Rockets, History and Marketing

NASA, let’s be honest here, is not that great at P.R.

To be fair about it, it’s not a priority that’s exactly outlined in their charter, either. Their job is to hurl stuff into space and make the hurl-ee do cool, amazing stuff, sometimes with the added difficulty of having easily damaged human beings onboard. Still, what they do, do is really some of the most mind blowing stuff humankind has ever pulled off, and they let the world actually see happen!

Think about it.

It’s a major government agency, building and working exclusively with what are essentially, multi-billion dollar prototype spacecraft crammed full of new ideas and revolutionary systems, and you, the public, are invited to see them light the biggest fire under it that you an imagine and find out if it works or explodes. Talk about some serious performance pressure! To be sure, NASA must sit on a small mountain range worth of classified material, but still, I’m willing to bet that you get to see way more of what’s happening with our space program than you’d be get to see at say, an Air Force research facility or even Microsoft’s corporate headquarters. NASA belongs to us and what they’re up to is not shrouded in secret but rather, out on display.

Successes and failures alike.

And did I mention that IT’S AMAZING?!?

This is what kept bugging me as Short Stack and I walked through the shopping area and back towards the field for launch time. Kennedy Space Center is a beautiful little theme park and museum complex dedicated to our country’s space travel, the zenith of our technological spirit, but somehow, it all manages to slip below the notice of about ninety percent of this country. Most Americans don’t even seem to care, and when they do, it’s often for the wrong reason.

“I think we should, you know… stop spending all that money on going into space. We have plenty to worry about here and we could really use those funds better elsewhere.”

About one in every three people I talk to about the space program comes back at me with some variation of this and it pains me to hear it each and every time.

It’s not that they’re wholly wrong, either. Problems and suffering abound in our country and abroad in vast quantities. That can never be disputed. The real issue is about where the money goes, and that is now and has forever been a prickly issue. I’m fairly sure that it shall remain so until the end of time. There is always someone who needs help or some piece of infrastructure that needs construction or maintenance. People need help and our physical world also needs protecting from those very same people. It’s a fact of life. The thing is, so far as I can see, the space program is one, perhaps the only, endeavor that looks beyond our own human problems and focuses our eyes beyond the little sphere of troubles and issues we deal with constantly and shows us our scale in the universe. As I look up, it’s like we are children standing at the open doors of the largest library ever made… and we are electing to sit on the front steps rather than go in and start reading.

The chief argument for curbing space exploration is a monetary one and the outlay for a space program is indisputably massive. In 2008, the United States funded NASA to the tune of $17.3 billion dollars, and to be sure, that could do a lot of good to a lot of people, but here’s the thing: We spend a heck of a lot of money doing things that on a whole, are not on humankind’s positive list, and I don’t see them likely to stop being funded either. I won’t get into the good and bad our military forces have done over our history, but the reality is that for better or worse, it’s still a military. It’s designed to fight and kill. That’s its whole point for being. Even with countries whom have vowed that their own armies are to be used for defensive purposes only and have forsworn aggression in all its forms, it’s still an army and intended for war, necessary or not. On the grand scale, war is a negative. It’s the most destructive thing we can do to ourselves. Space exploration however, is about learning and building. Though it has been accelerated through the powers of governments in wartime, the world’s nations have ultimately decided to keep weapons out of space and stick to trying to understand it and study the universe rather than populate it with yet more ways of killing each other. With that decision made, space exploration comes out as a huge positive for us all. Which would you prefer? Air to ground rockets or ground to moon rockets? Incidentally, that seventeen-plus billion spent in 2008 on space research? That accounts for a whopping point six of one percent of that year’s federal budget. When was the last time you were satisfied with point six of one percent of anything?

I understand that it’s not really a straight up either/or situation, but it does have some bearing when budgets are drawn up. There’s only so much money to spend and if you think that the government is going to, in any meaningful way, say, “Guess what? We have too much. Here’s yours back” than you need to look a lot closer at how governments work.

Personally, I’d rather fund the far reaching stuff that will move mankind on to the next level. Who knows, at some point space agency funding might just eclipse military spending and on that day, I will be a very, very happy man. I’ll also probably be living in a fantasy land of my own creation and wearing a snappy new white coat that ties in the back, but hey, you’ve gotta dream, right?

It’s how we got to the moon, after all.

But I digress…

As I looked at what was on display in windows and on pedestals, all I could think about was, “How can most people not see how cool this all is? Why can’t we do way, WAY more of it?”

The answer, in advertising parlance, is “Buy In”

NASA is terrible at it.

