The NASA PR Conundrum

A recent commenter (thanks Eric!) on our post regarding the Star Wars toy being flown to ISS in a lame NASA stunt suggested that NASA’s problem is with PR, and that they should engage in a national PR campaign to sell Americans on the NASA mission in order to build support.

NASA really needs to spend a sizable chunk of our tax dollars and hire a good, no…GREAT PR company.

No, they don’t. That’s not their job.

Lame references to fantasy Sci-Fi such as Star Trek and Star Wars don’t appeal to most Americans.

Sci-fi is more mainstream than it was in the past, however a real issue is that NASA shouldn’t try to compare themselves or link themselves to that silliness. They simply can’t make real space nearly as exciting or “cool” as the folks at Industrial Light & Magic.

To quote the Red Hot Chili Peppers:

“Space may be the Final Frontier,
but it’s made in a Hollywood basement.”

Present (and that’s what NASA needs to do) the Space Program in a way that makes it understandable and interesting to the average person

ok, we’re agreeing a bit more now…. but judging from Miss South Carolina, the average person has a hard time as it is…

The first thing I’d do? I’d have commercials shown around the country explaining why we’re going back to the moon.

That’s a tough one, since they deep down know they don’t have a legitimate reason FOR going to the Moon. In fact, the more this particularly stupid program is exposed to the light of day, the more likely it is to be canceled, and that terrifies some people (as it rightly should).

The military hires decent enough folks to make those neat commercials, why can’t NASA?

Four reasons:

1) Military budget MUCH MUCH larger than NASA’s.

2) Military is actually attempting to recruit people, and can promise them the ability to shoot guns, drive tanks, or even fly a fighter jet. And money for college. What can NASA promise? A chance to make powerpoint slides for yet another project in Code (fill in the blank)? Hardly awe-inspiring. And you don’t need 10 years of engineering school to be in the infantry.

3) Our entire culture is built around guns and shooting. look at the success of video games – what are they primarily about (ignore Donkey Kong and Mario Bros for the moment)? Shooting and blowing things up. How many space-based games (that aren’t actually about shooting things up, such as Doom3) are there…? Even John Carmack, who is a space tragic like many of us, made his money with a software company selling games that are about ultra-violence (Doom, Quake).

4) The MIC (military industrial complex) knows where their real paychecks come from – DoD, not NASA. So when they do advertising and PR (TV and print) what do you think they tend to promote? Cool military stuff. Which is FREE advertising for the DoD, since their contractors are paying for it. (of course, they get the money for those ads FROM DoD contracts, but that’s another issue…).

5 thoughts on “The NASA PR Conundrum

  1. The best and easiest PR move NASA could do, and save a bit more of the tax-payers’ money in the process, is to yank NASA TV off the air. The bulk of the programming is so inane and boring that it’s truly a mystery to me how any kid, or adult, watching that waste of a telecommunications satellite could find the inspiration to support anything involving NASA or space exploration.

  2. “Present (and that’s what NASA needs to do) the Space Program in a way that makes it understandable and interesting to the average person”

    Didn’t they try to do that already with the “NASA Message Construct”? ie “NASA explores for answers that power our future”. See more details about the “Strategic Communications Framework Implementation Plan” here:

    Personally, after looking through all of the PR bullet points in the “Message Contruct” details, I don’t see what the “huge, expensive, and old-style NASA-designed rockets to the Moon in 15 or so years if it isn’t cancelled or delayed along the way” program has to do with any of them, and I try to understand it more than the average person does, but they are indeed working on that message.

    “The first thing I’d do? I’d have commercials shown around the country explaining why we’re going back to the moon.”

    I’m not sure that even NASA knows that. They have a huge list of reasons to go to the Moon, but which ones will they implement? In all fairness, those decisions are probably years away, since right now the new NASA “space transportation business” is being designed for the immediate priority, ISS work.

    As I see it, the problem with the NASA Moon program is that it doesn’t address problems that concern most citizens. The average citizen that hears about it at all will be skeptical of the program ever working, since they will get their information from news media. The media is generally skeptical of NASA designed and operated rockets and human space vehicles, given the large number of cancelled, delayed, and/or over-budget systems in recent years from that line. If they get past the skepticism of the program ever happening, they will next see the schedule, and most of them will be lost there. Most of those that haven’t already lost interest after that will realize that the current NASA Moon program really doesn’t have much to do with solving the national-level problems that concern that citizen, which are typically things like the War on Terror, understanding/helping the environment, economic health, handling disasters like Katrina/fires/earthquakes/tsunami/etc, WMDs and other military challenges, giving them services they like (for space things like GPS, satellite radio, weather forecasting, etc come to mind), reducing the Federal budget deficit, etc.

    My contention is that NASA could design a Moon program that does address some or all of these problems, either directly or indirectly, and thereby solve the PR problem for the average citizen. Such a program would probably use more commercial services rather than in-house NASA designs. It would probably use (especially in the early years) a lot more (if not all, until/unless commercial space is ready for much cheaper/safer lunar transportation for astronauts) robotics (since it’s robotic satellites that in today’s real world already handle virtually all commercial, military, science, operational Earth observation, and similar “problem-oriented” space activity). Also, it would probably be implemented with decision-making input from non-NASA stakeholders like representatives of organizations like the military, NOAA, the Aldridge Commission, the science community, and commercial space data users. To be honest, such a NASA Moon program would also probably be a smaller propotion of NASA (at least until it proves itself) than is currently planned post-Shuttle.

  3. Talk about great PR – NASA should thank Hollywood (and Hollywood should thank NASA for allowing it to use original and valuable Apollo film footage!) for a well received new documentary movie called In the Shadow of the Moon. If only they (Hollywood and/or NASA) could make the present space “adventures” look so grand!

  4. Just because i like to talk, i’d like to say:

    The military budget shouldn’t be as big as it is. If people stopped blowing each other up and such, the money could be spent on better things

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