The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

SpaceVision 2005 audience
While many college-age students, like those attending the SpaceVision 2005 conference at the University of Illinois in November 2005, are interested in space exploration, many more either show little interest in the subject or are even hostile to it. (credit: J. Foust)

The medium and the message

The week between Christmas and New Years Day is traditionally a quiet one in the media, save for unforeseen events (like the Asian tsunami in 2004 and, last week, the passing of Gerald Ford and the execution of Saddam Hussein.) That means newspapers and online news sites are often filled with articles that, while of interest, are not necessarily time sensitive, such as feature and analysis pieces that might otherwise get squeezed out during busier times.

That was the case with an AP article last week, headlined “NASA seeks ways to boost youth appeal”. According to the article, young Americans are apathetic about NASA, if not outright hostile to the space agency’s programs, particularly human spaceflight. Given that human missions back to the Moon and beyond are the cornerstone of the Vision for Space Exploration, such disinterest in the program by young people today could pose a long-term risk for the agency. What’s needed, a number of people quoted in article say, is a new approach to public outreach by NASA, one that in particular makes use of the new forms of media embraced by students and other young people today, from blogs and podcasts to MySpace and YouTube.

These statistics make a strong case that NASA needs to do more to reach out to young Americans—and do it in different ways.

Although the article’s hook is a recent event (talking to students at a community college near the Kennedy Space Center who were cared little about last month’s STS-116 shuttle mission), evidence suggests the problem is not new. The article cites a study published last fall by Dittmar Associates that found relatively low levels of interest among Americans 18-25 years old, part of a cohort of the population often called “Generation Y” or the “Millennials”. The survey, performed about a year ago, found that only about half were aware of the Vision for Space Exploration (down from 62 percent in a similar survey in 2004, when the VSE was still new and very much in the news). The same survey also found that 45 percent supported the Vision (down from 55 percent in the 2004 survey) while 40 percent opposed it (up from 30 percent in 2004.) Most damning of all to NASA, though, was the perception of the space agency’s relevance. Just over half—51 percent—of young people surveyed considered NASA “irrelevant or very irrelevant”, while just 32 percent believed NASA was “relevant or very relevant”.

These statistics make a strong case that NASA needs to do more to reach out to young Americans—and do it in different ways. Long gone are the days when people watched three television networks and read a handful of newspapers and magazines. The AP articles mentions a number of methods under consideration, from developing podcasts and putting videos on YouTube to celebrity endorsements, partnerships with “youth-oriented media” and sporting events, and turning NASA’s astronauts into familiar public personalities, much as they were during the heyday of the Space Race in the 1960s.

Some of these ideas are not new (celebrity endorsements of NASA in one manner or another have been around for years) or, in the case of “brand placement in the movie industry”, another option named in the article, of questionable effectiveness: how many people became more interested in NASA because of movies like Armageddon or Space Cowboys? Still, some degree of experimentation is warranted to find which methods best keep NASA in the minds of Generation Y. Some of that work is already in progress: last fall, with very little public fanfare, NASA sponsored the first “21st Century Explorer Podcast Competition”, where students between the ages of 11 and 18 submitted audio and video podcasts on the topic of “How Will Space Exploration Benefit Your Life in the Future?”

So, problem solved? NASA can just put some videos online, perhaps featuring famous people saying how cool space is, and Millennials will follow suit? There are two flaws in that simplistic approach, regarding both how NASA communicates with the public and what message it provides.

The medium

One might assume that, because young Americans have a mediocre opinion of NASA and the Vision, they’re uninterested in space in general. However, the Dittmar Associates study offered one interesting result: while just over half thought NASA to be irrelevant to their lives, 61 percent found that space tourism and related “NewSpace” ventures were relevant or very relevant to them. Why the disparity? Space tourism, the study concluded, “appears to offer the promise that ‘anyone can go’—a distinction that appeared meaningful to those individuals who are at all interested in space.” In other words, many young people are interested in space, but as participants, not spectators.

That is a key distinction in a society whose media in particular are becoming more interactive and participatory. The most popular new technologies and applications have typically involved those that allow many-to-many interaction, rather than the one-to-many broadcasting method of television and print: email, IM, texting, blogs, and social networks like MySpace and Facebook. Yet, NASA’s outreach activities have been just that: reaching out with pictures, video, and such from shuttle missions and unmanned spacecraft, with limited opportunities at best for students and the general public to reach back into NASA and take part.

