NASA Outreach on Social Media

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:

Facebook image posted by NASA

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.

27 Responses to NASA Outreach on Social Media

  1. Hank in Charlottesville, VA August 31, 2014 at 2:50 pm #

    Great analysis of the Orion posting. I hope that NASA is not falling into the mindset of so much of the mainstream media that considers the general public to be a bunch of knuckle dragging Neanderthals. I so wish that media in general would stop dumbing down the news and report to us like we are actually adults.

    The ironic thing is, when there is something going on that’s actually interesting, web sites reporting on those things are swarmed with traffic, even way back 20 years ago when hardly anyone was online yet. There is a strong hunger for real information. -rc

  2. Edmund in Houston, TX August 31, 2014 at 5:16 pm #

    The Orion program is in a strange place right now. They don’t have a defined mission, as NASA has deleted all the planned missions for it over the years, starting after the current administration took office. Originally it had three near-term defined missions (ISS crew transfer and lifeboat; ISS cargo delivery; lunar missions with crew and extended loiter in lunar orbit without crew) and a long-term mission (crew transfer to a Mars mission and crew return from that mission). The ISS mission was there in case the commercial crew competition was a bust. The lunar mission was the real goal for NASA and Mars was the eventual goal. But all that went away.

    The lunar and Mars missions both require high-speed entries at up to 29,000 mph. So, that’s what is left as a design requirement. As the defined missions were dropped, the requirements were rewritten for unspecified “deep-space” missions that NASA will define at some point in the future, possibly after the next presidential elections.

    Interesting details, thanks. I still think they should do a better job of public outreach. -rc

  3. Dave, Colorado September 1, 2014 at 7:07 am #

    One thing that bugs me to no end, in addition to everything you noted, is the mention of SLS/Orion as the “shuttle replacement” all over official NASA tweets and articles lately. This drives me crazy, because NASA has also invited Sierra Nevada, SpaceX, and Boeing to step forward with a shuttle replacement for LEO missions. So which is it NASA? Or do you not have organization-wide meetings so that everyone is on the same page? The SLS is supposed to do VASTLY different things, and only serve LEO needs in case of backup. At least that’s what NASA used to say….

  4. Rollie in Austin September 1, 2014 at 5:38 pm #

    Well, Mr. Re-write: What I would like to see, instead of just the complaint, valid as it is, is a “This Is True” style re-write the way “it should have been.” Maybe even with a cute tagline — or a contest to pick a cute tagline. Negative criticism has a role, but it should never be the ONLY role. Let’s have you, as the “trained professional” show the world how it is done. Thanks.

    Well, I can’t rewrite all of their press releases. But the two things I quoted here are the infographic, and the “About Orion” box. For the former, I wouldn’t have published that at all as it’s ridiculous. But sure: I’ll take a stab at the “About” box.

    NASA’s Orion spacecraft was built to launch humans into space atop any of several of the launch vehicles — rockets — currently used by the United States, with the aim of putting humans farther into space than ever before. Not just the moon, but perhaps some day to Mars, and return them safely home.

    Orion’s first unmanned flight test will launch this year atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral to evaluate launch and high speed re-entry systems. In 2017, Orion will launch on NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System.

    That took less than 5 minutes, is more understandable to the average person, and isn’t so fact- or jargon-laden to put people to sleep. In other words, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to communicate effectively. -rc

  5. Tim - Houston, TX September 1, 2014 at 6:49 pm #

    As anyone who surfs the internet knows, the Orion program just needs to wait until the next time Mars is so close to the Earth that it appears in the night sky almost as big as the Moon. So if you believe everything that lands in your in-box these days, someone will surely announce Mars’s next close encounter with Earth around August of next year.

    I would’ve written more about this topic, but the Kardashians are about to come on and I don’t want to miss them!

