VSE Apathy Woes

CNN posted an AP story on their science and technology page about NASA’s PR woes that has been making the rounds in the blogosphere today. The issue the article brings up is that the “Web generation” appears to be apathetic about “manned spaceflight”. These teenagers and twenty-somethings are going to be the ones footing much of the bill for NASA’s lunar exploration program, so apathy on their part is at least somewhat concerning.

I have to admit that I’ve never been much of a fan for NASA’s PR. A year ago when we were still up in Santa Clara, I took my wife and Jonny on a date to visit the Exploration Center at NASA Ames. We enjoyed a lot of the displays and exhibits, and generally had a pretty good time. On the way out, we passed one last poster that I think sums up the problem with NASA PR attempts at interesting the “Web generation”. The poster showed two kids wearing their hats backwards, wearing the latest “cool-kid” styles, with one of them carrying a skateboard, and wearing a walkman or something like that. The poster was trying to show how NASA technology was making all of the things that make “cool kids” cool possible. Across the top in big letters was the title “Yo NASA, What’s Up?”

We nearly died laughing. Tiff was still poking fun at it almost a year later. While I’m sure it sounded like a great idea to whoever thought it up, and while it was very professionally done, it suffered from one fatal flaw. It looked like a desperate attempt by some old fart to show the kids that while he’s old and overweight, he still knows how to groove with the best of them…To quote an otherwise worthless movie, “There’s nothing more pathetic than an aging hipster”.

Then there are the far too ubiquitous press releases where some piece of NASA technology gets compared to something out of Star Trek or Star Wars to which it bears almost no resemblance. Like the article about the solar-electric propulsion system on NASA’s DS-1 probe being “just like the engines that power the Millenium Falcon”. If I had a dollar for every lame attempt by NASA PR hacks to jazz-up news stories with irrelevant pop-culture references, I would be training in Russia for a Soyuz flight about now…

What NASA doesn’t need is more clever PR. Their PR is too clever by half already. They need a space program that’s actually relevant to kids. Kids love space. But by the time they grow up a bit and learn that NASA might just get back to the moon by the time they’re as old as their parents are, it really takes a lot of the excitement away. Mary Lynne Dittmar said in the article that “If you’re going to do a space exploration program that lasts 40 years, if you just do the math, those are the guys that are going to carry the tax burden”, refering to the youth. The problem is that if you’re doing a space program that takes decades to accomplish anything actually interesting to anyone outside of a few NASA centers, you’ve already lost the PR campaign before its started. There’s only so much lipstick that can be put on that pig.

So long as the major program NASA is focusing on is being treated as a welfare-for-nerds project, they’re going to have a hard time selling it to the youth. It’s entirely possible for NASA to accomplish a lot more, a lot quicker, and to have an exploration program that’s actually exciting to both youth and adults. An exploration program that people might actually care about and feel worth supporting. But doing that while also trying to keep aging Shuttle employees off the street is going to be a real challenge.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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16 Responses to VSE Apathy Woes

  1. dave w says:

    JG wrote:
    “It’s entirely possible for NASA to accomplish a lot more, a lot quicker, and to have an exploration program that’s actually exciting to both youth and adults…. But doing that while also trying to keep aging Shuttle employees off the street is going to be a real challenge.”

    The assumption being that there could be absolutely no jobs for these “aging Shuttle employees” in such an “alternative NASA” program such as you envision?… that such would intrinsically involve firing all of them and hiring a whole different set of people, rather than giving the former Shuttle workers opportunities to work in the new program? I can certainly see that it could get cast that way in politics – as a question of whether these workers do or don’t keep “Job X with Shuttle Contractor Y”, but I think that narrows the question in a way that creates what I think is a false dichotomy…

    -dave w

  2. Jon Goff says:

    Dave,
    The problem is that by nature, keeping a lot of people on the payroll keeps the fixed costs high. More importantly, they really wouldn’t be needed unless you had big shuttle derived vehicles to maintain. Most of those employees aren’t engineers, but skilled technicians. Unfortunately, if you’re doing things efficiently, I reall don’t see the need for that many of them.

