As a life-long NASA geek (and former employee of a NASA center), I pay reasonably close attention to the goings on at NASA. I spotted something in my Facebook feed, though, that made me roll my eyes about how not to inform the public about something that should be of great interest.
On my Facebook “news” feed today, I spotted this posting directly from NASA (as opposed to some private “space news” outlet, and there are many good ones). I presume it’s trying to build excitement about the Orion program. What’s Orion? From the Orion home page:
NASA’s Orion spacecraft is built to take humans farther than they’ve ever gone before. Orion will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.
Orion’s first flight test, called Exploration Flight Test-1, will launch this year atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37. This test will evaluate launch and high speed re-entry systems such as avionics, attitude control, parachutes and the heat shield.
In the future, Orion will launch on NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System. More powerful than any rocket ever built, SLS will be capable of sending humans to deep space destinations such as an asteroid and eventually Mars. Exploration Mission-1, scheduled for 2017, will be the first mission to integrate Orion and the Space Launch System.
I hope you were able to read that without falling asleep. So here’s how they’re trying to generate public interest and awareness of Orion, by posting this infographic and caption on Facebook today:
First, I’m going to ignore (ahem) that they ask a “Did you know” question above the graphic without ending it a question mark. Poor writing, but let’s talk about the “infographic” instead.
Are they trying to build awareness, or panic? “My god! NASA is shooting a spacecraft at an airliner! ‘Did you know’ that it’ll be going 29,000 MPH (46,670 km/h), which according to NASA is 50 times faster than a passenger jet? There’s no way they’ll be able to turn fast enough to avoid getting hit!”
But it gets worse if you dig.
I clicked on the link above the graphic to “learn more” about this project, which I don’t know a lot about. Comfortably near the top of the page was a list of press releases about Orion, with the most recent, NASA, Navy Prepare for Orion Spacecraft to Make a Splash, at the top.
And the first factoid in that article to hit my eye? “After enduring the extreme environment of space, Orion will blaze back through Earth’s atmosphere at speeds near 20,000 mph….” (emphasis added).
Seriously: can’t they even get their basic, highlighted facts straight? Is it 29,000 or 20,000 mph? (And I will even ignore [ahem] the style inconsistency between “MPH” and “mph”.) Which figure are we supposed to believe?
Worse, the word “Mars” isn’t anywhere in the story. Isn’t that the more interesting thing? We’re going to Mars? Cool! What are we going to do there? Yet the story doesn’t mention such a mission.
After digging and digging through the Orion home page, going through all 11 pages of press releases, I didn’t find a single story that had the word “Mars” in the title. That’s when I went to find the “About Orion” box, way down the page (and copied above) that mentions that Orion might “eventually” be going to Mars.
After doing some more research, I don’t find anything about an approved mission to Mars, but the earliest they could launch if they do get funding is the year 2020. Absolutely NASA should be doing long-range planning, and absolutely they should be doing public outreach, but if such a mission hasn’t even been designed yet, then the “return from Mars at 29,000 MPH” is speculative at best.
So where did the “near 20,000 mph” figure come from? By digging through the press releases, I found that the first test flight, scheduled for December 2014, will lift the spacecraft to 3,600 miles above the Earth’s surface, not anywhere near Mars, and it’s that mission that will return “at speeds near 20,000 mph.”
Not as exciting as a hurtling “SPEED DEMON” spacecraft returning from Mars skimming by a jetliner, is it?
The Message from NASA
So we get several messages from NASA in all of this:
- The most glorious endeavor of mankind — the exploration beyond our home planet — is so boring to the people doing the work that they feel they need to come up with “gee whiz” bullshit statistics to make it sound exciting. They failed miserably at even that.
- It’s more important to grab an insubstantial micro-fact (the return speed of a proposed mission some years into the future) than talk about what the spacecraft can do for humanity (enable humans to go to Mars!)
- That somehow, this might be dangerous not to the humans launching to another planet, but rather airline passengers here on Earth, and that is the best thing to highlight.
I can remember the 1960s, when we were told facts about what was going on with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. What each launch was meant to accomplish or demonstrate, or allow the astronauts to learn or practice. And it was all for a singular, clear goal: landing men on the moon and returning them safely home. To bring back samples of the lunar surface for long-term analysis. We were told what the failures meant, and told about the clear risk of having failures. (You do know that three Apollo astronauts died as they were working out how to accomplish that audacious goal, right?)
But what do we get today? The speed of the spacecraft coming back from Mars, without even saying that we’re planning for a Mars mission — the whole concept of a Mars mission is not evident on the spacecraft’s web page. Indeed, the goal of a Mars mission isn’t even worthy of an Orion press release!
NASA Needs to Do Better
I’m sure that Orion is a pretty interesting program. Its capabilities should make Apollo capsules look like the tiny tin cans that they were. But the best thing they can say about it is how fast it goes when falling millions of miles from Mars? C’mon, NASA! Tout the real facts! Give us some cool infographics on what it can do! What sort of exciting mission it enables! Why it’s worth spending the money to send men (and women) to Mars!
This can be done without implying that airliners are at risk if they use capable and talented writers to bring interesting and important facts to the public’s attention, rather than hacks using inconsequential gee-whizzery that ignores what the space program is all about.
NASA: you can do much, much better. Those of us paying your bills deserve it.