Saturday, November 16, 2013

And That's The Way It Is

Click the arrow to watch the MAVEN NASA Social on YouTube.

Once upon a time, three television networks ruled the news world. Walter Cronkite of CBS, Jules Bergman of ABC, and Roy Neal and Jay Barbree of NBC became national figures synonymous with the U.S. human spaceflight program.

If you want U.S. human spaceflight news coverage today ... Good luck with that.

Most NASA media events are covered by reporters from space-related web sites or bloggers with enough renown to be credentialed by NASA. The only “mainstream” media reporters I note at these events are Bill Harwood of CBS News, Alan Boyle of NBC News, and the seemingly immortal Jay Barbree.

It's rare that you see human spaceflight coverage on the nightly news. Many Americans have the false impression that NASA is out of business and Kennedy Space Center is shut down. From time to time, I still hear that notorious myth, “Obama cancelled the space program.”

Unable to penetrate the curtain of media apathy, NASA has turned to the Internet.

Visit the NASA Social Media web site and you'll find listed nine different social media outlets, such as Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus. Videos and photos can be found on YouTube, Flickr, Ustream and Instagram.

Perhaps NASA's most successful alternative medium is the mobilization of an army of civilian journalists through NASA Socials. Begun in the early months of the Obama administration, a NASA Social selects qualified individuals to be treated the same as a professional journalist. The idea is that these folks will turn to Twitter or Facebook or some other social medium to spread the word about NASA programs — an end-run on the mainstream media.

Today NASA held a social event at Kennedy Space Center for the upcoming MAVEN Mars probe launch on Monday November 18. NASA selected 150 followers to attend events this weekend at KSC and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The attendees participated in a two-hour lecture at the Center for Space Education on the grounds of the KSC Visitor Complex. The event was videotaped and uploaded later in the day to YouTube.

Is it propaganda? Sure. But we live in an era of advocacy journalism. MSNBC caters to the progressive left, while Fox News panders to the Tea Party right. CNN seems more interested these days in celebrities and human interest stories than hardcore journalism. The days of Cronkite are long gone, relegated to clips on YouTube.

Listen to Walter Cronkite call the launch of Apollo 4 on November 9, 1967.

Also gone are the days of non-partisanship, or at least bipartisanship, on the Congressional space subcommittees. For the first time in recent memory, the Republicans and Democrats voted along party lines in deciding the Fiscal Year 2014 NASA budget.

NASA from birth in 1958 has always been a political tool. President John F. Kennedy turned NASA into a propaganda organ when on May 25, 1961 he proposed that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” He didn't want to build Starfleet. His intention was to show the world, in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco and Yuri Gagarin's flight, that U.S. technology was superior to the Soviet Union. The subject is best discussed by space policy analyst John Logsdon in his 2010 book, John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon.

NASA has its own cable TV channel. How many other government agencies can say that? (The only other one I can think of is the Pentagon Channel.) The channel is justified by NASA's historic charter to educate the public about space exploration.

Younger generations who've grown up with social media find all this perfectly normal. One major reason for the slow death of print journalism is that people turn to the Internet and social media for news, even though it may not be reliable.

They are the generation who will inherit NASA's future. They are the ones who will benefit from the research aboard the International Space Station. They are the ones who will fly on commercial crew vehicles to Bigelow habitats. They are the ones right now programming robotic craft to explore the solar system.

The median age of a SpaceX employee is 28.

The politicians in Congress deciding the future of NASA are from an earlier generation with different priorities, and many of those priorities are narcissistic. The next generation must find their own path to embrace their future in human spaceflight. Commercial space, in my opinion, is that path. By the end of the decade, hopefully, commercial space and adventure tourism will be operational, rendering Congress fairly irrelevant when it comes to human spaceflight.

NASA Socials help enthuse the next generation about this future, and encourage them to not only embrace it, but to birth it themselves.

Of course, I could be viewing all this through rose-colored Google Glasses.

Follow NASA Social on Twitter at @NASASocial. MAVEN's Twitter account is @MAVEN2Mars. The hashtag for MAVEN is #MAVEN.

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