    I know your tongue is firmly in your cheek, but indeed apathy is rampant among the public. But not all of the public. Good information should be available for the portion that cares enough to look for it. Unfortunately, it’s just not available via Orion’s “outreach” efforts or its web site home. At least, not without one hell of a lot of digging. -rc

  6. Chris B - Cape Town, South Africa September 1, 2014 at 7:05 pm #

    Quite apart from all the PR “FAIL”s that you have mentioned, one look at the web page is enough to make me close it. Bizzy, bizzy, bizzy — the kind of cluttered, over-wrought mess that gives me an anxiety attack the moment I see it. How am I going to assimilate so much information? How am I going to filter any of it? How am I going to skim it to know what I’ve covered and what I need to look at? All too much of a challenge, sorry, you lost me already. Click.

    Just so. The real problem is, the nuggets of “information” (as you charitably call it) is buried in masses of jargon and fluff that it’s simply not worth wading through it to get the details of what’s real, and what’s pie-in-the-sky “hope it can do this …if only Congress gives us another billion.” When it comes to something so potentially interesting and awe-inspiring, that’s just sad. -rc

  7. Paul. West Cornwall, CT September 1, 2014 at 9:30 pm #

    It would appear that NASA has competition from SpaceX, and their timetable is about 4 years out.

    If you mean they’re about 4 years behind, despite getting a head start, you’re correct! -rc

  8. Doc - Mexico September 1, 2014 at 10:41 pm #

    I agree… that was a piss-poor effort at marketing a program that needs all the public support it can get. Maybe they could talk to the person(s) responsible for this admirable presentation for some instruction.

    Wow: that’s one hell of a production effort! And indeed, not created by NASA. -rc

  9. Ernest, Urana, Australia September 2, 2014 at 10:26 am #

    Back in the 1960s the NASA press releases were probably written by geeks and scientists, thus simple and straight forward. Today they’re probably written by some marketing management graduate trained in hype and BS, thus they style of release you now see while they try to ‘sell’ the program. I suspect the only reason they didn’t use the traditional ‘wait, there’s more’ actual wording is they did a cut and paste change and forgot it.

    I agree, this is very bad and only their website has less quality than the release. Back in the late 1990s I did a course on website design and the NASA website does everything that was on the instructors ‘Do NOT do this’ list.

    I can only hope they take your comments in and fix the issues by replacing the idiot doing it, except it’s likely to be a presidential appointment person and nothing can be done about the idiot. I nearly used a more traditional description of them but decide it could cause some complaints about trained animals.

  10. Dave, Colorado September 2, 2014 at 11:29 am #

    Ernest is exactly right! I think the current NASA administration feels like they need to dumb things down to make them accessible (not sure why…). Those old NASA reports, many of them originally on 16mm film and digitized to DVD beautifully frame by frame by Mark Gray at Spacecraft Films, did the job just fine. I remember those old cartoons showing things like command module reentry (even with little thruster effects to show pitch/roll/yaw maneuvers), how the LCG works on the moon, etc. etc. and they were all very effective at conveying information to the public and in anticipating questions the audience may have. And I must admit — my two kids who are 12 & 10 years old enjoy those old reference books and reports and even frequently go pull from the shelf the old NASA Historical Data Book volumes, Apollo by the Numbers, etc. People are smart, especially people interested in space. A person’s interest isn’t usually sparked because they read some idiotic tweet. In my kids’ case (and mine!) it came from learning at the feet of a passionate educator in a classroom setting.

  11. Viktor, Boron, CA September 3, 2014 at 4:01 am #

    I saw the first time the space shuttle was airborne, 1977, and I saw the last landing here and now they are tearing down the mating tower at NASA Armstrong facility. Where are they planning to land the Orion? We are the best facility for initial “I have no idea how much room this thing will need from touchdown to final stop”. The burning question is will the Orion be a BioHazard after it… We all misunderstood, the airliner is the landing vehicle. The Orion will mate with the airliner in midair and then land at Florida.

    I had assumed that, because it’s Apollo-capsule-shaped, that it would splash down in the ocean as Apollo capsules did. But you made me look. Since the Orion site is so convoluted, I went to Wikipedia:

    Orion is Apollo-like, not a lifting body or winged vehicle like the now retired Shuttle. Like the Apollo Command Module, Orion would be attached to a service module for life support and propulsion. It is intended to land in water but past versions had included plans for it to land on land. Landing on the west coast would allow the majority of the reentry path to be flown over the Pacific Ocean rather than populated areas. Orion will have an AVCOAT ablative heat shield that would be discarded after each use.

