NASA Misses a PR Opportunity with LCROSS

Unfortunately, there seems to be a failure of imagination at NASA in recent years with regard to capturing the world’s interest and building excitement about NASA’s mission. That directly translates into reduced budgets and fewer engineers and scientists overall, as well as in those who choose a career in space exploration. Indicative of a larger problem, the overall sentiment is negative on the LCROSS mission–for all the wrong reasons, but as I make the case here, that’s really a result of the failure of NASA to inspire public.

I am an electrical engineer and a life-long NASA enthusiast. As a young boy, I watched the lunar landings and it fired my imagination–my spacecraft drawings started then. When I was about 14, I sent NASA some designs for a variable camber wing, a VTOL aircraft and a combination turbo-jet, ram-jet, rocket engine for single stage to space. They replied with a nice letter thanking and praising me and enclosed a huge and wonderful packet of information with full-color glossy layouts of planned missions, spacecraft designs etc. I was enthralled for many months and inspired for a lifetime.

Why do I say this? I watched the LCROSS impact with anticipation, as many did around the world, and could not have been more disappointed. That is, unless I had been one of the people who camped out all night in the Western US around giant TV screens and telescopes. When interviewed, those people were disappointed to have seen nothing. This is not the first time that the real-time NASA media delivery has been lackluster, and there have been bright spots, but the trend is down.

As far as the general viewing audience is concerned, It won’t matter if some days or weeks from now, spreadsheets of instrument data show that there are interesting chemicals and tons of water, the moment was lost. How is it that the video was poorer than that of the lunar landing 40 years ago? I suspect it has to do with having ultra-high resolution cameras needed for the analysis. But that’s where the failure comes in. Not a technical failure, but one of imagining what it will look like to a non-technical observer. Choppy “video” composed of high-res images at 1Hz just looks uninteresting and even low-tech. In addition to any high-res cameras, there should have been a standard resolution TV camera delivering real-time images at a normal frame rate. This is for general consumption rather than for analysis, yet one wonders what is missed by having such a low frame rate in any case.

The view from the shepherd craft was not the best perspective either. A small probe giving a sideways look with real-time video would have been much more interesting and may also have yielded good data for analysis. I believe there was an lunar orbiting probe coming along 90 seconds later, but the TV coverage didn’t even bother with that after seeing the initial, from their perspective, non-event. Besides, people like explosions, not plumes. I know that may not be science, but science doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

From the perspective of many observers, they saw dull shots of the moon slowly getting closer and then stop. This was interspersed with a very boring looking control room showing the backside of ordinary looking computer monitors with wires dangling just like in their own home. The room was manned by what must be inscrutable geeks since they seemed excited over something that no-one saw. This reinforces the idea that engineers and scientists are dull people who get excited over some numbers or scribbles on a chalk board. Remember, I am and engineer and sometimes I do get excited over such things, but I like a good Mythbusters type gratuitous explosion too.

What I think NASA needs is a serious overhaul of its PR group. They need to amp it up and have some dynamic coverage. My cable provider doesn’t even bother carrying the NASA channel. I think that says something. They need to spend the extra $49 to put a plain old TV camera on these probes. (Yeah I know it’s not that cheap or simple, but it is from the world’s perspective.) They should have their own host for the “show”. They need to make science actually exciting for ordinary people. I really don’t care if anyone thinks this is somehow selling out. The selling out I worry about is letting the idea of science and engineering as fun, interesting and exciting die in the minds of the general population. I also think NASA needs to emphasize the spin-off benefits in a more public way. Most people have no idea how many things in their everyday lives have spring from the space program.

One final point. If NASA wants to get people interested in a Mars mission, the they should consider putting a probe down near Olympus Mons; dropping one in or around the Valles Marineris canyon system; deploying a gossamer-winged flier that goes though the canyon and circles the great volcano. Then you’ll get some real excitement. The Mars rovers are amazing technical achievements and have sent us excellent images and other data. However, the images and data are exciting because they come from Mars more than anything else. Perhaps that ought to be enough–but it isn’t. Given the inherent mission risks and costs, NASA has been understandably cautious in their choices for landing zones, but when you think about it, it would be like sending a probe to Earth and putting it down in the salt flats. Consider what you’d be missing–in science–in beauty–in firing the imagination.

Edited from an original post on 2009-10-11 at (now defunct):


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