NASA's Strategic Communications Office Just Doesn't Get It

Internal NASA Memo from Robert Hopkins, Chief, Office of Strategic Communications: NASA Messages

"The Message Construct serves to guide your communication efforts with the general public. We are asking that you use the Core Message: "NASA explores for answers that power our future," in the text of your communications material and that it be used verbatim. We also have developed a graphic element to illustrate and enhance the Core Message. The graphic element is: Inspiration + Innovation + Discovery = Future. The graphic element is to be used on all Agency communications materials. The other messages in the Message Construct are also market-tested and should be used where best applicable."

Editor's note: Oh great: a big honking government logo that looks like the USDA healthy school lunch pyramid to teach us why space is important. Where are the astronauts, planets, and rocket ships? THAT is what makes people think about space!

This document is just another stale product written by faceless swarms of people sitting in government office cubicles who think they understand the real world. They always manage to miss the mark. This one misses it by a mile. This whole effort purports to be the new way NASA reaches out - and makes itself relevant to - the tax paying public.

Yet there is not a thing in here that addresses the core reason - the core emotion and aspiration - that most people associate with space exploration: that they can get to go there - personally. Where is the "me" in all of this? If I gave this to someone in 4th - 6th grade would they understand it? Not really. Would they feel like this was a personal invitation? I doubt it. And if you have lost the most impressionable sector of our society you ain't gonna get the rest of us interested.

Everything in this document and the stilted PowerPoint slides that back it is stale, recycled, and doomed to fail. NASA's Strategic Communications Office simply doesn't get it.

Time to start over.

Comments? Send your comments to Your comments thus far:


Upon reading your intro to the blue triangle story, I was inspired to look up the USDA food pyramid online. If you go to, on the right hand side you will see animation of the food pyramid launching into space towards the stars ending with an image of an astronaut and planet. It is a link to the My Pyramid Blast Off game that kids can play. How sad that NASA HQ can't come up with anything remotely as NASA as the USDA can.

I used to work in public outreach for NASA. There was never any recognition by management of the talent needed to do the job nor any realization that outreach deserved a proper budget. Now outreach is saddled with misguided direction from HQ such as the CMR guidelines and this latest crap.

I frequently was asked by the public, "Where can I go to find out about all the things we have learned from the over 100 shuttle missions?". The answer, as far as I was ever able to determine, is that there is no place to go. NASA likes to talk about hardware and how it works but not what we have learned along the way. That sure makes it hard for the tax payer to care about NASA.

Former NASA Public Outreach Peon

Earlier this year your NASA Watch had a graphic of a man with his hand reaching upward with the moon hovering just above it. Remember? Well, for me that was the perfect NASA 'graphic.' And no words were needed: reaching for the stars is pretty impressive! Can you replay that as a potential candidate?

Keep up the good work!

Hi Keith,

Thanks for the info on this debacle. The comments are also on target. As the daughter of an early space program rocket engineer, I am usually extremely verbose about my beloved NASA and any space program discussion. But this development has me totally stumped, and I can only keep muttering, "What the hell?" like a blubbering idiot. Even as an artist I cannot fathom how something as utterly devoid of inspiration as this design idea could get past any critical discussion whatsoever.

All I can do is wonder if this is "deja vu all over again" to Dan Goldin's expensive eradication of the worm logo. I guess that at least it can be said that Dan kept the meatball.

Keep up the great reporting, we appreciate it tremendously!

This is a joke right?You've got to be kidding? No. Seriously?

This core message and "message construct" is supposed to inspire, inform, and motivate the general public?

This sort of philosophic guru prescribed, managerial imposed, look-at-how-we-justify-ourselves overhead is the EXACT reason and cause for general public disassociation and disinterest, not to mention employee frustration and low-morale.

I'm a school teacher and I had to read it four times to process it. The triangle did not help.

