NASA'S ESAS Rollout: Pretty Spaceships Without Social Context

Editor's note: Looking at the media coverage NASA has been getting in response to its recently launched Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS), you'd think no one was in complete command in planning the rollout - other than the computer graphics folks.

The message that has now been interpreted - and circulated - by the media is "let's send a few people back to the moon because we can - and do something we did before - and spend 50% of what we need to spend on hurricane damage." The only "why" NASA has offered is "because the President told us to."

Some media watchers wonder why NASA chose to announce its ESAS results in the way that they did. To be certain no one scheduled hurricane Katrina, but there have been three weeks to think of the context of the new political reality that remains in her aftermath. Some forethought could have been given to obvious questions that would be asked by the media and talking points could have been prepared.

Live shots could have been made available wherein Griffin and Doug Stanley (who led the ESAS) would have explained what they did and why they did it. Having some Apollo astronauts on hand to lend a historical perspective would have been nice too. They'll all be in town tonight for an IMAX red carpet event.

Instead, NASA bungled the rollout.

Mike Griffin's distain for worrying about communications is widely known. He lives in an alternate universe where engineering matters should be allowed to speak for themselves. Explanation or context is irrelevant. Alas, 99% of the audience who is going to be expected to pay for this $104 billion engineering effort deserves to be told why this important and why it should be done at the expense of other things. All we got from Mike Griffin as to the "why" were a few awkward sentences - and only when prodded to do so by reporters. Oh yes - let's not forget: the President told us to do this.

The prime person behind the ESAS rollout (other than Griffin himself) was astronaut, ESAS member, and Griffin advisor Marsha Ivins. Ivins is also a self-professed media "expert" who regularly overrules Joe Davis - whose title includes "strategic communication". Word has it that a nice educational video featuring a former moonwalker had been filmed, but was canned because Ivins did not like it. Also, talking points were developed - but not used (not needed). And ESAS chair Doug Stanley was supposed to speak publicly but that never happened (on Ivins' advice). A more thorough rollout strategy was dumped in favor of a more low key approach favored by Griffin and supported by Ivins.

All that NASA produced of inherent quality for this rollout was spacecraft eye candy, which found its way onto every TV network and major print publication in the US - and many around the world. Of course, the lead comments under the pretty pictures were a mixture of "$104 billion", "Why do something we did before?" and "What about paying for Katrina?"

NASA certainly succeeded in getting everyone's attention "as only NASA can". They then dropped the ball when it came to sending out the right message. Unless NASA can learn (rather quickly) how to send the right message - in a socially relevant and realistic context - they are not going to complete a 13 year journey back to the moon - one which will have to be re-justified year after year after year.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on September 21, 2005 12:50 PM.

Personnel Updates was the previous entry in this blog.

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