Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Value of Excitement

The National Academies has published a 92-page report titled, Sharing the Adventure with the Public: The Value and Excitement of "Grand Questions" of Space Science and Exploration.

Click here to download the free report. Select "Download Free PDF." When prompted to log in, select "Continue as Guest."

The report is a summary of a three-day summit November 8-10, 2010 at the University of California Irvine of scientists and professional communicators. Its objective was to improve communication between the scientific community and those who report their findings, hoping that it would increase public support of those endeavours.

To quote the Workshop Overview:

The premise of the workshop was that NASA and its associated science and exploration communities have not been as effective as they could be in communicating with the public about what NASA does or how its activities contribute to resolving critical problems on Earth. Although not explicitly stated, an underlying assumption seemed to be that if the public had a better understanding, it would be more supportive of NASA, which in turn could generate more political support for the organization. In the case of global climate change, the broader issue is how to convince the public of the magnitude of the problem and the need for solutions. The role of new social media tools like Facebook and Twitter in interacting with the public was an integral part of the discussion.

The keynote speaker was Miles O'Brien, former CNN science correspondent who covered many historic Space Shuttle flights. The report states O'Brien "lost his job at CNN when CNN’s science unit no longer was able to attract sufficient financial sponsorship."

That's one reason given in the workshop report for why media coverage of scientific events is dwindling. Commercial television simply doesn't care unless it generates ratings and revenue.

Many panelists suggested scientists turn to the Internet, using streaming media and social media such as Facebook or Twitter to communicate directly with the public.

Some scientists at the event rebelled at the idea, finding social media to be a distraction, subjecting them to the anonymous abuse that comes with social media sites. Others simply consider the idea unprofessional, preferring the traditional peer review process.

Several speakers lauded NASA Public Affairs, citing their clever ways of exploiting Twitter. One example is the NASA Tweetup that provides followers "with the opportunity to go behind-the-scenes at NASA facilities and events and speak with scientists, engineers, astronauts and managers." It also cited the ingenious use of Twitter accounts for probes and satellites, writing their posts in the first person, such as the Mars Curiosity rover. Posted at 10:02 AM EST today:

@MarsCuriosity I HAVE LIFTOFF!

Generally missing from the conversation was how to translate public support into political support, which in my opinion was the workshop's weakness.

Government-supported scientific research is subject to the whims of Congress. As we saw with the recent Fiscal Year 2012 budget process, Congress gleefully cut commercial crew spending by more than half, dooming NASA to two more years on Russian Soyuz vehicles for International Space Station access. Meanwhile, Congress appropriated more money for Space Launch System than NASA requested, fully funding a pork-barrel jobs program that has no mission or destination.

Advocacy groups exist, such as the National Space Society, National Space Club and The Planetary Society, but none to my knowledge have separate political action committees. A PAC could advocate legislation and support candidates, which might prod porking politicians to be more responsible with their behavior.

The only other option, in my opinion, is to wean space exploration off government funding. That means commercial space will have to fund itself, even if Congress defunds critical programs such as commercial crew development (CCDev). Several of the CCDev candidates are working with Bigelow Aerospace, which is developing private space station modules that may fly later in the decade once the CCDev vendors start flying.

The private sector will start marketing their products. Just as commercial airlines and tourist destinations advertise on television today, it's not hard to image by 2020 seeing ads for Boeing CST-100 flights to Bigelow, which will advertise its modules for tourist trips or scientific research.

At that point, Congress will become irrelevant. And everyone will know about it thanks to mainstream media coverage of this next chapter in human spaceflight.

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