I've been involved in or watched the development of several logos. It doesn't matter what sort of professional advice you get if the people who have to approve it do not understand what it will be used for. My company's logo went from a string of very cool-looking graphics to four colored cubes, because none of the committee who approved it could agree on anything else.

I pity any web developer or graphic designer who is required to try and fit this clunky thing into their webpages.

And I pity children who dream of launching into space and get smacked in the face with bureaucracy.

This is supposed to inspire?

I think Griffin will destroy NASA, and is going to bore the public so much they will demand it be shut down.

A clever note from The Netherlands - worth visiting this link:

That's where NASA's multi-billion $ Earth Observation programs pay off:


It's nice to see NASA using something I created...this ad is from the Program Book for the X-Prize Cup Executive Summit, last year. Maybe I should have service marked the tag line?

Gary C Hudson

My first thought when I read the message was it meant that NASA was exploring for a reason for its existence and continued funding, not exploring for the answers to Mankind's greatest questions. Whoever came up with it has no clue about the reality of NASA or the multiple meanings of the English languages.

I will never use this thing.

Anonyymous NASA GRC

Hi Keith,

NASA JSC PAO needs a wakeup call from the #1 Mike.

After getting live coverage of the launch on the major networks evening newscasts...

The early evening launch means that for most of the continental states (and Canada...), there are multiple viewing opportunities for both the ISS and shuttle in the sky tonight. (and for the next several nights)

You think that the JSC PAO commentator(s) would/should be all over this!

They DO infrequently mention these sightings during the ISS daily coverage. You just have to remember about it after sunset... -or- sunrise if you are so motivated!

Instead it's been the usual silence punctuated by air/ground comm and PAO recapping what was just said.

Also, if not live downlink video, mostly shots of the people in MCC-H, with occasional breakaways to the DEMOs annimation, which shows the orbiter positioning in the sky, depending on the zoom level of the upper left 'frame', very little recognizable of earth.

They also have a 'WorldMap' annimation that is a flat map with the orbit sinewaves on it, showing for instance the ground path over the continental US.

Maybe if Worldmap was shown a little more often, some casual channel surfers might notice that the line crosses over their town and might wander outside and look up in the sky.

I called the JSC newsroom twice, first before 10pmE, and again a little after 10:30pmE to suggest that they might want to address they sightings opportunities. I got the recorded 'newsroom is open for extended hours - shortly before crew wake to shortly after crew sleep'... At this time, I'm writing this with 3 hours before crew sleep. OK maybe the message refers to the ISS crew...

I've got other JSC numbers that I can call, but I use them only when there are technical operations problems. This is not one of those times.

Wow, they just put worldmap up for about 15 seconds, with the shuttle passing off the east coast of Australia. Maybe my bad vibes are being rec.... nahhh. Still not a word about sighting opportunities or a mention of the NASA web page with the sighting opportunities for cities around the US...

This message has all the inspiration of a Profit and Loss sheet. Who are these people?!

Seventy years ago the RAF had Per Ardva Ad Astra, the US Army Air Corps song was 'into the wild blue yonder', and recently, Star Trek went 'where no one has gone before'. Now those are words that inspire. And to compound the crime of boring, they enclosed it in a geometric shape. Fenced in, restricted, and that's what was bad about the NASA Worm. A cursory look of logos shows that most organizations in the space business tend to 'break the fence': NASA Meatball, Boeing, RSC Energiya, China Space Agency. Others imply dynamic movement with no bounds: JAXA, Lockheed, Scaled Composites. All send the same visual message: Excitement.

Another fiasco.

Here's the equation they didn't show us:

Politics + Bureaucrats + Cluelessness = NASAHQ

If this is what tested best during "market research," I cannot imagine the mind-numbing, stomach-churning, horrible crap it beat out.

robert hopkins is a classic example of what is wrong with NASA

KeithA couple of things

When I saw the post on NASA Watch last evening I tweeted the link to the Space Ref article " ok twitter buds: what do you think of NASA's new messages and graphic element?" and got back two responses:

are those NASA messages and graphic element for real? They must be some kind of joke, surely

Holy cow, That blue triangle is the new graphic element? Looks like it's from the same committee that designed the camel!