    I’m not aware of any airliners being involved, other than perhaps taking the crew home post-mission. -rc

  12. Jeff, London, Ontario, Canada September 5, 2014 at 8:19 pm #

    In the 1960s and 70s, I regularly wrote to NASA, primarily the Kennedy and Johnson centres, but others as well, asking for photos and booklets. Even though I’m in Canada, they sent me tons of stuff, all of which I still have. Their PR was fantastic back then — but so was the space programme.

    I wonder if the majority of the current PR staff at NASA really know anything about the space programme or if it’s just their current job as they hop from contract to contract. Far too many PR websites and media releases are written for an audience with the attention span of a gnat, whether or not they really do, and I think a lot of them are written by people who are far more concerned with style than substance.

  13. Jim, California September 5, 2014 at 10:21 pm #

    The outreach was awful.

    But a bigger FAIL was not having a Shuttle replacement ready to fly before retiring the Shuttle.

    The Russians don’t seem to have much trouble landing on land. Don’t know why NASA does. They may not be able to land on a runway in Florida at first but finding flat open space near Edwards should be possible.

    Private vs. NASA efforts is a complex subject. Private guys seem to be looking at landing on land. Their goal is to make money.
    Meanwhile, I can’t imagine sending a crew to Mars in nothing bigger than a re-entry capsule. Very long trip each way.

    As for the comment about launching when Mars is close — WRONG!

    Because of travel time, launches to Mars are scheduled to take place many months before Mars is closest. The idea is to get the space craft to where Mars will be at the time it is close.

    A really big issue is you need a more spacious vehicle for many months of time in flight each way and for the many months you have to stay on Mars before return launch window. That takes a boatload of fuel because you have to bring water, food, air and fuel to slow down for Mars landing and take off. Plus shield people from in flight radiation.

    It may be possible to send equipment to Mars separately that can process Martian water for drinking and give you hydrogen and oxygen for fuel for return. If you can find enough water.

    Such technology may be tried on Moon before sending people to Mars is feasible.

    Would require much fuel or an orbital capture vehicle but it might be practical to assemble a re-useable transit vehicle at ISS and bring it back to ISS. Then you just need to land a descent vehicle on Earth.

    Eventually there could be re-useable vehicles for transit back and forth from Earth to ISS that can land on a runway.

    Sounds sort of like what some wanted to do with Apollo but station was too expensive and might take too long so we flew Earth to Moon without a re-useable component.

  14. Neil, Schenectady,NY September 5, 2014 at 10:37 pm #

    Sigh… I was born just a few years before Armstrong took that first step. I believed I would see much more in the way of crewed missions Mars and beyond long before now. Instead NASA has gone through one misguided program after another. It’s bad enough they are losing a lot of focus and money, now they seem to have people better suited to selling the latest diet fad doing their ‘advertising’.

    Fortunately there are other taking up the challenges. SpaceX, Virgin, and others.

    What I find interesting is that ‘Orion’ was the name of nuclear powered launch system that we COULD have build back in the 50’s. Which would have (in theory) been able to take a crew on missions to the outer solar system. I’ve read the specs for a mission to Saturn.
    Guess I wont be opening my Pizza franchise at Tranquility base anytime soon ):

  15. Jeff in Georgia September 6, 2014 at 5:24 am #

    I’m old enough to remember when landing on the Moon was boring. We all watched the first one, but after that it was geeks only.

    Landing on Mars? Meh — we’ve already landed on another celestial body. BTDT. I’d rather know what the Kardashians are up to — now that’s interesting!

