NASA's Mars 2020 Websites Are Not Ready For Prime Time

Keith's note: NASA JPL and NASA SMD recently put out a press release "6 Things to Know About NASA's Mars Helicopter on Its Way to Mars". Helicopters. Hmmm .. that's aeronautics. You'd think that the Aeronautics part of NASA would be mentioned. The word "aeronautics" appears nowhere. Nor is anything related to aeronautics on NASA's various websites linked to. If you go to the JPL press kit link for Ingenuity the word "aeronautics" appears nowhere. If you download the actual press kit the word "aeronautics" appears twice. Once in the agency's name (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and then again on page 31 where it says "The Mars helicopter technology demonstration activity is supported by NASA's Science Mission Directorate, the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, and the NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate". There is a page describing how it flies, but no mention or linkage is made of anything that NASA has been doing in Aeronautics since its inception 3/4 of a century ago.

Moreover, there is no discussion as to how it is possible to fly anything on a world with an atmosphere only 1% the thickness of Earth's. There is a great teaching experience that is being ignored. And of course no mention is made of any educational tools even though the NASA STEM Office has them and the JPL mission site has several - which are buried within the website.

Although NASA's Aeronautics Research and Space Technology Mission Directorates are listed as participants neither the Space Technology Mission Directorate website or the Aeronautics Directory website make any mention of Ingenuity. There is no mention in the Aeronautics programs page. But ... if you click on the "more stories" link at the bottom of the Aeronautics page - 6 times - and go back in time 7 months there is a single story on Ingenuity. The landing is 3 weeks away. Why isn't this sort of stuff being promoted?

And of course, in addition to not bothering to cross-coordinate within NASA's internal participants in this mission, NASA is not content with one official Mars 2020 Perseverance website. So they have two - one at NASA HQ and the other at JPL. As I have noted before, neither of these two official Mars 2020 websites link to one another and yet they duplicate each other's content. That's two web development teams at twice the cost working on the same thing.

And if you go to the JPL site and use the drag down menu for "spacecraft" you only get options for "Overview", "Rover", "Instruments", and "Rocket" none of which mention the Ingenuity helicopter. None of the links under "Timeline" mention Ingenuity either. Under "mission" only "technology" mentions Ingenuity. Its almost as if NASA is not interested in spending more than minimal effort on this helicopter. Oh yes, they have invested around $80 million on Ingenuity.

NASA is less than 3 weeks away from landing Perseverance and Ingenuity on Mars. The agency has had years to get the PR and outreach stuff into place. And yet their websites are not at all synched up with one another, are badly designed in terms of navigation, and often needlessly duplicate on another by creating parallel stove pipes. This is not a new problem. If you read NASAWatch then you have had to endure my rants about this. Last week I did an exit Interview with Jim Bridenstine and I brought this up:

"NASAWATCH: This reminds me of something. When I look at the Mars 2020 mission it is going to be flying a little drone - the Ingenuity helicopter. Right off the bat you just look at this thing and you think OK, this is aeronautics. Reynolds numbers and all of that. People can't imagine that you can fly on Mars but it is actually quite easy to do. And then you think about it a bit further and ask where are drones being used on Earth? You just mentioned agriculture. People are using them in agriculture and are combining GPS and geolocation and satellite imagery from smallsats. You would think that you should be going over to the NASA Aeronautics or Technology websites to see how they are helping with the Mars 2020 mission. But they do not talk about it. And if you go to NASA's Earth Science website - which is run by the very same Science Mission Directorate that runs Earth Sciences they do not talk about it either. There is an obvious analog there. And what is the most popular gift under many Christmas trees? Drones. You would think that this would be such a no brainer sort of thing to be highlighting and yet you do not see it being done.

So - my question (there is one here) NASA buys its stove pipes by the truckload when it comes to outreach. You put a memo out a in May 2019 that says 'OK we are going to cut down on the number of websites and make them more interactive'. From what I am told, and I regularly highlight this on NASAWatch, zero progress has been made. Why is it that NASA doesn't seem to want to tell a single, coordinated story about what it is doing. The various parts of NASA all seem to want to go off in their own little direction."

Think of all of the students and farmers in agricultural communities who are missing out on a no-brainer link between things that are important in their world and something that NASA is doing on Mars. What a colossal missed opportunity.

Yes, there will be crazy web traffic for one day for the landing. One day. That's it. NASA seems ill-prepared for the months and years to follow. How many people know or care that Curiosity has been there for years? Show of hands please. And that Moon rock in the Oval Office? It is last week's news.

NASA is forever whining and complaining about the way that the news media covers things and what the public does or does not think about what NASA does. The same goes for what Congress thinks. Now a new Administration seeks to renew a strong focus upon the role of science in government decision making. You would think that NASA would have taken this task to repair and upgrade its website seriously - perhaps not for the previous Administration, but certainly for the new one. Bridenstine's memo and direction was issued nearly 2 years ago. Nothing has been fixed - as noted above. There are urban myths within NASA about some sort of website upgrade but it will likely be equally out of date when it finally manages to crawl online.

But who cares? If NASA cannot get its team together to provide a coordinated, easy to understand story about what it does the whole space exploration thing, why it does it, and how it does it, then how can they expect people to support billions of dollars being spent on it - especially during a time of pandemic, economic desperation, and political unrest? Trillions of dollars are being devoted to keeping our nation afloat and all spending priorities - big and small - are under the relevancy microscope.

But wait - there's more: in that very same constrained budgetary environment NASA wants to spend billions more to bring samples that Perseverance will be collecting back to Earth. You would think that there would be some strategic thought given as to how to excite and engage - and then retain and build upon - the public's attention for complex, expensive science missions like this so as to generate support for these future missions. But no.

NASA has a chance to be a bright shining light in this time of darkness. Its big rocket choked last week during its big engine test. Let's hope that NASA steps up to the plate and sticks the Mars Perseverance landing both on Mars - and within the hearts and minds of people back on Earth.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on January 23, 2021 6:40 PM.

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