THE ROMANCE OF SPACE, THE IDEALIZATION OF NASA

The International Space Station: Earth's outpost on orbit

The International Space Station: Earth's outpost on orbit

“I’m writing this essay from orbit.”

I've always wanted to say that.

If you know our work, you know we have a long, productive, even meaningful relationship with The National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It's with great respect that we assume responsibilities for communicating vital and thrilling stories about NASA to the nation and the world. The work engages and challenges us, and the results often captivate and educate wide audiences. That's why it's not without a sense of humility and deep respect for the relationship that I offer these thoughts today. As the country's most venerated federal agency and the one with the highest worker satisfaction rating, NASA has a built-in outreach machine in it's day-to-day existence. While it wouldn't make sense for us to critique the agency's technical plans for exploring Mars or designing a new spectroradiometer, we believe we have ample license to comment on the philosophical and practical condition of the agency's celebrated media efforts. To put it bluntly, that effort is rapidly becoming a leaded gasoline car in an era of hybrids.

Make no mistake: NASA exists to pursue science and exploration, not videos or museum exhibits. We know that. But as one of the brightest lights in the nation's contemporary pantheon, modern media excellence becomes more than a luxury. It's a necessity and a national responsibility.

The stage is now set.

Why does everyone love NASA? NASA represents an ideal in which many want to believe. It represents the idea of a place populated with exceedingly smart, brave, far sighted people, capable of dreaming and capable of transforming those dreams into reality. Even if we really don't understand the tangible realities as much as we'd like to think we do about such an august, noble enterprise, the idea alone reassures us. It suggests there are forces of stability and responsibility and excellence in the world, suffused with higher purposes beyond quotidian travails.

People also care about NASA because it represents what's right about government, at least in principle. It holds out promise and hope that someone —someone—in charge can get beyond petty arguments about superficial things and actually bring something complicated--like a mission to another planet!-- into being. NASA represents the nation we wish were our own no matter what nation we call home.

In a technological age people also love NASA for all that it implies about a technologically possible future. It's a beacon suggesting that the future is not only just around the corner, but actively being pursued. We all feel the pressure of a headlong future forcing us to keep pace week after week as new technological widgets and memes relentlessly emerge. Initiatives like those pursued by The Space Agency appear to put the scale, scope, and ambition of ordinary, Earth-bound efforts to shame.

Oh me. Oh life.

As idealizations, those are all good reasons to care about NASA, and they're marginally true to some extent, I suppose. But I fear they could all be rebutted, refuted, or dinged too easily. In terms of communicating its message to an information saturated culture, NASA is a fading star, a brown dwarf, a dying fire. NASA still gets a disproportinately large amount of press time and media exposure relative to other equivalently sized public agencies. Its exploits are inherently attention grabbing, no matter how the stories are told, and I would not pretend for a moment that NASA stories don't merit media time. But few NASA stories reaching mainstream ears and eyes last for more than a a few moments. Even a smaller number convey more than a gee-whiz, there-and-gone relevance to anyone other than insiders and experts.

More and more these days The Agency struggles for appropriate political and social mind-share. Its high-flying technology and ambitions no longer represent the pinnacle of American know-how. NASA no longer delivers the same instant cache it did in the pre-internet era, and for fickle observers its stories must be properly presented to penetrate. (Cable news figured this out about all sorts of stories decades ago, for better or worse.) I fear this and it makes me sad. A lack of interest among broad constituents begins a treacherous path toward declining relevance.

Nonetheless, I care about The Space Agency for what I suspect is the reason most people care about it when they bother to notice, even if they might not describe their attraction in precisely these terms: the abstract concept of space travel is romantic. It's ideal and beautiful, like a sublime romantic "other" always beyond our wistful grasp. It's the eternal cinematic experience, the implication of travel that only a few will undertake, physically, intellectually, or emotionally. It represents the hard work we all wish others believed we were capable of delivering ourselves, even if most of us are comparatively lazy and set in our ways. NASA is romantic in the way that movie stars and professional athletes make us dream about living lives we sometimes imagine but hardly understand.

Of course, when you actually move in with your boyfriend or girlfriend and it comes down to washing dishes, folding laundry, and paying the rent, perception always shifts. Reality has a way of making the orchestral music of our imagined cinema fall away away fast. Without rare commitment, romance risks fading when confronted with ordinary views from the ground. What's more, but that rare commitment can only come by risking something valuable. It's risk that makes things honest and true. Watch this premise at work: what's true love? True love is risk, and the perseverance to keep going.

