NASA's press staff steps up in face of growing scrutiny

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL: More than 400 media members were on hand at Kennedy Space Center last Tuesday to cover the landing of space shuttle Discovery, perhaps the most scrutinized mission since the shuttle program's first, in 1981.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL: More than 400 media members were on hand at Kennedy Space Center last Tuesday to cover the landing of space shuttle Discovery, perhaps the most scrutinized mission since the shuttle program's first, in 1981.

Unfortunately, the shuttle was a no-show due to weather concerns, landing instead in California and prompting the media horde to re-focus its attention. Instead of documenting the landing, broadcast reporters took shots of workers at Kennedy's press center and interviewed top press officers about the diversion to Edwards Air Force Base.

Overall, this latest mission proved to be an unprecedented challenge for NASA's PR team.

As the public grew accustomed to space shuttle missions over the years, media contingents for launches had gradually dwindled and would typically number no more than 200 to 300, according to Bruce Buckingham, NASA news chief at the Kennedy Space Center. But the Discovery mission was unique, given Columbia's disintegration in January 2003.

Kennedy issued 2,800 media credentials for the launch of Discovery. Because the original launch date was postponed, approximately 1,200 members of the media showed up for the July 26 liftoff. The center received about 350 requests from media for videotape, audiotape, or photo CDs of the launch.

With potentially disastrous problems arising during this latest mission, the future of the program is once again in doubt. Press officers will now confer with Kennedy Space Center leadership, as well as officials in Washington, on the proper messages about the program's future, Buckingham said.

"I'm telling reporters that the earliest we would launch Atlantis would be September 22, but in all likelihood it will be beyond that because we've got some outstanding issues that need to be addressed," he said.

The communications staff at NASA garnered high marks for its work after the Columbia accident.

"We had a good communications plan for Columbia that was radically different from how we operated during the Challenger accident [in 1986]," Buckingham said. "I was here for both. I can attest to the fact that the willingness to be forthright after the Columbia accident endeared a lot of media and the whole country to the fact that it was a tragic event, but NASA is doing its best to get information out as quickly and as accurately as we can."

NASA has 11 staffers and 11 private contractors to handle public affairs and media services at the space center.

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