  16. Dave, Colorado September 6, 2014 at 11:48 am #

    Jim, don’t be so hasty to fault NASA for not having another launch system ready as soon as the shuttle was done. Keep in mind that the last time NASA switched launch platforms was between ASTP (1975) and the shuttle (1981), about 6 years of unmanned flights. Going by that timetable, we’re still in a decent spot until Boeing, Sierra Nevada, or SpaceX have one of their platforms approved, built, tested, and ready for manned missions. In fact, this next generation will be the only time since the Saturn 1B and Saturn V that NASA will have TWO launch platforms active simultaneously — SLS/Orion, and the aforementioned winner between SpaceX, Boeing, and SNC. So for me, I’m more than happy to wait it out for a few years.

  17. Garison, Florida September 6, 2014 at 1:37 pm #

    “NASA is shooting a spacecraft at an airliner!” I didn’t see that. It’s clear from the image that the spacecraft is falling behind the airliner, and that the airliner is moving forward. It might be a near miss, but it will be a miss.

    Also, I understand that the images are juxtaposed simply for the juxtaposition. Are there really people who think NASA is flinging objects at airplanes?

    See? They’re so incompetent they didn’t even aim it at the airliner correctly. -rc

  18. Andy, Strafford, VT September 6, 2014 at 6:13 pm #

    It’s ridiculous to say that Orion’s speed is 46,670 km/h. That implies that NASA knows the speed to an accuracy of ±5 km/h.

    A speed written as “29,000 mph” means “29,000 mph to the nearest 1000”. The conversion to metric should have the same precision, which would be 47,000 km/h, not 46,670 km/h.

    Excellent point. -rc

  19. Jim, California September 6, 2014 at 8:25 pm #

    Dave: I was upset over not having a shuttle replacement ready because we now have continuous presence on ISS. Which we spent a ton of money on. Most of the $150 billion was paid by NASA. And We have committed to funding through 2024.

    And the U.S. is now in the position of having to pay Russia to fly our people to and from ISS at the same time we are trying to sanction them for Ukraine.

    That is a different situation than having a simple gap in flights.

  20. Cathy, Sweden September 6, 2014 at 9:38 pm #

    I saw something comfortable going out but something more practical coming back. I also thought that one of NASA’s bigwigs had a kid that took a marketing with graphics class and gave them the job.

    I, like you want to see what is coming up in the program, such as Mars missions, but I also want to see why they are planning these things. What are we to get in the way of technology, future comforts, what will going to deep space give us practically? What have we learned from the moon rocks? I may be a knuckle dragging neanderthal, and perhaps putting my question in Google will answer these questions, but a marketing push to get the public interested in NASA should aim at “what will my money get me in return (or my grandchildren)? THAT is my question for them.

  21. Dave, Colorado September 7, 2014 at 8:43 am #

    Fair enough, Jim. But again, not having a replacement platform up and running at the moment the current platform is terminated is not the norm. And the ONLY reason we ever had two platforms simultaneously was because we were swapping stages between them (Saturn 1B’s upper stage was also used on the Satrun V). The expenses involved in maintaining the current platform and simultaneously developing, building, and testing the second platform would have pushed the NASA budget over the ledge. This is why we never see the old platform go and the new platform emerge in rapid succession. We will have a new platform for LEO deployment, and a new platform for Lagrangian, lunar, and deep space deployment as well, and they’ll be operating together.

    The political angle is relevant, but the current spat is minuscule compared to post-Yalta sentiments between east and west in the 50s through the 80s. And, again, drawing on Apollo-Soyuz Test Project as an example, the two space agencies have clearly demonstrated in the past that the Cold War or any military excursion, for that matter, is not fought among space agencies. I know ASTP is often overlooked except for minor accomplishments (like Slayton’s first and only flight, etc.), but it was a political flight at its core (and so were Apollo 8 & 11). The situation with the ISS feels extremely similar to me, perhaps even more innocuous. Given our history with Russia and the ESA, I suspect the current issues with the Ukraine won’t halt the space programs from progressing, just as it was in the 70s. They seem oddly immune from political issues on the ground.