    The best “middle ground” approach I see would be to go “DIRECT” to throw the workforce a bone, and then use the rest of the money for more interesting and useful approaches. But even that is problematic. It’ll still tie up most of the nearterm money, and still require a large standing army. It’s probably the best shuttle-derived approach, but that ain’t sayin much.

    ~Jon

  3. dave w says:

    Well, let’s see… with the present Shuttle workforce, they seem able to do on the order of 4 flights a year. With the same number of skilled technicians and a vehicle that was 1/10 as labor-intensive per flight as the Shuttle system, they could do 40 flights a year for that same fixed salary cost… (Or a bunch of different projects, each requiring some smaller number of skilled technicians, could operate in parallel for the same cost as the Shuttle monoculture…)

    Obviously this view implies an orientation towards having NASA do better and more interesting stuff at the same budget level, rather than “downsizing NASA” per se… but I find it hard to believe that there is no way for the “post-Shuttle Space Age” to treat this population of skilled technicians as a resource instead of a problem…

  4. murphydyne says:

    Given the topic of Jon’s post, and the fact that we both reference the Dittmar study, I thought I’d share some cold water that I just threw over at a space advocacy mailing list since it seems relevant.
    ———————————–

    I seem to be above the 35 y.o. cut-off date for ‘youth’, but I wasn’t for the Space Generation Forum way back in ’99 so I’m going to pitch in. Please don’t take my comments the wrong way, as I’m going to make some rather unsettling ones, and a few generalizations. I work as an analyst and I’m trying to convey useful information, not pass judgements.

    Here’s the problem in a nutshell: The Baby Boomers are trying to pawn off a rehash of their Daddy’s space program on the Millenials. The Gen Xers are so few, and don’t really count for anything since they all got laid off at NASA in the 90s, that they can be ignored. (I’m at the front edge of Gen X)

    The problem is that all of the Baby Boomers, who are squatting in their jobs for the next 5-10 years, are going to leave early on into the program. The trailing Boomers are going to have to deal with all the Millenials who really don’t give a squat about Mars according to Dittmar Associates. There’s a huge demographic gap between the outgoers and the incomings. Yet the incomings, the Millenials, are the ones who are ultimately going to have to pay for it, and implement it. What if they decide not to? What if they decide they want to try a different approach? No one knows because no one asked the kids, and those they did ask are all space koolaid junkies anyway.

    Working out in the trenches here at NSS-NT in Dallas, it’s very difficult to make progress. There is a LOT of ambivalence out there regarding space as we’re doing it now, because the space things that the people are interested in are not the space things they see their space program doing.

    For all the derision regarding Armageddon and Deep Impact, they did serve to sensitize the general public to the idea of Big Rocks from Space. But there doesn’t really seem to be any program regarding asteroids, and what’s this about something in the 2020s? NASA has recognized this to some extent so now there’s some kind of propoganda about Orion to an Asteroid. (another one-shot, not a real program) What the public does see is Hubble pictures of far distant galaxies and x-rays of black holes and radio waves of the Milky Way, but who’s minding the Back Yard?

    How is space going to free us from oil? Solar power sats? Give me a break, launching those huge solar panels is going to take forever and cost a fortune! We of course know that there are other ways of looking at it, like tapping directly into a 4.5Bn year power supply that we use second- and third-hand anyway. Use the resources of the Moon to make the job easier. Start small, but keep building and improving. This could involve a lot of JOBS. Blue collar type stuff that people can relate to. Who wouldn’t be a proud American to point up at the sky and say “Look son/daughter/other, your Mom/Dad/Other is right up there at that bright light securing our energy freedom!”

    Oh, you mean that other countries would be interested in buying the special alloys that we can only make in space? Well why didn’t you tell me? Of course any industry where only the U.S. has figured out the ways of making product that other countries want to buy at a great price is okay by me! That would help with our Balance of Trade.

    Do you see where this is going? No one is showing the people, especially the youth, how space can be of great benefit to our nation and our prosperity/posterity. “Inspiring” is a load of nonsense that masks a great many sins. The U.S. public is a cynical bunch, and most seem to be from Missouri. Thing is, folks are starting to show me that it can be done outside NASA.