The money that made all the things that have happened here at Cape Canaveral for more than fifty years now comes from the U.S. Government Budget and that money is allocated by politicians. NASA has been doing a pretty good job at selling to them, but they seem to have largely forgotten us normal folk and we are where all the money comes from in the first place. It seemed to me as I looked around at all the incredible things that we have managed to do in space, that what NASA really needs to do is get the populace, not the politicians excited. The politicians will follow. That is, after all, how they get to keep their jobs.

Walking back toward the food tent, Short Stack and I glanced over the kitsch that was for sale here and there and largely, were left unimpressed by the offerings. T-shirts, hats, key chains. Things that are universal at any holiday spot. Just the printing is different. Not that we didn’t want some to take home later on, it was just that… it seemed somehow… trite as they lay in the shadow of the legendary rockets that carried Alan Shepard, John Glenn and all the others beyond our little blue-green planet. As we munched on our newly purchased kielbasa and chips, I kept looking up at those towering monuments and wondered where our global enthusiasm had gone.

“Hi! Mind if we share your table?”

I was speaking to a middle aged man who sat alone at one of the few picnic benches that wasn’t covered with slumbering launch watchers, and with his, “No. Not at all.” Short Stack and I joined him and I basked in the ability to momentarily get off my feet. My son, like the little nuclear reactor he is, ran around us, in orbit of our seat, only venturing close by every three or four revolutions to come in for a bite. Where does his energy come from?!

After feeding my little satilite another piece of our late night snack, my open nature took over and I turned to our lone tablemate.

“What a perfect night, huh?

He glanced over, gave me a somewhat weak smile and then, seeming to catch himself, visibly snapped up a bigger, better grin.

6 Responses

  1. According to the internets we spend $503 billion / year on the military and $18 billion on space. Sure we need to protect ourselves, but don’t we also need to inspire ourselves?

    • My thoughts, pretty much on the nose. I’m not foolish enough to think that we don’t need a military at this point in our collective history, but it would be nice to see more go into moving mankind forward rather than pointing guns at each other, wouldn’t it?


  2. In a perfect world, Gene Roddenberryism would triumph over militarianism.
    I’d rather explore the possibilities rather than the inevitable.

    • And let’s not forget, Gene Roddenberry understood militarism first hand. In WWII he was a bomber pilot in the Pacific, flying a total of eighty-nine missions, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Metal. No small feat.

      He saw a lot of war, participated in first hand and afterwards, had a very clear picture of what the future COULD look like, if we want it badly enough.


  3. As a non-NASA scientist, I think that 1/3:2/3 breakdown needs a little more nuance. In that, I think a good balance would be basically, “Send the robots, spare the people.” Manned science missions are either largely embarassing (e.g. the drek about protein crystalization is somehow better in orbit), or are human physiology experiments that are basically self-serving.

    Bob Park has a nice synopsis of what to do:
    1) send DSCOVER to the L1 point, it’s way past time;
    2) drop the ISS in the Philippine trench before someone else gets hurt;
    3) commit a number of large telescopes to identifying potentially Earth-crossing objects and to refining their trajectories;
    4) forbid astronauts to go near Mars, although a robotic sample-return mission would be nice;
    5) install a sonar on Europa to look beneath its frozen ocean;
    6) start putting together a giant segmented telescope at the L2 point to study extrasolar planets; additional segments can be added by future generations.

    • I understand what your saying here and, yes, logically you are absolutely right. But in my opinion, not 100% correct.

      The major problem with manned space research, and its most costly aspect, is trying to keep people alive in the most hostile environment we have easy access to. Space is not where humans belong and that rule manifests its self in lots and lots of ways that are damned tricky to work around. Robots are the obvious solution here.

      But… the major flaw in this is the removal of human aspiration and ego. If we somehow managed to do everything we want to do in space via robotic proxy, I can just about guarantee you that it will spell some serious doom for space exploration funding. “Why spend billions on Mars probes if we’re never going to go there?” I’m not defending that position, just saying what I think we’ll start hearing immediately if we can the astronaut program. I’m thinking that It will almost completely vacuum out the interest in our aspiring younger generations as well.

      I won’t say that Bob Park is wrong. Just that it’s… short sighted. It’s a clinical list that makes good sense, but we have to remember that funding doesn’t come to all good sense. It needs a hook too. People floating in space is that hook, no matter what the drain on the budget is. With out the emotional quotient included, I doubt that the work would be allowed to progress at anything close to the sad rate we maintain today.


Leave a Reply to Turkish Prawn Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: