NASA’s “Follow Your Curiosity” graphic (linked) and tagline, courtesy NASA
NOTE: I’ll be on NPR’s “Marketplace Morning Report” with a few thoughts about NASA’s Curiosity outreach efforts tomorrow, Friday, August 3. For local schedules go to: http://www.marketplace.org/local-air-times-maketplace-morning-report
I’ve been watching the lead up to Curiosity’s landing on Monday, August 6 (1:31 am ET) with a mixture of excitement and bemusement. Excitement, because I’m a space policy consultant, a systems engineer, and I’ve done some work in mission operations from time to time. The design of the Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) phase of this mission is complex and, from both an engineering and an ops point of view, very, VERY sporty. It’s also a refinement of past Mars landing approaches and a test scenario for future landings – not just for rovers, but one day, perhaps, for components that could be assembled into habitats.
(See “Challenges of Getting to Mars: Curiosity’s Seven Minutes of Terror” – NASA/JPL’s action movie on the landing - here)
The bemusement comes from a different source, and that’s my nearly 10 years of work on strategic communications and NASA. Beginning in 2004, I struggled to help the entire spaceflight enterprise both in government and in industry come to terms with a shift in public perception that had been occurring – slowly but inexorably – since the Apollo landings of the late 1960′s. Strategic communications, which involves among other things a methodology that relies on data gathering and some careful consideration of which audiences you might want to reach, and why – was not being practiced within NASA at the time, at least not as I understood it. The underlying and nearly unshakeable assumption was that NASA (and particularly human space flight) was loved and valued by the nation and by its Congressional purse keepers, and always would be.
It came as something as a shock, therefore, when the results of a groundbreaking study I conducted indicated that this support was wide, but not deep. Multiple polls and studies conducted by others had suggested the same but mine drove home the point that there were major demographic disconnects between NASA and its public constituencies. One of the most troubling of these was among young people in their mid-twenties, who while admiring NASA for its achievements, just didn’t “relate”. NASA, it seemed, wasn’t particularly relevant to them or their lives.
With one, powerful exception: The Mars rovers.
Spirit and Opportunity were not just of interest, they were rock stars. The landings of the rovers had engendered the highest rates of “hits” to NASA’s servers that it had ever experienced in what was then a young web-based approach to disseminating information. JPL became the ultra-cool place to work. The rovers themselves had a huge following among young people who represented the first generation to grow up with the internet as the predominating technical, educational, conversational, and cultural force in their lives. And their passion for those two, heavily anthropomorphized, modern-day versions of “The Little Engine That Could” was a force unto itself. The rovers were a rolling advertisement for science, technical, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and careers, and fueled a renewed interest in robotics and remote imaging.
I conducted two follow up studies on young people. Already evident in 2004, their desire for engagement in the space program was increasingly evident in the data collected in 2006 and 2008. They brought plenty of ideas to the table for what we now think of as community-based, interactive technologies and applications – that is, social media. With regard to the rovers, they wanted to drive them, use them to explore, launch new ones, put new sensors on them. NASA hired me to help hone their strategic communications planning and outreach beginning in 2006, and later created a social media group that drove the agency into unchartered territory of engagement. In rapid succession Web 2.0 came into being, Apple’s iPhone was introduced, Twitter came online, @NASA embraced it all and the world changed, again.
Nothing is as easy is as it seems, however. In 2007 I published a paper on the challenges of sustaining funding and support for space exploration. In it I pointed out that cool videos on YouTube by themselves won’t get us to Mars. I talked alot about value, and stressed that “telling the story better” wasn’t enough. NASA and the budding commercial spaceflight industry had to deliver value AND learn how to talk about it in ways that were engaging and relevant if they were to expect continued support from Congress and from the public. One without the other was a short ticket to programmatic oblivion.
And now comes a fantastic science mission, hand-in-hand with what I’m calling “the Curiosity Campaign” – a well-done buildup of stories and press releases and interviews and tweet ups and videos, all topped off by a huge media event in New York City quite beyond anything NASA has ever done before…realized on giant Toshiba screens in the City That Never Sleeps in the middle of the night, yet.
Now, try as I might I cannot ignore my space policy DNA. Could the timing of all this have something to do with the budget battles that have waged all year about NASA’s priorities? Could be. Is it possible that one of NASA’s “target audiences” for the landing is Congress, a way of saying “see, we care about Mars, we’re still committed to going there” – a sentiment echoed by Administrator Charlie Bolden just yesterday? Of course.
But let’s face it, this is also a huge public event – and for me, is the culmination of trends I first saw in data that I gathered, analyzed, and disseminated 8 years ago. It is the coming together of the “spacepeeps” on Twitter who are the generation that answered the calls for greater interaction, engagement, and even hands-on involvement that first surfaced in those studies. And let me be clear – I have nothing directly to do with this campaign or the work leading to it . It is NASA that has realized the promise of interactive technology and continues to develop it, leading all government agencies in social media and outreach particularly to young persons who will shape the future of the nation. Students do, indeed, drive the rovers now, virtually at least - Curiosity on the XBox and via the free “Explore Mars” simulation and apps for a variety of smartphones available at NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory “Participate”! website. The simulations are chock full of data and visuals coming direct to you from the Red Planet. What other country on the planet is going to give you that, and alot more (for less than 1/2 of 1 penny of your tax dollar, BTW?!!)
I’m proud of the agency, proud of the brilliant technical/engineering/operations/scientific work it does, and proud of the value it provides to the nation. Whatever else it is, Times Square on Monday night is a celebration of the U.S. space program, of our inventiveness, innovation (space cranes!!) and drive to explore. Long live Curiousity!
Ed. Note: You can follow NASA’s Curiosity Rover on Twitter as @MarsCuriosity
Leave a Comment :Curiosity, Mars Rovers, NASA, Public Engagement, Public Outreach, Relevance, Social Media, Space Exploration, Space Policy, Strategic Communications, Value more...
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