Saturday, April 30, 2011

NASA Finds Its Voice

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden authored an editorial that appeared Friday in Florida Today.

An editorial in the April 29 Florida Today by NASA Adminstrator Charles Bolden appears to be part of a new media offensive by the space agency.

Taking advantage of increased public attention due to the STS-134 mission and pending retirement of the Space Shuttle program, NASA held a media event on April 28 to promote Commercial Crew Development, which will produce the next generation vehicle to take U.S. astronauts into Low Earth Orbit.

The entire press conference is available on YouTube:

Bolden's editorial was published the next day.

The administrator wrote:

By facilitating the development of a commercial capacity for crew and cargo access to low-Earth orbit, we help create high-tech, high-paying jobs and contribute to a dynamic economy.

And while NASA’s needs are met, the potential is enormous for this sector to expand into other activities, with other customers, and become a job-creating engine for decades to come.

NASA has established the Commercial Crew Program Office at KSC to manage the commercial space activities that will be critical to the nation’s future spaceflight. This effort includes $4.25 billion over five years for the development of commercial crew systems, including $850 million in the president’s budget request for next year.

As the private sector ramps up its capabilities, NASA will do what it does best — focus on the next big goal.

We’ll invest in high-payoff, high-risk technology that industry cannot tackle today. As we mature technology for NASA’s future missions, we’ll provide capabilities and lower costs for other government and commercial space activities. As we progress, we’ll build toward an ever more challenging array of destinations.

Two days earlier, on April 27, the government's Voice of America web site published an article titled, "U.S. Space Program Goes Commercial." It leads with both STS-134 and the approaching anniversary on May 5 of Alan Shepard's historic Mercury program launch.

Fifty years after a Redstone rocket carried the first American astronaut, Alan Shephard, into space, NASA is getting out of the business of sending astronauts on missions using its own spacecraft. Instead, the U.S. space agency will rely on privately designed and owned rockets to ferry cargo and crew to the orbiting International Space Station.

The commercially built space vehicles are expected to be every bit as powerful and reliable as those operated by NASA, but they’ll cost American taxpayers far less. One company, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, has signed a $1.6 billion deal with NASA for 12 unmanned delivery flights to the space station.

The offensive doesn't seem to have penetrated the mainstream media.

A search of several newspaper and media web sites failed to find an article about the press conference. I checked The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post but found no article.

The same goes for CNN and Fox News, although I did find this buried at the bottom of an MSNBC article:

After the shuttles retire, NASA will have to depend on Russian, European and Japanese transports to get supplies to the space station — at least until next year, when U.S. commercial cargo flights are due to begin. NASA hopes that commercial crew transports will become available starting in the middle of this decade.

Earlier this month, NASA said it would pay up to $269.3 million to four companies — Blue Origin, the Boeing Co., Sierra Nevada Corp. and SpaceX — to work on those future spaceships. Mark Sirangelo, Sierra Nevada's executive vice president, said he saw the program as a "bridge" between the shuttle era and the next stage of human spaceflight.

"I don't see it as an end," he told reporters. "I see it as the beginning of the next step."

Tens of thousands of space enthusiasts have descended on the Space Coast for the STS-134 launch. My experience is only anecdotal, but I've found that most of them have never heard about Commercial Crew Development, about SpaceX and the other CCDev competitors, or that NASA will send astronauts to the International Space Station through at least 2020. All they know is that just two Shuttle flights are left, and after that they're unaware.

Once I inform them about all this — and, to be fair, the Space Launch System ordered by Congress — they're very enthusiastic, yet somewhat astonished.

One tourist today who was a self-described space enthusiast told me, "I didn't know about any of this."

This week's NASA media blitz is a welcome start, but it appears they still have a long way to go. It may take launching new rockets with capsules and people aboard to penetrate the mainstream media's apathy.


  1. Seen from an outsider, this "blackout" in both media and public awareness is very strange. It is not as the truth is hard to find, is it? If you just scratches just a tiny bit, one will find all the facts needed.
    It is as if they dont WANT to know. As if the shift in paradigm is just too much to cope with, and rather than seing the reality as it is, they prefer to make up their own, familiar and safe truth.
    And I can see you have a hard job ahead explaining the reality to the ignorant - arguing the alternative reality is hard. I sure hop you do not end up as Giordano Bruno!
    But do keep on!


  2. There is a painfully simple explanation for the media silence. Like many, their editors are imbued with the idea that "real" spaceflight, is government spaceflight. Anything else is just might-be and maybe someday. That is one place paradigms are set in stone.

    The elders of the Astronaut Corps are obviously divided. Aldrin pulls towards commercial crew, and Cernan towards the old Apollo model. Harrison Schmidt talks up commercial possibilities, and Niel Armstrong looks askance at any activity not performed by a civil servant.

    I notice the astronauts that like commercial prospects are flourishing in open networked activities themselves. Meanwhile, those who only retired to academia, or found that market networks were unsupporting of their top-down management style, cling to a government/civil servant space mission model. Entrepreneurs favor commercial, while comfortable hierarchs favor government hierarchy. Should we be surprised?

  3. Well, you should be, at least about the comments made by some of the astronauts, but hey - they are past their prime and maybe stuck in the sixties. I know it is un- american to disagree with an Apollo astronaut, but why bother what they say at all?
    What is worse is that the people you have elected say one thing and then vote something else. Is this "the erosion of democracy", and do the general public really have so short memory that it doesn't matter?

  4. Oh, BTW, I'm the "Plop" person as well...