“NASA has not baked in citizen involvement in space exploration,” George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, said in a speech during the Mars Society Conference in Washington, DC last August. “They are implementing a vision for space exploration sort of on their own.”

In his speech Whitesides introduced a new buzzword, “participatory exploration”. The concept, he explained, “is to use the full span of the global information infrastructure to maximize the ability of people like you and me to engage in space exploration. Right now, that engagement is an afterthought, primarily, on the part of NASA, and I think that needs to change in a fundamental way.”

“NASA has not baked in citizen involvement in space exploration,” said Whitesides. “They are implementing a vision for space exploration sort of on their own.”

An example he gave in his speech involved the public participation in the landing of a robotic spacecraft on the Moon a few years hence. While some people watched high-definition video feeds from the spacecraft as it approached the lunar surface, others would compare the data from the lander’s approach with their own performance in a computer simulator of the landing, distributed prior to the landing for free by NASA. Still others would be engaged in real-time chats, suggesting names for the craters and other surface features imaged by the spacecraft.

“Participatory exploration should be a level one requirement,” Whitesides said, and should be incorporated into future NASA missions from the beginning, not hastily added later in its development or even after its launch—something he said might well be considered “heretical” at NASA today. “We have a situation where the younger generation is really not connected, in general, to human spaceflight, but it can if we do it in the right way.”

The message

While participatory exploration may show some promise, some within NASA think that simply a change in direction for the agency—from the shuttle and ISS to the Vision for Space Exploration—may be sufficient to reengage Generation Y. “If we make it clear that the focus of the United States space program for the foreseeable future will be out there, will be beyond what we do now, I think you won't have any problem at all reacquiring the interest of young people,” NASA administrator Mike Griffin said in a recent interview cited in the AP article.

That, on the surface, makes some sense: for the entire lifetimes of young Americans human spaceflight has meant shuttle missions and the assembly of the International Space Station, two programs that have failed to excite many people regardless of age. Transitioning to an exploration program from one that, quite literally, went around in circles, would seem to be more interesting to the public regardless of the level of participation offered to them.

However, the Dittmar Associates study found that such exploration missions currently have only limited support among Generation Y. Interest in human missions to the Moon was lukewarm at best, with 29 percent interested but nearly half saying they were neutral. Worse, opposition was strong to what might be considered the ultimate human space exploration mission, an expedition to Mars: only 18 percent were in favor while 77 percent were opposed.

Why the strong opposition to Mars exploration in particular? Reasons cited in the survey report ranged from “Don’t know why we’re going there when we’re so messed up here” to “too far and too much money” and, simply, “don’t see the point”. In essence, exploration for exploration’s sake won’t be enough to sell young people on the Vision, particularly when they’re concerned about a whole host of other matters, from the Middle East and terrorism to the economy and climate change. That doesn’t bode well for NASA, given how it is struggling today to develop a compelling set of reasons why it should establish a base on the Moon (see “Moonbase why”, The Space Review, December 11, 2006.)

In essence, exploration for exploration’s sake won’t be enough to sell young people on the Vision, particularly when they’re concerned about a whole host of other matters, from the Middle East and terrorism to the economy and climate change.

Perhaps that’s a problem that can be solved, if not with participatory exploration, then in a participatory manner. Instead of consulting the same relatively small community of experts within NASA, academia, and industry, the agency and its advocates should be communicating more with the public, and young people in particular. Is their disinterest in or opposition to government-run human space exploration based on a lack of knowledge of the subject? (Keep in mind that about a quarter of the Dittmar Associates survey respondents expressed doubts that NASA landed men on the Moon during the Apollo program.) Or, does space exploration simply have a lower priority than for older generations, like the Baby Boomers weaned on the Space Race? Perhaps Millennials will suggest their own solutions beyond “participatory exploration” that could make space exploration more compelling and relevant to them.

It’s an issue that, admittedly, is difficult to get worked up about now, given the minimal political influence Generation Y has today, but that will change in the years and decades to come. “NASA must do this,” Whitesides said of participatory exploration in his Mars Society speech. “It truly has to do this if we are to avoid a situation in which, ten years down the road, these 18- to 24-year-olds who were not engaged in space and were perhaps opposed to the human exploration of Mars are in the driver’s seat.”