    Problem is, when some guy tries to float an investment opportunity the savvy investor “due diligences” by calling NASA, and listens to some x-ray astromer tell him there’s no business case for space. So of course there isn’t, even though scientists and to a lesser extent engineers are not always the most competent folks to render business and financial judgement. But what do I know? I’m only an investment banker…

    The biggest disconnect is the Mission to Mars which NASA has made its Goal Of The VSE (which it isn’t). Yet the Dittmar study of 18-25 year olds (the front end of the Millenials and the last wee bit of the Gen Xers) shows that “With regard to human missions to Mars, fully 80% were either neutral or Not excited/interested.”

    So when NASA makes Mars the Goal Of The VSE (which it isn’t), then the kids aren’t buying it, in droves. Yet we expect them to fund and implement it? Think about that for a second. It’s very hard to sell someone something they don’t want to buy. It’s much better to find out what they do want to buy…

    So how do you get them interested?
    -Show them the benefits, and make them tangible. No one’s buying the “Inspiring” crap.
    -Involve them in the architecture. Listen to them when they tell you what you don’t want to hear.
    -Do it in the ways that they want, like Elaine’s videos, or I want to see a Lego Moonbase game that uses the same platform as their Lego Star Wars Original Trilogy PS2 game.
    -Don’t talk down to the kids, or at them. Talk with them, gently correcting their errors in knowledge.
    -Show them opportunity. Show them a chance to do better. Show them a reason the American economy, which has pretty much sold off its all of its legacy industries, is a good place to invest in the new and better.
    -Show them security. Start a better asteroid program. Do something more than show folks that you’re really good at spotting objects only a few days after their close call. (The issue: we have to look sunward, which our ground-based scopes really can’t do very well. This is a sensible reason to put instruments into space and the public gets it intuitively)
    -Show them how it benefits the Earth. Resource extraction in space is not a bad idea. Though most will be used for orbital stuff, some will find its way to Earth so that we don’t have to tear up our own planet to get it. People don’t want their planet tore up. They don’t want cyanide in their rivers and they don’t want toxins in their soils. Show them that space can provide a better way.
    -Tell them it ain’t free, it’s hard work, and it’s going to take a lot of capital investment. (and if they’re not up to it then they’re an un-American wuss 😉
    -Show them concrete steps, not shots in the dark. That recent NASA presentation on the South Pole Base was weak and full of caveats, and they didn’t really demonstrate any good reason for even having it other than as a gab fest. That’s why the public yawned. They are interested in space in some vague and ambiguous way they can’t really quantify or qualify (because they don’t have enough information to do so), but they recognise warmed over re-hash when they see it.

    The answer: NSS educational outreach at museums, planetariums, movies and more. Moon Day, Yuri’s Night, World Space Week, Space Day, Santa Space Toy Drive. We have a great time in North Texas. We talk to a lot of people of all different stripes. I learn to recognise demographic behaviour trends (I’m an analyst after all). I talk about the same space things over and over again. Asteroids are pretty close to the top. Mars isn’t. What NASA is telling the kids is that they don’t care what legacy they leave them, and NASA’s relevance will increasingly come into question. So we’re going to finish the ISS and abandon it to build an ‘outpost’ on the Moon, which we’ll abandon to send a crew to Mars? And guess who’s going to get to pay for it?

    I realize that this has not been a pretty picture painted, but it touches on a lot of fundamental truths. We’re in big trouble if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, and no one is painting a compelling picture of what we could be doing:

    Why don’t we have an “Orbital High, 90210” TV series about bright high schoolers at an orbital facility who go on space missions?
    Why are mainstream movies such dreck?
    Why can’t I get my LEGO Moonbase game?
    How come there aren’t collectible card series about rocket motors or a strategy decks to build a Moonbase the fastest while inflicting random asteroid strikes on opposing players?
    How come there are something like 5 different Astronomy magazines each month, but the only good human spaceflight magazine since Final Frontier, IMHO, is Espace Magazine which you can’t even get in this country?
    How come ‘Salvage One’ and ‘Plymouth’ haven’t been released on DVD? Go to the video store and the only thing you can find is somnolent stuff like “Mysteries of the Galactic Beyond” and “The Farthest Reaches of the Heavens”, but can’t find ‘GaiaSelene’.
    Why are the only plastic models at the crafts store Space Shuttles?
    Where can I get a plush Astronaut Snoopy?
    Why are there ten gazillion Apollo books, and people keep publishing more!?!
    That Full Moon nightlight is pretty darn cool.

