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.