My own reaction is that none of these messages convey the excitement of space exploration and new discoveries. Certainly someone at hq could have modified the triangle elements to at least make them active; NASA exploration powers our future! is better than "NASA explores for answers that power our future" or "NASA invites you to explore with us!" instead of the clunky "NASA powers inspiration that encourages future generations...."

Just some observations from the trenches...

Keith -

The blivet on "and the children shall reach out" caught my eye.

I spent yesterday at Disney World (on vacation as a tourist) and was standing in line at a kiddy ride. A father and his young daughter (4 year old-ish) were next to me. She was in full princess regalia - gown, tiara, wand. Someone asked her if she wanted to be a princess when she grows up. Her reply? "I AM a princess. When I grow up I want to be an astronaut".

There ya go.

Given the recent headlines regarding the astronauts, I wonder if it's a coincidence the new NASA graphic resembles another famous emblem:


Applause, applause!

Well done on bringing attention to the ineffective work done by the "Strategic" Communication people. But we must be fair: Robert is doing the best he can with the team he has been given. Look at some of the academic backgrounds of those on the NASA Communications Coordinating Committee: French, Space Science, Finance, English, Industrial Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering.

What about the individual field centers? Of the five NASA centers I checked, I could find only three communication/outreach/external relations/Public Affairs employees who list communication/journalism as their academic degree. I found some communication functions led by engineers! Marshall has an industrial engineer leading communication. Others were headed by personnel whose NASA experience was in procurement and business administration. Give me a break!

Until NASA quits looking at communication as a task anybody can do, rather than as an highly-specialized field, we'll keep seeing triangles, directives to talk to people in elevators, and field centers spinning their wheels. HQ doesn't get it, nor do most of the field centers.

Anonymous Please

How uninspiring, this triangle. When I was 8 years old Alan Shepard launched with the venerable "meatball" on his chest, and that inspiration captured and held me all these years... I'm a NASA engineer who has worked both the space and aeronautics sides for 30 years. This HQ debacle reminds me of a recent internal call for help in designing a 50th anniversary logo for NASA. Initially the call for entries went only to PACE employees. After several weeks, without explanation (likely due to lack of inspiring designs) the call was expanded to "those with communications responsibilities", but the deadline was just days after that announcement. When I inquired about submitting designs, since I do "communicate" with elemenatry and high school students as a volunteer science fair judge, I was told that I am not "in that group". So puzzling, not to expand the call for any employee, since many NASA and contractor personell are also talented artists. In fact, so am I, with several of my award-winning paintings in national galleries!

"Griffin: ... There is and there will continue to be much debate on the scientific merits of the space station and I think there should be that debate, that's fine. We will find a way to utilize the space station to help benefit human exploration of the solar system. But leaving all of that aside, it is the most amazing construction project ever attempted by human beings."

My God, what the hell kind of comment is that from the NASA administrator??? He should be a real mensch and either stand up and say "I believe we are wasting money on the ISS, but I gotta finish it 'cause it's my job and we promised", or be honestly enthusiastic about the research to be done at the ISS and make sure it's used for those purposes. As it is he's moaning about having to take the ugly girl to the prom and then pointing away from his date saying "Look, there goes Elvis!" to take attention away from her. All anyone needs to hear is that the NASA Administrator believes that the only use for the ISS is to be the most amazing yet useless construction project ever. I suspect the slaves in Egypt thought the same of the pyramids and the ISS won't last anywhere near as long.

