NASA Strives to Correct Its Untold and Misunderstood Stories

NASA Strives to Correct Its Untold and Misunderstood Stories

At last week’s NASA Future Forum, better and clearer communication about agency activities and policies was the order of the day.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) scientific and technological research, and its contributions not only to its missions, but to the U.S. economy and the lives of its citizens, was the focus of the NASA Future Forum, held at the University of Maryland, College Park. Participants, audience members and online viewers interacting via Twitter, engaged in discussions about how best to involve companies and universities in NASA-funded research, how to take successful technologies and integrate them into the market as spinoffs, and how to measure the value of investments, among other things.

Yet one theme that underlined many of the day’s discussions centered on the agency’s efforts to communicate with the public about these activities. Officials also attempted to “correct” what perceptions may have been created from the policy battles being waged just a few miles away in the nation’s capital.

One of these latter points was taken up by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. When he asked the audience who believed it would take years to know when a U.S. vehicle would be arriving at the International Space Station (ISS), the majority shot up their hands. Bolden said that, in fact, it would take less time for American vehicles to fly to the ISS than it took for the post-Columbia disaster recovery (about two-and-a-half years). In response to the audience’s reaction, he explained that he and NASA had failed to send out the right message and that it could be as early as next year for a U.S. company to be delivering cargo (but not crew) to the ISS.

Dr. Laurie Leshin, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration at NASA Headquarters, alluded to another policy battle when she began her remarks by stating that “reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated.” Leshin spoke with enthusiasm about what she described as “the next phase of human exploration” and the scientific endeavors that would take the human spaceflight program to new destinations. Once again she aimed to correct an incorrect message; “there is a great program,” she declared, speaking to those who, according to her, are saying that the agency no longer has a space exploration program. Leshin recently announced that she would be leaving NASA for the Rennselaer Institute of Technology.

Policy debates aside, perhaps the biggest issue was the question of whether the day’s overall message – NASA’s direct and indirect contribution to society through science and technology – was reaching its audience at all. Bolden said that at NASA, “we take science fiction and turn it into science fact.” Still, his lamentation that so few young people were in attendance begged the question of just how many of them are aware or interested in this side of the agency’s activities.

Dr. Raymond Sedwick, an engineering professor at the University of Maryland, posed this very question. During the NASA panel, which included Dr. Robert Braun, NASA Chief Technologist, and Dr. Waleed Abdalati, NASA’s Chief Scientist, Sedwick asked whether they were not really “preaching to the choir.” Sedwick argued that the audience was made up of people who were already informed and excited about NASA’s activities and that the agency’s problem was one of public relations. He challenged NASA to be more creative in how it delivers its messages, arguing that it should seek to excite not just children and students, but the adult public as well.

Braun, who in his comments had argued that NASA was “improving life everyday here on Earth,” admitted that before being part of the agency, he did not know about NASA activities in this area. As a member of the public, the message just never reached him. Braun said though that in his current role he had assumed the task of communicating more about spinoffs and that his office, which produces an annual spinoff report, would emphasize societal benefits in the near future, because “NASA has a great story to tell.”

Representative Donna Edwards (D-MD), who offered some brief remarks later in the morning, agreed: “We have to tell those stories.” Edwards argued that the space community’s challenge is making the result of NASA’s investments in science and technology better known to the general public.

“A nation is only as strong as its investments in technology in the future,” said Edwards, adding that “the core” of those activities was the work done at NASA. If these discussions are any indication, though, it seems that NASA’s science and technology investments need to be paired with a better strategy for communicating the policies that guide them and what they mean for the community outside of the agency’s walls.

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