    Anyway, I think the NASA P.R. machine needs to go back to its roots — report the facts, drop the drama (rather, let the people romanticize the missions, instead of trying to spin them this way), and steer clear of political events. The last of these they still seem to do fairly well, and if our new platforms have a chance, NASA will continue “business as usual,” and let the despots in DC & the Kremlin duke it out without using them as tools (again, like it was in previous decades).

  22. Randy, Bellevue, WA September 7, 2014 at 11:53 am #

    Neil DeGrasse Tyson is perhaps the best spokesman for NASA — and he doesn’t work for NASA! He even convinced me that manned flight has a good purpose….

    The NASA budget is pretty small considering what they do. They are the pioneers — the ones who go ‘where no one has gone before’ because there is no short or mid-range economic drivers to do so. It is, in this sense pure research and best handled by a government agency. I know, this is a controversial view with SpaceX and others working towards cost-effective low earth orbit trips, but people forget that in order for private enterprise to provide cheaper production flights NASA (and to be fair, the Soviet Union) had to figure out how to do it at all. Rather than providing ‘space trucks’ for commercial interests NASA should be tapering that business off and get back to what they do best, exploration.

    The space shuttle is a great example of how, with the best intentions, NASA got sidetracked with ‘high production run’ space travel. Pressure to perform miracles led to over optimistic analysis and a really cool design was chosen that was unfortunately not cost effective. The shuttle program failed, not because there were two fatal accidents, but because it was based on a flight schedule that could not be met with the other restrictions — including frequent budget cuts by a less than science-friendly congress.

    Unfortunately I don’t see the Mars mission taking flight anytime soon, unless we drag the war hawks into the discussion with a waving US flag planted on Mars. Too much politics, too many people believing that ‘government is the problem’ to allow expense on this scale. We are likely to cede our place in the world, not through lack of ability but through lack of trying.

    The only way through I can see is for us to join eloquent speakers for scientific exploration like Dr. Tyson. Yes, I am afraid this is a political issue like all issues in the public sphere, but we have the right of it. I just hope I’m wrong, and we can convince the rest of the country.

  23. Dave, Colorado September 7, 2014 at 2:06 pm #

    Well said, Randy. I am a freelance Apollo historian with some understanding of events now in the distant past, and I will confess that as “neat” as it might be to see a manned mission to Mars, AT THIS JUNCTURE it would feel to me like nothing more than a publicity stunt. Our rovers are more capable than ever before of exploring the surface and the upper crust of Mars, and proving a Mars orbit rendezvous with a surface sample return would be a piece of cake.

    The NASA budget — You are spot on with that! No agency has endured more and more cuts and continually cranked out more and more return on a diminishing bankroll than NASA. They keep cutting, and NASA keeps the output going. LOTS of lessons to learn in operational efficiency by watching how NASA thrives despite dropping programs and budgets.

    And sadly, I agree with your political assessment. It was politics that put Al Shepard in space, Neil Armstrong on the moon, and until another nation “threatens” American “superiority” in space, beyond-LEO missions will not be happening. And I would go so far to say that even a Chinese lunar landing won’t wake up the world the way some people (pundits at the Discovery Channel, for example) think it will. It will be politics that puts manned missions back on top, and until then, we will have to settle for fancy probes, robots, and flybys.

    And we learn plenty from fancy probes, robots, and flybys (as you note). But I agree: even a Chinese man on the moon won’t wake us up. But them mining the moon might…. -rc

  24. Laura, Florida September 8, 2014 at 6:03 am #

    The reason NASA’s PR is lackluster is because a contractor is doing the job — a contractor whose company has endured repeated reductions in force and continual give-back of awarded monies while continuing to do more for NASA. NASA’s attempt to be “more efficient” with its shrinking budget involves cutting contractors to the bone (60-70% less than Shuttle-era to NASA’s 5% less); micro-managing its tiny contracts so that civil servants look busy; and in-fighting between directorates over who gets the biggest share of the budgets.