Regarding the PAO "efforts" to engage people, how pathetic can you get? Your correspondent who wrote "Kids wants fire, flame, Space Shuttles and outer space." is right, but only half right. Kids aren't the only ones who want "fire, flame, Space Shuttles and outer space", adults want it as well. You can tell we want to and are willing to vicariously live through the exploits of others by the amount of pro sports we devour. Not actually doing an amazing thing is no hindrance to generating excitement from that thing.

-Televise it with dramatic editing, and directing

-provide "colour" commentary that's not as dry as last years toast

-portray it with excitement

-have many camera angles and show how the crew are doing their jobs at the stressful and exciting times

-Try not to talk down the risk of each flight but make sure people know that this is a risky and yet fun business.

-Intersperse some of the horrendously boring commentary and background material with videos of tests that have failed, yet taught the design teams the lessons they need to excel.

Do even some of these things and you could really have a ratings winner at every launch. The old broadcasts in the 60s did things like these and people were glued to their seats. The risk was very real, the missions were not guaranteed of success and the astronauts were very obviously brave to do something this risky. When NASA and the broadcasters started to make it routine, people got bored and looked away. NASA has been trying to portray spaceflight as a risk free activity, so it's not wonder that people think of it like driving a bus. Driving a bus is important, but not in the forefront of the public's mind and you have to be in the public's mind to get the sort of money that NASA wants.

Excitement can be bred into a topic. Look at pro golf. Millions of people watch some shmoe whack a tiny ball around a farmer's field. On the face of it, it's a boring as watching grass grow, but TV has made it exciting and millions have responded. Space exploration has GOT to be more exciting than pro golf. Doesn't it?

Post as much of this as you might want, but please leave my name off. I don't think my bosses will particularly care, but we are a NASA contractor, so who knows?

Keep up the good work.

Keith - If NASA wants to emphasize 'power' ... I think this is much more inspiring for the kids.

I've tried to connect to all day, but the site is "temporarily unavailable or too busy." I guess the new Message Construct is so popular that NASA's servers just can't handle it.

Thanks for the great post.

George Orwell would be proud.

An ARC employee

Keith, As a long-standing NASA manager here at JSC, this is the last straw for me. Can anything be more stupid, ill-informed and uninspiring? No wonder we have such a low opinion of "Management." I am so tired of this kind of nonsense I feel like throwing up. It's time for a good old fashioned grass roots "Just Say No" campaign! We hereby appoint YOU Honorary Chair. It would take a NASA equivalent of Civil Disobedience to make it stick. I assure you the NASA Thought Police will be out in full force on this one! Maybe we should all tape a large NASA meatball on our office doors as a sign of protest and, dare I say, Solidarity. [please keep my identity secret - - I don't want to end up in the NASA Gulag]

I have just read Robert Hopkins' "New Core Messege" and can only respond with a "Huh?" As a citizen, teacher and NASA brat I am used to hearing scientific explanations that are difficult to understand from the agency but this Verbage is meaningless.

Year after year I teach a space unit to my Pre-K's (and their parents) and share my large collection with teachers in older grades. Each year I am pleasantly surprised by the children's (and their parents) fascination with what is beyond the Earth we see each day and where people might live in the future. As other teachers, parents and other student who heard about the unit pass through my room, they never ask if NASA is creating new jobs, making life easier here on Earth or if they are politically correct during Election campaigns. No, they always comment, with a sense of wonder, on how they wish they were the ones going to space to discover what else is "out there".

If you really want to be more in the public eye then step up the sharing of all the latest pictures and findings. And you must help teachers more with materials to teach younger students about the wonders of our galaxy and others. Educational study after study indicate that science should begin at the preschool level (not Middle School) and what better way to capture their attention than to use their sense of imagination and wonder. If only materials from NASA were truly written on the level of younger children!

I know I am only one teacher, one human and one voter but I do believe I represent more people and their desire to vicariously travel and discover beyond this world than the politicians that this new motto is supposed to impress. Hey Robert Hopkins, fire that Ad agency and go talk to the common people of our nation. You might be surprised at NASA's popularity and your need to communicate with them instead of focusing on Congress. After all, who do you think gives Congress their power?

