The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Orion illustration
If the Vision for Space Exploration is to become reality, NASA will have to do a better job communicating that vision and its plans for implementing it to the public. (credit: Lockheed Martin)

How to save your Vision

What NASA needs today is a good dose of transparency

In William Shakespeare’s Henry V there is a telling scene that is instructive to all space geeks of our modern age. In it, two sorcerers gather around a bubbling caldron. One is a newbie upstart named Owen Glendower. The other a world-weary experienced pro named Hotspur. “I can call spirits from the vasty deep!” Glendower exults. The crafty old pro knows such a skill has limits. “Why so can I, so can any man,” he wearily replies to his young friend. “But will they come when you do call for them?”

Ah, such is the case today with the Vision for Space Exploration, intended to be NASA’s roadmap for human exploration of the Solar System for the next three decades or longer. Indeed there is a vision, as called forth by George W. Bush and approved by Congress. But will there be money and purpose that will follow it to fruition? Or will become, like Glendower’s prideful literary boast, yet another empty promise, another unfunded and unfulfilled federal mandate?

To put it mildly, there is a feeling that the Vision has lost emphasis and momentum, that the passion for this work and goal has faded for some and has become instead yet another federal program to keep engineers occupied.

I have usually resisted the temptation to give advice to people much smarter than me. But lately I have noticed a sensation that the Vision is flailing about in the overheated Washington air. Matched by silence from our President on the subject, everyone feels obligated to give their spin on this proposal. Many of these voices have their own axe to grind, their own nest to feather. Within NASA itself, the bureaucracy’s usual sense of entitlement has been joined by a vague malaise. People are arguing anew over the validity of Ares or the reusability of Orion. Issues supposedly settled by ESAS have begun to be doubted. The dread of the gap in human spaceflight from the Shuttle to the CEV hangs palpably over all. Thus I thought it might be helpful to impart some observations born of a long life history in thinking and writing about space affairs.

In the months that have passed since the Vision was announced, skeptics have traded their doubts for fresh contracts; many who once assured me that nothing would ever come from the Vision are now running at full tilt to get aboard the gravy train. Apollo on steroids? This, to some, looks more like a very large and elaborate all-you-can-eat buffet. Subtract Prometheus one year, get a lunar lander in the next. Why, we have just have to do this because we need the… jobs, bonuses, promotions, you just fill in the blanks wherever you please. Why? Well, it’s because we have a destiny to explore, with government money and aboard government spaceships. The public will just have to support us, like they always have. The people who truly believe that such a sense of entitlement belongs to spacefarers are in for a rude shock. Until and unless NASA transforms itself, opens itself up to the whirlwind of change that is all around, to use a phrase from my home own of New Orleans, “they ain’t nobody gonna go nowheres”.

To put it mildly, there is a feeling that the Vision has lost emphasis and momentum, that the passion for this work and goal has faded for some and has become instead yet another federal program to keep engineers occupied. The last time I saw a focus group report on what people knew or didn’t know about space exploration, less than ten percent ever even heard of the Vision. How does NASA expect people to support something if they don’t even know what it is? And when will NASA’s rank-and-file finally come to grips with the stark truth that while the Moon may be a destination, this isn’t Apollo at all. There is no Cold War enemy to vanquish. No charismatic young President to call us to arms. There is, instead, whining and grumbling and much gnashing of teeth.

It is time to shake off the malaise of summer. Time to reconnect with the why, not belabor the what-ifs. Herewith as food for thought as summer ends and as autumn returns, my ten rules for restoration of the nation’s passion for space exploration:

