-sponsorship through industry would help defray the high network airtime costs. The challenge remains, however, of getting people to watch: fantastic advertising again required.

• Print

Tons of material is out there in print about spaceflight, and some of it (especially first-person accounts by participants) fits the bill of adequately engaging the public with that necessary emotional connection. The challenge here is to get more people to read it, and the only surefire means of doing that (at least as far as the books go) is for all of us to buy our friends and family copies of such books as presents. Each of us in the field must become a salesperson, offering to those we know the books we consider most insightful regarding “real” spaceflight.

As for written material in the newspapers and magazines, again it comes down to the “angle” of the material—if it’s personal and can emotionally connect the reader with the people on the inside, it will help jazz people up. If all it does is ramble on about optimum trajectories to Mars or relate the likelihood of finding ice on the Moon without delving into the human stories behind such analyses, it won’t serve to engage a wider share of the public.

• Interactive

Ah, for the so-called Generation Y. Bull! Interactive media is inherently effective for all generations because of it’s immediacy: anyone participating is automatically caught up in the story, whatever it happens to be. (Call-in radio has been around for decades.) The only issue is how best to design the interface to ensure that the user feels as if they are truly involved in or tapping the pulse of what’s actually going on.

Fielding Questions: One alternative, coupled with some of the suggestions offered above, is to have the Instructor Commentary Team field questions submitted on-line, calling up flight displays to help answer submitted questions (remember that many now watch NASA TV via the Internet). NASA currently has something like this on their Human Spaceflight website, but the flight directors seem to hog most of the questions, leaving the remainder of the team to appear as nameless automatons. Not fair!

Simulations: Making simulations available online that permit the user to exercise some of the technical decisions faced by the NASA (or private) teams, tuned specifically to a current mission, is another possibility. Could not some way be found to finally bridge the “hosting gap” between the training simulation software on the computer platforms inside NASA and everyone’s PC on the outside? How’s that for getting emotionally connected—running a mission’s rendezvous and docking, or executing its spacewalks, or launching and landing on your own PC (or PlayStation, etc.) just days before the real space mission executes them! Then, after the flight, the user can download the real mission’s telemetry to run on their simulation and compare how they did with the real team. Coupled with a sufficient promotional campaign, this could be a huge winner.

Internet Rude: Pop-up Internet/podcast ads designed to entice users to check out what’s happening on the NASA web/podcast/TV. Would these really be effective, or offensive?

Interactive media is inherently effective for all generations because of it’s immediacy: anyone participating is automatically caught up in the story, whatever it happens to be.

The Pinnacle: The ultimate interactive media option, of course, would be to hold an annual lottery whose grand prize is a flight into space, preferably orbit. The lottery selects 20 people, and the space ops folks running the mission evaluate those 20 to find the top three best suited to fly. (While I wouldn’t expect NASA to fly lottery winners to the Moon, ISS ferry flights—via Orion, COTS, or Soyuz—might provide enough opportunities for such space flight novices. The level of public interest in such flights might just be… astronomical.) Those who don’t get selected to train for the space flight get a fighter-jet ride or a zero-g flight, and/or are permitted to sit in Mission Control during the space mission with experts by their side to tune them in to what’s going on. At the very least, NASA and its prime contractors should offer this (the flight into space, etc.) as a reward for outstanding employee performance. A trip to see a launch is all well and good, but launching would be a much stronger workplace incentive…

• Movie theaters

Years ago I had suggested to some close friends in the business (as we are all wont to do with our musings) that NASA should create, market, and run in standard movie theaters two “on-the-inside” documentaries per year: one highlighting the year’s manned space missions, the second covering the unmanned missions. My thinking was that, once edited down, those missions, shown from concept inception to post-flight analysis, couldn’t help but be downright exciting, especially if all the human drama was emphasized. Since NASA is tasked with disseminating information as part of its charter, I figured that such an activity could be justified. (Ticket sales would also quickly determine if the public was ready to “buy” into spaceflight again.) The recent critical and financial success of Disney’s IMAX feature Roving Mars lends credence to this notion; while not a full-length motion picture, the subject matter is right in line with my earlier thinking.

Yet while my concept has some merit, a better alternative might exist, especially in terms of gaining desired exposure for our “product.” Jon Berndt [1] recently offered the idea (almost offhandedly) of inserting newsreel-like shorts into standard theater pre-feature lineups. We all sit through nearly 15 minutes of movie previews already; imagine, he suggested, an audience in a darkened theater being shown the ET-sep camera footage from the latest shuttle mission or the most recent images of Mars or Saturn. I must concur that that would have an emotional impact, even without any commentary!

But I don’t know if Mr. Berndt recognizes the awesome power contained in his brief suggestion. Think about the scene, especially in the context of our desire to tell the compelling story of spaceflight: you have anywhere from 20 to 400 people who have just spent money to get immersed in a story, waiting; they are in a darkened room where, by design, their primary focus is on a huge screen that envelops them with imagery and sound; and, they generally feel pretty good (this is entertainment they’re after) and they aren’t going anywhere for the next two hours. That, my friends, is a captive audience!

How much time can we spend holding that audience? Attention-wise, I think that two minutes might be the limit. Many movie previews last 30 seconds, and if we can produce a truly compelling, fast-paced, primarily image-driven documentary that quickly connects the audience with some folks on the inside, we should be able to hold them for four times that.