Keith, Wow, this is really inspiring, and creative! Just what NASA needs to boost their public image in this troubling time of bad press. What a great idea for an agency in a marketing crises. Just a couple more points and we'll have a STAR graphic. Imagine this....."One NASA" (oops, almost forgot we saw this already).

Is the NASA budget so tight they can't afford to hire a decent marketing graduate or even a marketing coop student?

If this is the best HQ can do to inspire our next generation, we're screwed. A 5th or 6th grader could possibly relate to this as an equilateral triangle in geometry class, but not space. This isn't even fit for power point engineering. Please tell NASA HQ to stick to fundraising and lobbying bureaucrats so the rest of us can fly spacecraft to inspire our kids. I sure hope they don't offer unsolicited advice on guidance calculations to get to Moon, Mars or beyond; we'll miss the mark by miles.

I don't often get moved enough to reply, but this one takes the cake. As a current Shuttle contract employee at KSC, I am proud of my work to support manned spaceflight and love to promote the space program, but this is embarrassing. I don't know how to explain this to my friends. Please keep my name anonymous so I can lay low until this blows over.

Anonymous KSC employee

With regard to "NASA Begins Converting to The Graphic Element":

Whoot! I'm glad I wasn't drinking anything or I'd have ruined a good keyboard and a couple of printed reports. Very very good. Two points and a gold star. :-)

Anonymous please - NASA contractor

Keith, the new "graphical element" is perhaps the most pathetic thing I've seen come out of HQ. No wait, the Core Message must be more pathetic, since it is "enhanced" by the "graphical element". The designer must be paid by the syllable, since the "graphical element" is 4 more than necessary to describe a graphic.

The only relief is that we know they didn't waste alot of time or money on graphic design.

Here are other places on the web where the "powering" catch phrases are already being used:

Powering Innovation (apparently this is a trademark)

Powering Discovery

Powers Inspiration

The word "power" as in "NASA explores for answers that power our future" is as ineffective and geeky as the words "enable" or "empower". Any self-respecting organization or company would have used a real writer to create a cool slogan and used someone with an actual graphics background to design the new "graphic element" instead of using a PowerPoint diagram. These messages and the graphic are clumsy, outdated and just plain un-cool.

NASA explores what? Don't other people and agencies explore, too? And how does NASA explore? Where? By whom? And what kind(s) of power are we talking about here? Intellectual?

Where's the pictures of PEOPLE doing COOL STUFF? Where's the picture that shows that you or I could be part of the cool stuff, or even have a stake in it?

At least the red white and blue Meat Ball has stars and a nifty vector.


As a youngster I was inspired and excited by the launch in Oct '57 of Sputnik and then in Jan '58 of Exlorer I. President Kennedy's moving address about going to the moon only cemented by determination to work for NASA. After graduate school I spent many wonderful years working at NASA Hq and at a Center. So, you can imagine my chargrin at examining this new logo -- completely uninspirational and something that I, who has a pro NASA bias, wouldn't take a second look. And NASA hopes to inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and teachers? It isn't going to happen with this sophomoric logo. I am totally amazed at how clueless NASA management has become. To say the logo is boring and uninspirational is an understatement. Sad, so sad.

Ex-NASA employee

It would appear that the PAO types have no clue. Power point presentations with triangles just make me glassy eyed and I've been into the manned space program all my life.

They need things that the ordinary person can relate to and become emoationally attached too. They also need to answer the question " What's in it for me?". For better or worst we live in a society that is much more self-centered then it was in the Apollo days. That it is not a happy state of affairs,but it is reality.

I not only enjoyed my time in the space program, but I look at it as the survival program for the human race, as well as the best research and development program we have ever had. That is a point that needs to be put across to the general public. A fancy triangle may sell the choir,but we need to convince the majority of our fellow citizens that the lack of a robust space program will hurt them or the program will die.