Think of the space program as a public commodity

The exploration of space in a free society is a privilege, not a right. We are entitled to nothing except the taxpayer’s scrutiny. If we thought of the space program as a public commodity, a public good or service, then perhaps that same public might—just might—get excited and interested. To achieve this, we need to let them in. The Space Shuttle is so popular with the average citizen just because long ago people bought into the idea that ordinary people could and would fly on it. Do experiments on it. Be a part of it, albeit remotely. Space tourism is so popular today for that very fact: it gives people a way to go there. NASA should craft onramps to Constellation by partnering with organizations, like science centers and museums, to bring Orion and Ares into their lives. For example, the Space Center Houston visitor’s complex is spending huge amounts of money replacing its Shuttle exhibits and demos with mock-ups of the Orion crew module and associated hardware. That is just the kind of thing that should send NASA planners to the drawing boards—and then open up the actual program to participation by the general public. Serious student experiments on the CEV? Live webcams showing hardware being designed and built, in real-time? If you need help figuring out how to do this, go ask Disney. And, from time to time, do a report to the people on their space program ROI: return on investment. Think of J.Q. Citizen as a shareholder on Orion/Ares’ lease. After all, every Congress has to renew it, doesn’t it?

Take the walls around the Astronaut Office and tear them down

If we thought of the space program as a public commodity, a public good or service, then perhaps that same public might—just might—get excited and interested. To achieve this, we need to let them in.

It is terribly unfair but equally true: people now believe there are inebriated astronauts flying into space, or sex-crazed diaper-wearing astronauts running out of control. All of this is patiently ridiculous, but perception is reality. What do people know about what astronauts do? Very little, but NASA can change that. I’m suggesting an “Astronaut Boot Camp” for both the press and public to see what astronauts have to endure to fly their missions, train for their flights, and prepare from L-2 days to launch. It is time to take some of the mystery out of being an astronaut and help restore some of the romance by simply showing people—and the younger members of the “new” media—just what it is all about. If the desired age of the crew that will fly Orion to the Moon in 2019 should be their late 30s, as was the crew of Apollo 11 in 1969, then those astronauts are in high school today. There is an historic turnover coming in the Astronaut Office. I suggest NASA take advantage of that change by engaging the public more with the Orion generation and with their activities. The blogs and astronaut training diaries and on orbit journals are a terrific first step. I know my astronaut friends will hear this and say, “Where am I supposed to find the time?” It isn’t easy, but it can be done.

Beware of crafting the wrong public narrative

Young people increasingly feel no connection with the space program. Apollo, to them, is as distant a memory as the Civil War—as are the days of STS-1. To assume everyone knows what NASA is and does and structuring communications tools with that assumption is building a narrative that some won’t understand and connect to. Instead, build a narrative of the Vision that, like a story, shows as much as tells.

Seek to build a community of shared values, not a community of shared interests

People who are paid professional advocates make their living by promoting that which advances their company’s corporate interests. Nothing is wrong with that. But, don’t then be surprised if much of the press and public respond with a yawn when such advocates ask for their attention. However, when groups not connected to the space program, such as the recent American Medical Association endorsement of exploration, come forward it has a much larger footprint. NASA and industry, too, should look beyond the traditional interest groups to build new support coalitions for the Vision, such as environmental groups and other people with no obvious financial interest in space programs and projects. Spokespersons such as sports and media public figures are also desirable, I’d think, for the same reason and for the same effect.

There is strength from consensus

ESAS was to arrive at a consensus at what form Orion and Ares were to take, but more than two years later critics still complain about Ares’ lifting power or whether or not Orion should be recovered at sea instead of on land. I am not suggesting ESAS conclusions be reopened. I am suggesting that NASA take a page from its own Flight Readiness Reviews and have an open airing of these technical issues, allowing reasonable technical arguments to be heard about the validity of these issues one last time. And then, reform a consensus on those final design choices. Hearing out the critics and building a fresh consensus will only strengthen the Vision and help propel it forward.

There can be romance in relevance

Nearly every child wants his or her grandparent to live as long as they can, and to have a better life. NASA technologies play an astounding role in the daily lives of nearly every American. Yet “spinoffs” still is a dirty word for some at NASA. There is no shame in bringing down to people, in some more focused measured way, the benefits from both human and robotic space exploration. If the ISS has research potential, then so does a lunar base. NASA recently compiled a list of 182 things that can be done by astronauts and robots working together on the Moon. What are you going to do with this list?

