Few endeavors fascinate the human imagination like space exploration.
Few endeavors fascinate the human imagination like space exploration.
The agency that directs our adventures in space attracts more attention than any other government organization and often basks in the glow of its missions.
But the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has ridden a roller coaster of glowing success and glum failure over the past few years.
In 1997, the interplanetary video beamed back to earth by the Mars Pathfinder and its Sojourner Rover amazed us, and John Glenn's 1998 shuttle flight ignited public interest unparalleled since Apollo. But two subsequent Mars missions failed, leaving a red-faced NASA scrambling for explanations.
However, within the past month, the habitation of the International Space Station (ISS) by a charismatic American commander and two Russian cosmonauts has buoyed the agency's spirits and image.
NASA's public affairs staff takes a pragmatic view of the ups and downs.
'You are always going to have missions that succeed and missions that don't succeed,' says Brian Welch, NASA's media services director in Washington.
'If you don't have failures, you're not pushing hard enough.'
The cost of cutting cash
The Mars problems might not seem that huge by NASA standards - no lives were lost, and the two lost ships didn't cost that much, relatively speaking.
However, some say the failures revealed symptoms of larger managerial and philosophical problems, reflected in the way NASA has been presented to the public.
Maybe it all comes down to cash. For the past several years, NASA administrator Daniel Goldin has preached the 'faster, better, cheaper' sermon, one many within the agency have taken to heart. Mars Pathfinder seemed to justify the mantra. A Mars mission in 1976 cost billions of dollars and put in place an orbiter that is still operating today. 1997's Pathfinder, by contrast, was a relative bargain at dollars 330 million, and it even gave us closeup video of the Martian landscape.
Goldin pushed the faster, better, cheaper idea not only because of its political expediency, but because he didn't have much choice, notes Richard Berendzen, a physics professor at a former consultant to NASA and a physics professor at American University in Washington, DC. Space program supporters like to point out that NASA's dollars 14.7 billion annual budget accounts for less than 1% of federal expenditures, down from more than 4% in the Apollo days.
Government agencies can't lobby Congress for their appropriations. NASA's interaction with Congress, like other agencies, is limited to submitting budget proposals, responding to inquiries, providing information about its activities and supporting its policy positions. During the Cold War, the space program showed off America's power, but the Soviet specter no longer looms before Congress at budget time, Berendzen adds.
After the success of the Pathfinder mission, NASA scientists and engineers were inspired (some say pressured) to do even more with even less as budgets continued to tighten.
The Mars lander and orbiter launched in 1998 cost dollars 190 million total.
But this was one operation where the cost-savings were going to return to haunt the administration and its PR team.
Live television cameras rolled as pained scientists waited for word on the two lost ships. NASA's unique charter requires the widest possible dissemination of information about its activities, a fact that wins some points with reporters. At a Federal Communicators Network seminar a few weeks after the last failed Mars mission, Washington Post reporter Juan Williams praised NASA's openness. Video of distraught engineers gave the public 'an empathy for NASA rather than a condemnation,' Williams told the seminar.
Blame the scientists
Outside panels studied what went wrong with the Mars missions. Early on, NASA pegged the loss of the orbiters on failure to convert calculations into common units of measurement. 'It was a humorous way to blame the engineers and deflect blame from the leadership,' claims James Oberg, a retired NASA mission control operator who is now a media consultant on the space program.
A supporter but vocal critic of NASA, Oberg believes the problems went deeper and were more numerous than those discussed broadly. Systems on the Mars probes were assumed to work unless proven otherwise, when scientific prudence calls for the opposite approach, Oberg claims.
'Clearly, we went too far,' says Welch, who admits engineers and scientists weren't given enough resources. As a result, the Mars program has a new director, and the six missions scheduled to launch by 2007 will have bigger budgets.
NASA still sticks by its faster, better, cheaper philosophy, but its spokespeople don't mention it as often to reporters now. ''Smarter' needs to be (in that list) as well,' Welch adds.
A more prevalent and longer-running message is stressed these days on the home page of NASA's main Web site - the idea that what the astronauts do in space benefits those of us back here on the ground. 'NASA is deeply committed to spreading the unique knowledge that flows from its aeronautics and space research,' Goldin writes in a home page welcome letter.
Some critics claim tying space missions to earthly benefits can be misleading.
Not every experiment in weightlessness will cure cancer, says Rick Borchelt, a Vanderbilt University faculty member who is currently finishing a communications review commissioned by a group of scientists at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL.
'It creates a belief that the only good science is applied science,' says Borchelt, who believes that NASA should focus on promoting the value of science in general. Borchelt's report, which will be released as a series of white papers at scientific gatherings, claims political pressures to promote the agency can at times subvert the mission of providing information about science and technology.
On the other hand, NASA contractor Richard Cooper says the agency's public affairs staff deals with technical and scientific audiences so much that it may not always have the time or ability to explain complex topics to the general public.
'NASA has a big mountain to climb to translate the 'techese' into English,' Cooper says, adding that he believes the agency did a good job of relating the purpose of John Glenn's shuttle mission.
New future in space station
But NASA has just had some dream PR from the International Space Station, an operation which could prove to be a turning point in the organization's fortunes in the public eye.
Bill Shepherd, commander of the first long-term mission aboard the ISS, is a PAO's dream. 'Bill is a real high-energy guy and really believes in what he's doing,' says Steve Nesbitt, chief of public information services at Johnson Space Center in Houston. 'He's one of those people who looks more broadly at things than just his part of the mission.'
Much of the recent ISS coverage has included Shepherd's comments about NASA beginning an era of continuous human presence in space.
But although the ISS may boost NASA's sagging image, it puts a grueling strain on public affairs. 'Our folks are going to be a lot busier from now on,' Welch says.
The days of being seen to be cheaper may have ended, but NASA's budget is still tight. Facing an accelerated mission schedule and continuous operation of the space station, public affairs at JSC is going to two shifts. The agency may even be forced to turn down some routine filming requests from documentary crews.
Public affairs has increased focus on the Internet to disseminate information, and Welch hopes the availability of materials online may offset some of the increased workload. NASA's spaceflight.nasa.gov is already the most frequently visited government Web site. Net surfers can download photographs shot in space, track the geographic position of the space station, read personal features about astronauts or send questions to mission control.
The Mars program is also beefing up its site at mars.jpl.nasa.gov, says Jet Propulsion Laboratory spokesman Frank O'Donnell.
Despite increasing demands, NASA officials don't expect to get funding for additional public affairs officers. 'We don't have enough people, and the people we have are exhausted,' Welch concedes.
With scant resources, the agency may have to lean more on the awe of space in general to support a positive image. 'NASA has learned that it has an immense reservoir of goodwill with the public, and that it can cash in that reservoir to cover both understandable and unacceptable screw ups,' observes Oberg. 'What the public won't tolerate is NASA making the same mistake again and again.'
Ups and downs of NASA's fortunes
Commander Bill Shepherd and Russian crew mates Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev become the first crew to occupy the International Space Station on November 2.
An orbiter makes it to Mars in September and a lander in December, but both ships are lost.
On October 29, veteran Mercury astronaut John Glenn goes back into space for a successful nine-day mission in a dream PR move.
Mars Pathfinder/Sojourner Rover land and transmit data for three months.