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NASA’s web presence may be key to building up public support for space exploration. (credit: nasa.gov)

The fragility and resilience of NASA

The recent problem with the computers on the Russian segment of the ISS emphasizes both the fragility and resilience of NASA’s missions and the agency itself. The six control computers going off-line at once shows just how challenging it is to thoroughly anticipate all the problems that can arise over the course of a project of this immense level of complexity. The round-the-clock work of the engineers in the partner countries along with the crew on the ISS to solve the problem also shows the resilience and creativity that has been developed in the teams involved.

When John F. Kennedy made his speech at Rice University in Houston on September 12, 1962, challenging the country to land a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s, he said, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not only because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” That passage alone explains why NASA and its missions are fragile. NASA takes on projects that are extremely difficult and at risk of catastrophic failures. Risk-taking has been at the heart of every part of the American success story. It was in the nature of those who settled this country. It was part of the wave of immigrants that crossed the Atlantic in the late 1800s and early 1900s that filled in the areas first pioneered by the trailblazers. It has been at the heart of every person that opened a new business or tried a new idea. We do the hard things because the potential rewards are great.

Almost every other major agency in the federal government is understood by the American public to be necessary. Most people agree that we need the Department of Defense, the Social Security Administration, the State Department, the Justice Department, the Department of Agriculture, and many others. The arguments over these agencies are usually over size and how their missions are to be carried out. This is not so for NASA. NASA and the space advocacy community have a hard time verbalizing why the agency needs to exist in a manner understandable to the American public.

NASA and the space advocacy community have a hard time verbalizing why the agency needs to exist in a manner understandable to the American public.

The ISS computer outage emphasizes again the risk of single-point failures that can end NASA missions. Even though six redundant computers were involved, they were all of the same design, having the same strengths and weaknesses. They were all plugged in at the same time exposed to the same systemic problems: a point of vulnerability in the design. One lesson to be learned is to simply have spares on board that are not plugged in and hence not exposed to what might have been a one-time event. This is not that simple a choice, though, when it comes to deciding which critical elements need to have extra backups. Having a secondary control system on the American side of the station, and of a different design, would definitely reduce the risk of a single-point design flaw. On the flip side, adding a second control system with computers of a different design adds cost and complexity that, in itself, adds risk. This incident also underscores the value of the ISS as a place to figure out these problems close to Earth. If this had happened on a ship deep in space approaching Mars with 40-minute round-trip message times, the outcome might not have been so good.

In the early 1990s the space station project survived in Congress by one vote. Congress and the President, which both endorsed the Vision for Space Exploration, do not pay NASA enough attention to ensure that their missions are properly funded. NASA’s mission and vision could change radically or be severely curtailed after the next election. If NASA and its international partners had not solved the problems with the control computers on the ISS, there would be a chorus of people calling for the cancellation of the ISS and grounding the Shuttle fleet now.

I started wondering how one truly gauges public support for NASA. NASA is not a monolithic organization that does only one thing, so for many people there is not one answer to, “Do I support NASA and its missions?” There are the hardcore space enthusiasts that probably regularly visit this site and others who would easily answer yes to the above question. There are people with a casual interest in space and astronomy. There are people that view what NASA discovers as just one part of trying to understand the universe.

During the STS-117 mission I checked when the Shuttle and the ISS would be visible in the night sky. I went out onto the fishing pier across the street from my office to get far enough away from the street lights to get a good view with my brother and a friend. It was a beautiful clear evening, and the Shuttle and the ISS appeared right on schedule just moments apart as two bright fast-moving stars coming out of the northwest twilight sky. A group of fishermen and another group of a half dozen teenagers also on the pier asked what we were looking at. One of the fishermen asked me which orbiter it was. When I said Atlantis he asked if the other two surviving orbiters were named Discovery and Endeavour. One of the teenagers said, “This is so cool!”

NASA has just put together a document titled Strategic Communications Framework Implementation Plan (see “NASA’s new outreach plan”, The Space Review, July 2, 2007). It lays out a plan to communicate to the public what NASA’s mission is and how it’s relevant to the average citizen. Part of the plan is to leverage the Internet to get the message out. It is recognition that the Internet is changing how people find information that fits each person’s particular interest.

I recently asked the A.C. Nielsen Company, which tracks web site traffic, if they would provide me with information on visitors to the major space-related websites for this article. They were happy to oblige. They track visits to sites from homes and businesses on a monthly basis from unique visitors from within the US. As soon as a visitor visits a site they are only counted once no matter how many times they visit the site in that month. The current minimum for a site to show up in the ratings is to have at least 360,000 unique visitors in a month. They provided me with the following information for the month of May, 2007.

Topline Data for Various Sites, May 2007

SiteUnique Audience (000)Time per Person (hh:mm:ss)
U.S. National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA)3,9520:12:33
Space.com1,1780:03:38
cnn.com/TECH/space5020:02:27
esa.intN/AN/A
Spaceflightnow.comN/AN/A
msnbc.msn.com/id/3033063N/AN/A
The Space ReviewN/AN/A
nasawatch.comN/AN/A
Spaceref.comN/AN/A
nasaspaceflight.comN/AN/A
cbsnews.com/stories/2000/02/16/tech/main161238N/AN/A
foxnews.com/science/spaceN/AN/A

Blue data indicates these estimates are calculated on small sample sizes and are subject to increased statistical variability as a result. Blank (N/A) data indicates total audience fell below reporting cutoff.

Source: Nielsen//NetRatings NetView
US, Home and Work
Month of May 2007

I found the results to be at first surprising but, after some thought, in the ballpark of where reason should have told me where they would be. All the websites under the domain nasa.gov had nearly four million distinct visitors from within the US for the month of May. This was a month that did not have any special event going on at NASA. There were no first images of a celestial body from one of NASA’s probes. There was no drama of a Shuttle flight to the ISS. There was no wacky astronaut incident. I suspect that the number of visitors in June was significantly up with the STS-117 mission.

Four million people, while only a small percentage of the population, is still enough to make a difference in the national agenda if they can be engaged in the debate on the future of NASA.

I was a little surprised the space pages of the major media outlets, except for CNN, did not have enough visitors to hit Nielsen’s threshold of 360,000. I did not expect the sites like this one to reach what is a fairly significant threshold. The community of hardcore enthusiasts is not that big. One of the things I find interesting about the data is that so many Americans with probably greatly varying levels of interest in space exploration head straight to NASA’s website for information. I also find it interesting that the average visit lasts much longer than it does on the other two sites that registered in the ratings.

NASA is right in focusing some of their energy in promoting their mission and message via the web. Four million Americans are more people than voted in the last presidential election in my home state of Wisconsin. Four million people, while only a small percentage of the population, is still enough to make a difference in the national agenda if they can be engaged in the debate on the future of NASA. Four million people can tilt the results of races for public office all across the country. In an age where information on countless areas of interest is available to people via the Internet, four million people on a slow news month for NASA is not bad. It is a sign that people are still interested even if it isn’t the main focus of their interest. If the politicians start taking notice maybe we’ll one day hear from another President a line similar to the following one from John F. Kennedy’s speech in Houston: “It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.”


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