Wednesday, January 03, 2007

NASA Needs a New Publicist

Sean, over at Cosmic Variance, posted a great story on how the current generation is being spoiled by immediate technology and information access to the point of losing interest in the Space program. One of the major themes was the need for better PR, and I couldn't resist posting a comment on one of my own NASA PR experiences. Here it is for your reading pleasure...

I LOVE the suggestion about leveraging celebrities and the media to sell the space dream. Having worked at NASA back in the eighties and actually having built and handled a few instruments that reached orbit and even other planets, I am definitely sold on the dream and, at the same time, frustrated with the current realities of a largely underfunded bureaucracy that is today’s NASA. Despite all the frustrations, though, it has been a banner year for the agency results-wise with Hubble continuing to perform, the unstoppable Mars rovers, and the Nobel prize nod.

Yet with all of that, most of my friends and colleagues are simply unaware of what is really happening. It is no wonder nobody is interested or supportive of expanded budgets. They never even hear the science news amidst the clamor of popular celebrity-driven culture. (this, in fact was one of the key motivators to start my own science and technology blog.)

This post reminded me of a rather sad moment that supports the need for celebrity spokespeople. Back in the mid nineties, when I was the CTO at MicroDisplay, my girlfriend of that era, also a fine product of MIT, was recruited to present at the Discovery Magazine technology awards ceremony at Disney World, and I got to tag along and chat with some other folks from the MIT mafia that happened to be around the show. Several other luminaries and celebrities were recruited to present, including Bruce McCandless, the first Astronaut to pilot the MMU without any tether. Here is the link to the canonical image from his first untethered space walk. How cool is that?


The grand irony for me was that after the show, I happened to be sitting next to McCandless as we watched LeVar Burton, then playing Giordi Laforge on Star Trek: TNG get absolutely swarmed with fans, while nobody even gave McCandless a second glance. I turned to McCandless and asked him if he thought it was odd that people seemed more interested in the person that pretended to be in space, rather than the first person to actually fly a jet pack in space. He chuckled rather ruefully,and we just shook our heads together. The power of celebrity indeed. At least I had a great chat with the real space jockey all to myself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am going to college to be an aerospace engineer and I have always dreamed of working at NASA some day. I would love to go up in at least one mission even if something happend to the shuttle and I died in the end....I would do anything to work there and that's what I'm trying to accomplish by going to college...Do you have any other suggestions of how I could get there?