  25. Dave, Colorado September 8, 2014 at 1:22 pm #

    Neil Tyson’s push for manned flights is noble. And NASA historian William David Compton touched on this very thing in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (excellent book if you like space politics, BTW. Also free to download from NASA website). In the book he states that the human psyche can make judgment calls on the spot which a rover or probe cannot. However, I’m not sure if Compton way back in the 1970s could predict the image clarity and sensor arrays with which we equip our rovers today. Example: Lunakhod or something like Viking probably never would have seen or noticed the “orange soil” that Jack Schmitt discovered on Apollo 17, primarily because of their poor image quality vs. the act of Schmitt almost standing right on top of the orange lunar soil when he shouted out his discovery to Cernan & the backroom at Houston. Compton only considers probes as they were back then, and so human exploration in his mind made perfect sense — we see better, we make judgment calls, we can avoid danger despite what the flight computer says (ala Armstrong’s 1202 & 1201 alarms), we can alter the mission for greater scientific yield, etc. etc. Today, I think the rovers and probes can do just as well as a manned mission could on Mars — with less cost, less danger, and a potentially equal scientific haul. It seems to me that until there’s a viable political push for manned missions (which is what kickstarted manned missions to begin with…), probes/rovers are all we have. And even then, opponents of exploration constantly require us to justify the expense for those, let alone for manned missions.

    And to finish drawing your conclusion, today’s probes do see better than humans. I haven’t heard Tyson’s pitch for manned exploration, so I can’t evaluate it, but until we’re willing to send humans into space instead of funding futile wars, robots will have to do. -rc

  26. bandit, Albuquerque September 14, 2014 at 7:42 pm #

    There are some related issues:

    1. NASA’s mission is doing stuff only a nation-state can do. I have no problem with SpaceX, etc — it’s time to hand off certain tasks to private companies.

    2. We, as a nation, have become very risk-adverse. When the Challenger blowed up (technical term), the only voice of sanity was Chuck Yeager. They asked him what his take was. He said “It’s an experimental aircraft. they blowed up — it’s the nature of experimental aircraft.” What should be done? “Find the problem and fix it.” Would you ride on the Shuttle? “After they found and fixed the problem, yes.”

    3. The Congress is so deadlocked (for very stupid and silly reasons, right now mainly the Republicans), that anything not war related has little chance of passing. NASA is starved of money. The return on investment is staggering, but the few voices of sanity are lost in the noise.

    I am all for probes. The ROI is much greater than most human missions. BUT the human exploration is what fuels the passion and excitement. The state of science education in the US is pathetic and sad. I give out $1 “Eagle back” coins (Susan B Anthony on the front). The number of people under 40 who have no clue about the moon landing is pathetic. (I am not counting the idiots who think it was a hoax. The definitive proof is the Soviet Union tracked the missions. If they got a *hint* it was faked, they would have screamed loud and long.)

    There is hope. When Felix Baumgartner stepped out of the capsule, I was in a room with hundreds of science students. Everybody sucking in air at the same time lowered the air pressure — you could feel it. So, we do have kids who are interested in science We need to encourage them at least the same as we do athletes. Scientists and engineers change the world all the time, athletes rarely do.
    And if NASA is looking for landing sites on land, New Mexico has a great Spaceport. Virgin Galactic has moved in and will be starting launches. The runway is built, and it is big enough to land anything with wings.

    To the original post: the PR flacks should be fired. No excuse for such a terrible job.

    I wrote about Felix Baumgartner’s adventure here. -rc

  27. Dave, Colorado September 15, 2014 at 11:10 am #


    Not too long ago, I saw an Orion ad from NASA online which stated that EFT-1 will “go beyond the moon.” I took a quick screenshot from my phone, and tweeted them directly, circling the error, and stated “I thought you were only going out 3,600 miles with EFT-1; here you say beyond the moon. So, which is it?” The ad was promptly removed. I don’t know, maybe it’s me, but the gap between 3,600 miles and 240,000+ miles is nothing less than colossal. I understand it when NASA labels a photo “Pete Conrad on the moon” when really it’s Al Bean (Apollo 12’s EVA 2 was all black and white pics, and before NASA switched to red stripes on legs, sleeves, and PLSS for commanders), but not knowing where your next major platform will be tested by a margin of error over 6,000%? Inexcusable.

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