I think if the program dies then at some point the Darwin nature of the universe will catch up with us and we will not be happy with the result.

'Market tested research' lands NASA with a triangle with tiny words on each corner?

They tested this where? The planet Triangulus? Were there any other choices? Did anyone with a background in language arts happen to mention these slogans are cumbersome?

Did anyone with a background in graphic design look at shape, form, color or function?

Where is the excitement of space?

Can you see this catching on: Street Rails with triangles on the side, backpacks, baseball hats, cowboy belts - PF flyers with little triangle on the back? A NASA NASCAR?

No wonder NASA is still awarding Silver Snoopy's.

I see the product of "bureaucratic creativity" at its finest - and quite the oxymoron I might add. No, NASA just doesn't get it. It has failed to realize over and over that the taxpaying public IS its customer, and keeping the customer interested and motivated is the ONLY way it will remain relevant and funded. Although by law NASA cannot "advertise", it could sure as heck at least apply a modicum of creativity and excitement to the little information it does dribble out to the public. For crying out loud, when the last shuttle ferried back from Edwards, people saw the SCA (it sure wasn't announced) and came from MILES around just to get a glimpse of the Space Shuttle.

NASA has a ready made audience, hungry to be motivated and captivated by the dream of space exploration, but due to its own advanced optical rectosis can't see it.

Sign me: Anonymous in Houston


Your critique of the new NASA Strategic Communications Office logo is justified. Too often, large organizations, in a desperate effort to appeal to everyone while offending no one, render their message unintelligible or worse, ineffective. Perhaps the most notorious example of this was the mascot for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Remember IZZY?!....

...Neither did anyone else!

Of course, what you see here is the product of many thousands of dollars and hours' worth of market research to derive something that ALL kids would love and NONE could possibly be frightened by. The "suits" succeeded; though to what extent the "lovable", amorphous, anatomically-vague, hyperthyroid, mouth-breathing, blue-and-red creature has ANYTHING to do with the pinnacles of human athletic endeavor, I haven't a clue. Nor did anyone else of consensual age, I imagine.

Keith, please post anonymously, as I think more people at HQ need to hear this.

AMEN, BROTHER! Unfortunately, this has been the problem with HQ for far too long. They simply don't get it and choose not to listen to anyone else's opinion.

I work for the Space Shuttle Program and talk to elementary schools every year during our local Space Week. Every year I ask about what's new to give the school children. I'm given a stack of stale b/w technical handouts on NASA, ISS or Shuttle plus bookmarks that describe, of all things,...protein crystal growth. When I explain that these are elementary school children who don't care about protein crystal growth, much less understand it, I'm told that that's all HQ hands out. When I ask for stickers of the NASA meatball or a cool poster to give to every child, I'm told that, "We don't give one to every child; you can have one for the classroom." What? And NASA wonders why they can't get today's kids interested in what we do? So, I go to ebay and purchase these items myself and guess what? The kids eat it up like candy. And, for the record, for the money that we spend on stupid stuff at this Agency, every kid of this country should have a cool space poster hanging above his/her bed. After all, their parents pay for the NASA budget through tax dollars.

If NASA wants to inspire today's youngsters to follow in our path, it should start at the youngest age and give them what they want: cool, color pictures, posters, stickers, patches of Space Shuttle and ISS missions. Forget protein crystal growth or the anatomy of a spacesuit. Kids wants fire, flame, Space Shuttles and outer space. Show them first that we we do is fun...then get them hooked on the specifics. Get rid of these people at HQ who think they know what kids want and put somebody in there who knows what kids want. I know what I'm talking about because I see it every year. And btw...I'd put my stickers, posters and patches up against a protein crystal growth bookmark any day. A bookmark?...geesh...

Anonymous MSFC Employee...

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on August 8, 2007 11:03 PM.

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