Emphasize not what it is but what it does

It is understandable for engineers to want to emphasize the technical merits of the Vision. Space capsules, rockets, engines, and such. But here’s a news flash: most of the public have no idea what this stuff is or how it works. What they really want to know is: what will it do for me and my kids? Explaining what it is can be inspiring, but telling what it does or will do, and why that is important, is even better.

It’s okay to dream

A senior NASA official once told me that in the aftermath of the January 2004 announcement of the Vision, the senior leaders of his storied agency were astonished at the reaction from some at the NASA field centers. Their response was fear: fear of risk, and, most tellingly, fear of failure. For an agency that professed enchantment with its Apollo-era reputation, in fact many NASA employees had grown complacent and risk-averse. “Some of these people have forgotten how to dream,” my NASA friend once observed. How incredibly sad—not for themselves, but for the country that they serve, if that becomes the legacy of and ultimate fate for the Vision for Space Exploration. It is okay to dream great dreams, and the best dreams are for sharing.

Character is destiny—and history shapes character

The writer Peggy Noonan tells the story of a hot air balloon trip she and her friends once took above the French countryside in Normandy. The balloon developed a fault and had to land unexpectedly on a farm in the country. Soon after they landed, an old man appeared and asked them if they were all right. In his French voice, he looked at Noonan and asked “are you an American?” When she said she was, he asked that they wait while he retrieved something from his farmhouse. He returned with an ancient bottle of local brandy, covered with dust and ripe from age. He had saved it for just such a moment. He poured his guests each a toast, saying that while he hadn’t seen an American in many years, they were the heirs to the generation that, he said, had done the impossible when he was young and saved the world from darkness. That was what Americans meant to him: they did the impossible, once, on the beaches of his native Normandy.

It is okay to dream great dreams, and the best dreams are for sharing.

To all my friends at NASA: you are the heirs of the Apollo generation. You are the people that tamed a fragile spaceplane and made it give up its secrets, helped to live in a can in low Earth orbit, forged a difficult peace with an historic adversary, and have been granted an unexpected chance to redeem your storied history by a preoccupied President in a time of war. You did the impossible once. You can do it again. The Vision for Space Exploration is your gift by fate to return to the finest traditions of the American character: exploration and discovery. Future generations will hold you accountable if you fail because, instead of pulling together, all you did was find fault and never favor. Your leaders at the top know the difference between leadership and bureaucracy. The time for whining is over and the time for momentum is needed. Every day you come to work, you walk the path trod by Jim Webb, Bob Gilruth, George Low, Max Faget, Sam Phillips, and Wernher Von Braun. Why, I wonder, don’t you act like it?

To achieve great things you must risk everything

Here’s the truth the public must be made to understand about the Vision: people will die achieving it. Rockets blow up, spaceships fail, people make mistakes. Space is hostile and alien to human life. However, so are parts of the desert and the high mountains of the West, and the alluvial plain at the base of Louisiana. We journey onward, not because we believe that safety is assured, but because our lives require we achieve new science and understanding to improve our world. There are men and women that will take up that cause, knowing that they may be called upon to sacrifice everything to get it. Instead of giving some of them ridicule for their courage, we should give them our thanks.

Yes, there is majesty in relevance, and wonder and romance in your history and mission. But many don’t know or can’t remember why. To re-inspire the parents of the next generation—as well as their kids—will take a better understanding, not of NASA’s mission but of NASA’s relevance in the nation’s life and in the world. It will also take the use of new communications tools and strategies unlike any your agency has used in the past. Of course you should think out of the box. In fact, you should think out of the planet. Like the wizards of Henry V you need to bring the public along with you on your great journey, with a spark of a sorcerer’s magic to inspire the next generation. Otherwise the great promise of the Vision will never be realized.

Unlike Muggles everywhere this summer, just waving a magic wand or calling forth the spirit of your Apollo ancestors won’t help. To close with my Shakespearian analogy, what Mike Griffin and Shana Dale really need these days is a little touch of Harry in the night.