The general public as well as the political firmament thinks they understand the mass and merit of NASA. Rovers land on Mars; astronauts ride on Russian rockets to the International Space Station; space telescopes discover astonishingly beautiful objects far, far away. The truth is that these are only the most accessible, most dramatic expressions of the many, many realities of NASA's extraordinary output and operational mandate. They're just the visible tip of the iceberg. Even if they were delivered in wet cardboard boxes, The Agency's sexiest stories would catch attention. Sadly, however, NASA leadership thinks those superficial successes are due to their media acumen. At short glance, spectacular tales and sights make storytellers look smart. But at decision-making levels in The Agency, those storytellers generally just read the scripts they're handed like grocery lists instead of Greek plays. NASA often lacks the institutional courage to tell stories in ways that relate to human experience. It speaks in neutered language. In an effort to appear sober, credible, and worthy of continued funding from a scientifically illiterate Congress, NASA relies entirely on bloodless data and graphs and technical jargon to present itself, missing the nuances of its endeavors that move people.

Think of it this way: when we take a loved one to the hospital in an emergency, we're less concerned with the types of retractors and clamps used in the surgical suite than we are in the prognosis offered. We care about the narrative arc of what's possible more than the mechanics of how it happens. Is this to say that there aren't valuable and interesting and even vital stories to tell about the technical parts of surgery? Of course not, and great, inventive, engaging stories are ripe for presentation on how a modern surgical procedures proceed. But the headline, the élan vital of the whole enterprise, is the human drama of caring for someone at dire risk with extraordinary technique, precision, and timeliness in ways that most people can hardly comprehend. By assuming huge responsibility in a technological context, a person's life may be saved--a spouse, a child, a leader, a neighbor.

Tell me again why we're going to Mars?

Romance concerns risk. Romance is all about doing improbable things. It's about Capulets and Montagues actually holding hands in the park, despite historical precedent. Romance does not abrogate the potential for us to learn the details about those two houses of Verona, that we might learn how they made their reputations, or became worthy of our attention. If their story were left to the Space Agency, however, I fear it might be told differently.

> Two late adolescent, upper middle class residents of Verona have expressed interest in communicating with each other, despite familial reticence. An initiative to isolate themselves from direct observation by parents and extended family has led to relationship complexities and indeterminate outcomes.

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission will study the Martian atmosphere and how the Red Planet interacts with the solar wind. 

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission will study the Martian atmosphere and how the Red Planet interacts with the solar wind. 

NASA often lacks the courage to present its own stories in vocabulary that resonates for audiences. Just as the rules of physics apply to all subjects and circumstances without regard to context, the rules of good communication apply universally, too. When speaking with non-technical audiences, the commonality of human experience must govern how stories are told. Without expressions of commonality and relevance, decontextualized information has no great gravity except to others who speak the same specialized language. By avoiding emotional--not hysterical, nor over-heated, nor melodramatic, but humanely emotional--language, NASA avoids making romantic connections between its subject matter and its audience. The fact that wide, non-specialized audiences are attracted to NASA's news precisely because it offers the promise of a vicarious, romantic experience is not the audience's problem. It's NASA's, and without the awareness to tell its stories in ways that keep people engaged, The Agency risks losing large numbers of potential supporters.

Is this pandering? Is this dumbing the material down, tarting it up, making it something slicker and sweeter than it should be? That's always a perilous possibility, but I don't think it has to go that way. No one is going to get a Ph.D from a 90 second video on any subject no matter how much The Agency wants to hide behind technobabble to convince us of its credibility. The moment NASA allows itself to speak in more contemporary language for mainstream communications is the moment more people begin to understand better. Big, noisy machines blasting into space with fire shooting out their backsides are always cool and easy to grok. Put an astronaut on top of one and the element of risk becomes the story. Suddenly there's no trouble capturing thirty seconds of attention from millions. But whoops: there it is again. Astronauts on rockets are all about demonstrations of risk, that old romantic hook empowering many a successful narrative. So what does NASA do? In no time at all, it dilutes the human story faster than DC lobbyist searching for his cellphone. Then when you consider that most of NASA's stories are not about astronauts and fire-breathing rockets, the inevitable conclusion is that The Agency needs other, more astute vocabulary to capture audiences.

Risk interests people because it offers the potential for failure. It's the heart of competitive sports, the pulse of circus acts, the soul of love stories. Risk challenges muscle and bone. The adventures of Ernest Shackleton at the bottom of the world or Amelia Earhart far away in her airplane captured imaginations precisely because they did things we had neither the skill nor the courage nor the opportunity nor the means to do ourselves. They make us wonder about ourselves in similar situations: how would we handle one last play in the Superbowl, down by two points, ball on the one yard line? The fact is that sometimes risk runs into painful failure. No one likes failure; we want our winners to win. But what we really like is our winners to win when they overcome the challenges of hard circumstance. Because let's face it: everyone on Earth, rich or poor, sick or healthy, understands the unique brand of their own hard circumstances, and everyone wins some and loses some.

NASA hates to talk about risk.

