Taking Space Exploration To The People

Editor's note: I went down to the Mall in downtown Washington, DC on Friday to see the exhibits NASA had set up. Northrop Grumman's full scale Webb Space Telescope mock up was very impressive (Click on image to enlarge). In addition to the exhibit itself, there were half a dozen people eager and ready to answer any questions a visitor might have. With tourist season in full swing there was no shortage of people stopping by to see these exhibits - and the more extensive military technology exhibits nearby. There were also scale models of the Shuttle, the Ares 1, and a full scale inflatable walkthrough mock up (of sorts) of the CEV.

The most complex exhibit NASA had was the long, double trailer exhibit focused on exploration that carries its mobile theater. I stood outside the exhibit for 10 minutes or so to watch the behavior of the NASA folks and the visitors. While there were just as many people staffing the NASA exhibit as were at the Webb exhibit, they really did not do anything except talk to each other. They were not proactive in asking people if they had any questions. No one from NASA was standing next to the large spacecraft models to explain what they were. Also, there was nothing significant to hand out to people outside the trailer.

All the NASA staff seemed to say to people was that the show inside the trailer was underway and that a new one would start in a few minutes. As I watched, more people turned and walked away and left the exhibit area than can be accommodated inside the trailer. That seemed to be a wasted opportunity to me since the people walking up to these exhibits were a representative slice through the American populace - not politicians.

Suggestion: NASA should have more material outside to either keep people's attention while the show plays inside the trailer, or give them something to take away if they do not want to stand around in the hot sun and wait for the next show. Also, if NASA wants people to know what they are doing they need to go out and engage them one on one - not just stand there like movie ushers. The Webb people got it right.

Comments? Send them to nasawatch@reston.com. Your Comments thus far:


Hi Keith,

From an insider's perspective who happens to produce materials for outreach, the wrong NASA people are usually conducting the outreach. The introverted, the jaded, the pendantic, etc. Yet, they are also the folks who believe that, as subject experts, they should be doing the outreach. Many have even had "media training." Doesn't matter. If educating, promoting, selling, informing is not part of your personality, you cannot do it well.

thanks for letting me comment. . .


Hi Keith,

My first comment! You struck a nerve with this post and I felt compelled to comment. I too noticed the NASA apathy, at a Federal Jobs Career Expo. But it wasn't just NASA. I've been to several career expos and the recruiters are usually as boisterous as used car salesmen. At this one, full of government agencies, no one seemed to care. Most of them stood around talking to each other, backs turned to the crowd. I had to interrupt conversations to get information. It was very discouraging.

On the other hand, some of the best proponents for the space program that I've ever met were the workers themselves. I've been to several tours and open houses of NASA facilities, and it was always the little guy turning wrenches or pushing buttons that was the most enthusiastic about what they were doing.

There is definitely a flaw in the system design. The passion is there, but it seems to die out the farther you get from the actual work. With technology today, it's easy to design a presentation or develop posters and models that can make the intangibles of proposed designs real for the average Joe or Jane. Perhaps there would be more public support for the space program if the space program could show the public where their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent; and not just with presentations to children and students, adults need to be engaged too.

Thanks for keeping tabs on the big guys.


Hi Keith--interesting article. I've always wondered why some of the space exhibits don't have the kind of recorded commentary that's always found at art museums. It allows the visitor to walk along at their own pace, click the appropriate button and listen to the commentary about the piece in front of them. If the NASA people just stand by like ushers, how about doing it 'robotically'? People ARE interested -- they just need a translator to go along with them so they can understand--at their own pace. Surely NASA can afford to spend a bit on record-and-play devices.


HUGE Kudos to you for a marvelous, and very important, SpaceRef news article (observations) about the lack of engaging NASA public outreach personnel at the NASA info trailer/theater. If I had known that would be the case, and had support to be there, I would have gladly done exactly as you stated, volunteerd my time to engage the public about space exploration and NASA.

I whole-heartedly concur with what I perceive is a much larger issue .... NASA is losing sight of, or does not have the budget for, or will not spend the money necessary, to promote NASA, space exploration and STEM education. They are fiddling while Rome burns.