    Engaging the public is not going to be an easy task. Engaging them meaningfully will be even harder. If the message and the underlying strategies are changed to make better sense then we’d probably have better luck. But space is going to be way, way down on folks’ priority lists for a while unless it starts showing how it can make things better for us in a much bigger way.

  5. Bill White says:

    Why?

    Why don’t we have an “Orbital High, 90210” TV series about bright high schoolers at an orbital facility who go on space missions? Why are mainstream movies such dreck? Why can’t I get my LEGO Moonbase game? How come there aren’t collectible card series about rocket motors or a strategy decks to build a Moonbase the fastest while inflicting random asteroid strikes on opposing players?

    Because NASA does not pursue making money from such things. It cannot, by law.

    Think about this — George Lucas made more money from Star Wars merchandise (think Legos) than he did from ticket sales.

    You are a financial analyst, right? Take a look at the revenue Ford and GM bring in from Ford Motor Credit and GMAC from selling insurance and auto loans. If Ford ONLY made cars, they would be sub-economic — well maybe they are anyway — but cobble together auto sales with the financial side and maybe GM makes some money.

    At a “Return to the Moon” conference in Vegas I sat in front of a guy from John Deere. He was there because he was assigned to learn about building earthmovers for the Moon. Pretty cool.

    Anyway, we started talking about toys and how my son has a John Deere pedal tractor he rides on the sidewalk. The guy says John Deere takes the toy and logo business VERY seriously and it adds a meaningful amount of revenue to the bottom line.

    NASA cannot sell advertising or do marketing but the private sector can. And its a two-fer — money flows to the company AND logo products build public awareness that a company is real.

  6. Bill White says:

    Follow up to this:

    Engaging the public is not going to be an easy task. Engaging them meaningfully will be even harder. If the message and the underlying strategies are changed to make better sense then we’d probably have better luck. But space is going to be way, way down on folks’ priority lists for a while unless it starts showing how it can make things better for us in a much bigger way.

    A private sector company that needed to engage young people to bring in revenue would learn how to do this — FAST!

    NASA? If they convince Congress to appropriate money jobs are secure.

    Solution? Close a business case WITHOUT money from Uncle Sugar.

  7. Kirk says:

    The business case won’t be space solar power. When I was at Georgia Tech we ran loads of studies on Mankins’ space solar power stuff.

    The really telling moment for me was when we assumed launch costs were zero–it still wouldn’t close economically. Zero launch cost eliminates any advantage of using lunar materials or asteroid materials.

    I don’t know how to make money in space, but I know it’s not space solar power.

    (and we were assuming awesome performance for the SSP: 50% efficient solar arrays, no radiation degradation, $0.25/kWhr electrical power sold on the ground…still didn’t close)

  8. Jon Goff says:

    Kirk,
    That’s really weird. I’d like to see the assumptions that went into that model. Mostly because I’ve heard of a lot of other studies who did get their cases to close once you have sufficiently cheap transport from earth and/or lunar materials. Also, was that business case starting from right now and assuming you had to wait a long time to develop the transportation systems, etc?

    I’m personally a bit skeptical of the near to medium term viability of space solar power, but hearing “it’s impossible to make the case close” makes me suspicious about the underlying assumptions.

    ~Jon

  9. Pete says:

    My best guess is that the market to go for is small inflatable condominiums in LEO. This would give people a place to stay while in space, whether they are wealthy individuals on holiday or engineers working on satellites, scientists, in the construction industry, or whatever. Having a place to stay would allow people to initiate start-ups in space, having people in space creates a market for CATS. From what I can see a trailer park in LEO seems to be the critical path, get that and everything else follows. A few hundred million might be sufficient for this – it needs far more of a smaller modular mass produced focus than Bigelow has currently given it. This general approach is I think something that can be sold to the younger generations – it offers them the hope of direct participation in a modern commercial context.

  10. Kirk says:

    Believe me, Jon, I went into the whole thing a big proponent and advocate of space solar power, but after working the problem and the modeling, I did a 180 and have been opposed ever since.