The romantic possibilities of NASA are not what they once were now that we all live in the future. Everyone has access to technology that was recently only possible in our imaginations. Now we take that technology for granted. Email on our cell phones? How ordinary! Instead of government research initiatives inspiring the mainstream, multinational corporations promise daring flights of departure and adventure these days for individuals looking to get ahead. Well-marketed conglomerates set the global tempo and trajectory for what culture these days seems to prioritize. The romantic ideal can be purchased, and purchasing it suddenly seems a lot easier and attainable than bold, publicly funded initiatives without linear payoffs. Apparently there is no space race anymore until someone figures out how to make a buck pondering the void. Sure, Space-X has a great toe-hold on the future, but even it's fabulous ambitions and successes does not supplant the entirety of the US space agenda.

It's interesting to note that when NASA was at its apex, poetry and prose held greater stature in our culture, too. But just as literary references have faded in prominence with the ubiquity of video screens, NASA, once the prom queen of public institutions, has lost it's luster.

It's sad, really. The prom queen is always the most misunderstood person at the dance. Everyone wants her to be beautiful, to sparkle on the dance floor, to laugh on cue. But what the prom queen really wants is to have a conversation with some friends out in the lobby. NASA, the bold and beautiful, wants to shine, too. It's DNA holds the code for bravura flights of imagination and cultural vision. But situated in a world where bright people can fly higher and earn faster in the private sector, and with a deeply lacking internal, institutional courage to actually try and present clear, culture-capturing messages, The Space Agency is stuck standing on the dance floor saying, "Where did everybody go?" Perhaps the metaphor should be adjusted. NASA isn't the misunderstood prom queen. It's the the hard-to-handle nerd, driving you nuts with pestering precocity, even as he or she has something to share more valuable than most people realize or even understand.

Romantic sensibilities always begin with perception. They survive and then thrive on daring confidence without owners losing their humility and humanity. NASA's can-do bravado of days gone by, borne of a quasi-military mentality no longer carries the same cultural charge, but its leadership continue to believe that if they simply declare they know how to connect with the American audience they'll miraculously do so. Even more pathetic is the fact that The Agency leadership's lack of cool has largely suffused the thousands of middle management workers who struggle to do impossible things. Shackled to ridiculous bureaucratic hurdles, minuscule budgets, and absurd spreadsheets of endless attention fragmenting tasks, the rank and file wither beneath the growing knowledge that the best and brightest who might have once been star-reaching colleagues are now working for Google. Why work for an antiquated, dilapidated, bureaucratic agency when you can go build something right now and change the world?

My muse rolls her eyes, shakes her head.

This much is true: it's hard to convey many of the scientific stories that NASA undertakes. They're often complicated and they're often technical. But they're also interesting and important, assuming they're presented properly. The funny thing is that complicated and technical stories should not inherently be a problem. How many people really know how their own cell phone network delivers the latest pictures of their niece jumping off a diving board? Clearly a lack of detailed understanding about how the particulars work has not deterred billions from logging on and using cell phones everyday. The way to communicate the value of something is either to

A) find a way to make it's explanation clear enough and engaging enough that it cuts through surrounding information clutter, or

B) present a message about how the information contained will be useful, for one reason or another

Good storytelling will always find a way to get out, but an organization loses the imprimatur to tell its own story if it forgets that outsiders need to hear it differently than insiders. Stories cannot be filled with information that impedes fundamental facts or ignores hard truths. The moment an institution lose sight of its potentials in deploying powerful, truthful, passionate communications is the moment an institution's decline begins. Outsiders will seize opportunities and tell stories themselves, from outsider perspectives. Regaining a narrative's leadership voice becomes hard, quickly.

Good storytelling, of all kinds, requires courage and vision. It requires the confidence to stand up in a crowded room, wave and smile, and make people love you, even if you just want to go outside for a breather. There's power in telling a good story well. But in terms of good communications, more is not "more". More is...dull. Until the agency gets over its own self importance and realizes that its traditional "just the facts" recitation of its daily activities don't carry the innate punch of it's older, cold war era tales, it will be stuck in low Earth orbit. Either that, or it could actually try to update its attitude to a 21st century willingness to speak in language designed to appeal to people in the emotional, colorful, metaphor-rich way they communicate in daily life. Car companies get this. Cruise lines get this. Insurance companies get this. NASA doesn't get this.

Until the nerd decides that he needs to speak a different language at the prom, he can't introduce itself to the prom queen. That doesn't mean the nerd needs to capitulate and give up his fundamental personality and interests. But it does mean that certain language makes more sense in certain forums. To stubbornly hold out hope for a dance without a willingness to try a new approach is to miss the glittering romance of the stars above, no matter how much intimate knowledge one possesses of the nuclear cores at their center.

--Michael Starobin

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