This is something I am trying my best to help fight as a JPL Solar System Ambassador in San Luis Obispo County on the coast of California, halfway betweeen San Francisco and LA. In my 3-years of volunteer work trying to reach out to the public and highly impressionable school children, it has come to the point where NASA and JPL basically provide nothing in the way of handout materials because NASA has pretty much ceased printing such materials. They make handout files available on education websites, but won't take that vitally important step of supporting people like myself with important handout materials, where I sometimes could easily provide handouts to hundreds or thousands of people, but have nothing to do so.

I firmly believe that even though I give robust digital multimedia slide and sound shows (with all presentation computer, projection and sound equipment at my personal expense), children still LOVE taking something home to enjoy for weeks, months or years as they get older and hopefully become more interested in STEM education and space. To me, handout materials are a vitally important part of public engagement, along with face-to-face communications, to show them my excitement about NASA, JPL, astronomy, space exploration and STEM education.

I could go on for hours or days on this subject. It is a real sore point with me, trying to be a representative of America's space exploration efforts. I think some folks in NASA need a stern talking to, to open their eyes about major opportunities lost in engaging our nation. If they don't listen or are not supportive, then fire them and get people who have the energy, drive, enthusiasm and determination to take NASA to the people.

This comes at a critical time in our nation's history. I strongly feel that America is in the process of giving the entire space exploration store away to the Europeans and other countries. As NY Times columnsist Thomas Friedman says, we are "Not tending to our sauce". We are losing sight of what is vitally important. It may be great to have spacecraft, but if the nation's population does not understand and support our work in space, and not agree to providing the big bucks that are needed, the U.S. will die as a technological country. The handwriting is being written on the wall as I express this.

This coming weekend I will spend both days at JPL's annual open house to further my personal education in JPL's missions, so I can better represent JPL and NASA to the public in the months to come.

Down off my soapbox.

Walt Reil


Reading your account of the event in which NASA Public Affairs people were apparently apathetic about interacting with the public is very upsetting. As you wrote, their [lack of] action represents a missed opportunity for NASA people to both reach out to people and inform them about what's happening, now, and to get some feedback from citizens about what NASA is doing.


Regarding your editor's note about the lack of interest among those NASA employees at the National Mall exhibits, that problem is pervasive throughout NASA. Several years ago, I attended the Centennial of Flight at Kill Devil Hills. NASA had their life-size, 2-trailer ISS mockup exhibit on display. As it should be, the lines were very long. Unfortunately, many of us didn't get to go through the mockup before it closed (primarily because there were a lot of other things to see and do, including the fantastic attempt to duplicate the Wright Brothers first flight.)

I hoped to find out where else I might be able to view the mockup. So, for the next 6 months, I wrote to several different PA agencies in NASA, without receiving any response (NASA representatives, especially those in the PAO, almost never respond to queries from the public.) It took almost 9 months to get a response from an engineer, who helped build the mockup, whose e-mail address I found in an old NASA report after days of Google searches. That engineer did respond, and forwarded the e-mail to a lady who was involved in scheduling the mockup. She told me in a long-delayed e-mail that NASA does not provide schedules for such displays and has no intention to do so. No reason was given.

Trying another tack, I contacted the North Carolina Science Museum to find out if it was okay for me to try to schedule a NASA exhibit, including the ISS mockup, and the representative told me enthusiastically that I could do so and explained some of the limits and requirements to be aware of.. When I later contacted that same representative via e-mail, I received no reply whatsoever. Over the next year, I tried contacting different offices in NASA with no success whatsoever. Nobody cared at all.

The biggest problem with the agency (beyond funding) is that, as you saw in DC, most people in NASA really don't care about those of us who are their biggest supporters. I've written Congressmen and Senators in support of NASA initiatives, but the more we're ignored, the less inclined I am to care.

Thanks for the continued coverage. Without NASA Watch and SpaceRef, we wouldn't know anything.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on May 14, 2007 8:38 PM.

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