    Every assumption that could possibly be favorable to SSP was assumed, and then some (like free launch).

    The structures are just too big and the transmission system too complex and lossy. Everything adds up and you can’t make money. Take a look at this:

    http://entropyproduction.blogspot.com/2006/07/solar-power-satellite.html

    The failure of SSP and fusion to hold up to scrutiny is one of the reasons I took another look at fission and discovered the potential of thorium and the fluoride reactor…but that doesn’t require a space program. 🙁

  11. Karl Hallowell says:

    Hmmm, the space mirrors approach sounds intriguing. You could use them to illuminate night time crops or solar cells. Or even to light up an urban area. Such a system might be able to eliminate most needs for outdoor lighting. I don’t know if there’s a business case there though since the area to be illuminated has to be large.

  12. Mike Puckett says:

    You people are way over-analyzing this.

    So most late teens twentysomethings don’t seem very interested in space. It was this way 20 yeas ago too. Water is still wet and the sky is still blue.

    People in this demoraphic are interested in going to college, getting laid, getting wasted etc, etc. In othr words, they are still self-absorbed same as every post WWII generation.

    Its called being a young adult and its nothing new.

    Fortunately, it isn’t fatal for the most part to either them or NASA.

    They may be too lazy to care enought to support the VSE but they are also too lazy to care enough to kill it.

    Occam’s Razor is a wonderful thing.

  13. kert says:

    Kirk, if you only analyzed “large structures” approaches for SSP, you didnt do half of the work. Look up Mitsubishi Electric’s SolarBird concept for istance.
    Or this one:
    http://www.powersat.com/white_papers.html

    There are couple of critical tech hurdles in the “large solar sat” concept. Beamed power through atmosphere, large assembled structures in space are the obvious ones. Take out one of these with some out of the box thinking and you remove the constraints that make the game unwinnable.
    BTW, there are other applications to beamed power than getting suns energy down to earth, so a incremental approach utilizing this tech is possible.

  14. Kirk says:

    kert,

    I don’t see anything in that concept that addresses the basic problems of SSP–still a big transmitter and a big receiver…and there in the middle of the paper is the LV we were working on at Georgia Tech. The very model I told you didn’t close.

  15. Habitat Hermit says:

    Nasa & youth:
    Should we even care? I’m above 30 and believe an increasing human space presence is incredibly important, but Nasa? No not really… *bites tongue*.

    In-space solar power for Earth consumption:
    As I’ve said in another comment somewhere I don’t see Earth as the primary market but… saying it’s impossible as in forever un-economic even with zero launch costs?

    Kirk; what you are really talking about are the problems regarding energy transmission (and more precisely microwave beams) through the atmosphere, isn’t it? It doesn’t really have anything to do with launch costs or structures or anything except the properties of the atmosphere and how good it is at weakening all kinds of radiation right? (And lucky us that it is I might add). If so I agree but I still wouldn’t rule out that the future might hold work-arounds: there’s still so much we don’t know.

  16. Kirk says:

    Kirk; what you are really talking about are the problems regarding energy transmission (and more precisely microwave beams) through the atmosphere, isn’t it? It doesn’t really have anything to do with launch costs or structures or anything except the properties of the atmosphere and how good it is at weakening all kinds of radiation right? (And lucky us that it is I might add). If so I agree but I still wouldn’t rule out that the future might hold work-arounds: there’s still so much we don’t know.

    No, actually what I’m saying is, given a transmission frequency and a distance between a transmitter and receiver, there is a relationship is the sheer size of the transmitter and the size of the receiver necessary to transmit power at a given efficiency. One of the things that shocked me about SSP was discovering that for a given frequency, distance, and efficiency, the size of the transmitter and the size of the receiver is independent of power transmitted. In other words, you have to build a huge transmitter and a 10km rectenna whether you’re transmitting a milliwatt or a gigawatt.

    That kind of unfavorable scaling means that subscale SSPs will either suffer from horrible inefficiencies or require full-scale transmisssion and reception apparatuses. It is that difficulty in earning the first bit of revenue from SSP that was one of the huge economic drawbacks in the model.

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