Cost-wise, at least in terms of one site’s listed advertising rate estimates [2], we’d be talking $18.00 (government rate) per screen per week for a 15-second spot. There are on the order of 38,000 screens across the US. If NASA only runs its spot on 10,000 screens, for one week we’re already at $180,000 for a 15-second spot. If we aim for our two-minute bit of documentary footage, we’re talking $1.44 million—again, for one week. Set against a $16-billion budget, that may not seem too bad, but if NASA runs its two-minute spot every other week for a year they’ll have to spend $37 million—just to engage the public more effectively in one particular way, and that doesn’t include advertising to promote this “advertising.” Worth it?

Maybe. Remember that the future of space exploration is at stake here, and a captive audience primed to enjoy a good story is an incredible opportunity. One alternative might have the theaters offer “the latest NASA short” as a bonus for a slightly higher admission fee (an extra quarter?) when the theaters run movies (especially, perhaps, sci-fi movies) on more than one screen, after NASA has fully footed the bill for a month or two to familiarize (saturate, really) the public with what “the NASA short” is all about.

The most valuable spinoff garnered from space exploration is purely emotional, but its consequences are unfathomably practical: inspiration.

Coupled with other media avenues, I believe that “the latest NASA short” could become the single most important springboard for truly re-engaging the public with space exploration. Once exposed to brief, well-crafted, emotionally engaging spaceflight documentaries in such an ideal setting, moviegoers (and every generation is full of moviegoers) would be more inclined to seek out related material across the entire media spectrum. (The shorts would of course end with the NASA website address on the screen…) As demand rose, more material from various sources would become available, and space exploration could very well resecure a firm foothold in the American public’s consciousness.

• Fiction (?)

Fiction in writing, television, and film can serve a very influential role in connecting the public with spaceflight, particularly because of the inherent ease with which a writer or director can emotionally link the audience quite strongly with their characters regardless of the technical integrity of the story. In fact, it’s likely that a well-crafted fictional story about realistic spaceflight would appeal to more people than a straight-up factual documentary. (Consider how many more people have read Tom Clancy’s fiction versus his non-fiction. And, plot contrivances aside, Space Cowboys was a popular movie.) But while the public might get more emotionally connected to fictional characters than real players, it doesn’t exclude them from getting caught up in real, factual issues. If fictional characters care about real things, then the readers or viewers caught up in that story come to care about those things as well. Consider the many fictional works of Clarke and Heinlein which had focused primarily on the wonders of spaceflight itself that inspired so many of us.

Because of this inherent power, the space community as a whole should embrace authentic fiction about spaceflight as a means of engaging a wider constituency. (Let’s try to forget the lesser attempts at “realistic” space fiction we’ve seen on TV or in the movies. These were essentially soap operas that employed spaceflight—badly—as window dressing.) Personally, it again comes down to each of us passing along a good book to family and friends, or going to see a movie with them and discussing its content afterward. (I can suggest an excellent novel…)

One option for producing more fictional material involving realistic spaceflight might be for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics to launch a line of inspirational, authentic aviation and space novels and short stories. Some works might even intentionally lean more heavily toward the technology, with diagrams, equations, and the like, while retaining the desired thrill of a good story. Perhaps they could arrange for their interested members (many not familiar with crafting fiction) to team with dedicated authors of fiction. Thus far AIAA has published one work of fiction [3], a novel geared heavily toward illuminating the real-world challenges of private spaceflight. A broader selection of similar, themed works would not only provide excellent material for stimulating a larger interest (and understanding) in the public at large, but would also serve to foster excitement for technical matters in those children and young adults tentatively contemplating careers not only in aerospace but in the wider technical disciplines.

The situation is critical

The space exploration community faces a crisis today that’s been decades in the making: the disengagement of the very people they serve and from whom they expect support. Some (including a few space program leaders and space colonization zealots) believe that this loss of interest on the public’s part is solely the result of what we have (or have not) been doing in space, and that we will re-engage the public merely by switching vehicle types and providing deep-space destinations for them. But these particular space advocates and managers are living with a delusion colored by their own Apollo-inspired past—and the ’60s was a very different… everything.

The disengagement of the public has primarily been the result of ineffective storytelling by a hobbled Public Affairs organization that has failed to emotionally link the public to the people on the inside who are actually doing the space missions. And along with “the public at large,” we have lost the interest of untold numbers of capable middle-school-aged children and young adults who have drifted into or actively chosen to pursue non-technical careers because the “rocket science” they’ve been shown has been distant, incomprehensible, and dull. We as a community have squandered untold opportunities to excite, and sustain the interest of, young minds while bemoaning our failure to do so—without ever recognizing why.

Because, in the end, that’s what it’s really all about. The most valuable spinoff garnered from space exploration is purely emotional, but its consequences are unfathomably practical: inspiration. Getting a larger percentage of the public interested in spaceflight again by re-engaging them emotionally with its unfolding story is a matter of self-preservation for the space exploration community itself: if the public loses all interest, our government leaders (and private investors) will lose interest too. Capturing the imaginations of technically capable young minds among that larger public by getting them truly excited about spaceflight and its underpinnings of math, science, and engineering is a matter of self-preservation for our nation.

So we had best get on with it—soon.


[1] Berndt, Jon, Communicating Visions, Horizons (AIAA Houston Section Newsletter), July/August 2006.

[2] Goodman, Brad. “Commercials in Movie Theaters”.

[3] Steinnon, Patrick J.G., Hoerr, David M., Birkholz, Doug, The Rocket Company, AIAA 2005.