NASA's Web Presence is An Amazing Mess

Keith's note: Websites are a thing that people have been doing for a quarter of a century. Despite all of the fancy graphics and tricks there are some basic things a good website should do. NASA has lots of websites - more than any other government agency. The agency's Internet reach is truly global. But it gets this global reach in spite of itself. Its web presence is a jumbled mess with endless actors competing with one another to get their message out without any thought to collaboration or strategic intent.

If you go to a website for an organization or company you will see an "about" menu item. If you check the menu underneath you will see "About us"; "Who we are", "What we do", "Where we are", and "How to contact us". You might also see something like "audience" or "product categories". Under "About us" "who we are" explains where the website sponsor came from and who the "management", "Advisors", and other significant personnel are. "What we do" explains what they sell or offer as service. "Where we are" describes factory or sales or operations locations. "How to contact us" offers email addresses, physical addresses, phone numbers, online query forms or other means whereby you can make contact.

NASA tries to do some of this but mostly stumbles into itself, creates dead ends, rabbit holes, and is beset by the stovepipe mentality rampant within the agency wherein everyone does their own thing no matter how redundant it may be. In many cases, as I have noted before, NASA often has 2 or more websites covering the same mission or topic since it is easier to avoid food fights and turf battles by tolerating the status quo.

Jim Bridenstine ordered the agency to fix its website mess in 2019 (see Overhauling NASA's Tangled Internet Presence). The situation existed in 2017 (see Dueling NASA Websites Update) and 2011 (see NASA's Inability To Speak With One Voice Online) and so on. The 2019 action to fix things went to CIO and PAO. They did nothing for a year and then tossed it to the NASA Chief Scientist's office. Supposedly there is something under development but since nothing has changed in the past two years since an action was assigned I am dubious of its imminent arrival or value.

So let's take another swipe at what is broken. If you go to NASA.gov and go to "About" in the top menu and click on leadership all you get is a short bio of Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. No one else is mentioned. You have to go to Organization to get that information. Oddly, all of the people listed are indeed the agency's leadership but they are not listed on the leadership page. All of the field centers are listed at the bottom of the leadership page with a one sentence listing of their specialties. But if you go to the org chart from August 2020 many of the locations are not even mentioned - Wallops, White Sands, Michoud, IV&V, Safety etc. Shared services and JPL are shown in different places).

If you go to locations there is also a list of the NASA field centers but no mention is made of what they do (unlike the leadership page which at least gives a few key words for what each center does). Moreover if you visit each of NASA's locations (field centers) they only talk about themselves and rarely (if ever) talk about other NASA field centers. Indeed, they often take NASA HQ press releases and modify them to have a local feel with local contacts. If you land on one of these field center websites you'd be almost certain to not know that there are any other field centers operated by NASA. One would also think that an explanation of what each field center does and what areas it serves would be prudent. But then again, if you read the content on each of the sites, you'd be forgiven for thinking that each field center does everything that NASA as a whole does. As such, a chart showing what they do would be pointless since every field center would fight to have every box checked for every topic - even if they only do a tiny piece of that work.

One extreme example is JPL. If you go to the NASA JPL website and click on the NASA logo you go to ... the site you are already reading. The only place you can find a link to NASA on NASA JPL main page is at the absolute bottom of the page on the left hand side in small type. Talk about burying visibility of NASA outside of JPL.

But back to NASA.gov. If you look at the options under "NASA Audiences" you have 3 to choose from: Media, Educators, Students. There is nothing for "Scientists/Engineers, "Business Interests", or "Policy Makers". There are topical links but they lead you away from most of what the agency has online. Try "Solar System And Beyond". There is no link to the NASA Science Mission Directorate where all of this stuff is done. The "The Search for Life and Exoplanets" page makes mention of the Astrobiology program or the multibillion dollar Mars Perseverance mission and its "mobile astrobiologist". If you go to the Earth page there is zero mention of the major effort by the White House to address climate change. And despite having the word "aeronautics" in its name - there is no obvious link to "aeronautics" at NASA.gov.

Given that the Biden Administration is all about SCIENCE - with the tagline #ScienceIsBack in frequent use, you'd think that there would be more of a focus on helping visitors find all of the science goodness at NASA - both for the general public and for actual scientists and policy makers. Good luck with that. If you use the Search box on the upper right hand side you get results that are a mix of specific and general, and that are old and new. No strategic thought of presenting topics of relevance to current policy discussions is presented in a strategic, prominent fashion.

But NASA does have some amazing only research and search capabilities. You can only find them if you know in advance to look for them. NASA.gov is of no help. NASA.gov and its subsidiary pages make no up front mention of these NASA funded search resources. One example is PubSpace - a NASA partnership with the PubMed Central (PMC) repository, hosted by The National Institutes of Health, to provide public access to peer-reviewed papers resulting from NASA-funded research. One page buried deep inside the website sends you here where only NASA folks seem to be welcome. The public? No mention. But if you know to go to the actual PubSpace site hosted by NIH - well, everyone is welcome.

Then there is the treasure trove of 70-plus years of NASA and NACA information at NASA Technical Reports Server (NTRS) which "provides access to NASA metadata records, full-text online documents, images, and videos. The types of information included are conference papers, journal articles, meeting papers, patents, research reports, images, movies, and technical videos - scientific and technical information created or funded by NASA." You can't find it anywhere prominent via NASA.gov.

NASA JSC posted this the other day: International Space Station Archives Fuel New Scientific Discoveries: "That legacy is evident in a publication by Cell Press, a collection of scientific journals that recently compiled 29 papers on the biology of spaceflight or the study of how space affects the human body. A number of the papers relied on the NASA Life Sciences Data Archive (LSDA) and NASA's Genelab, two repositories that contain decades of biological samples and data from the International Space Station." Cool stuff, eh? Worth telling the world about, don't you think? Go to the Humans In Space page. No mention of either database. Go to the International Space Station link. No mention of either database. Go to Space Station Research and Technology. No mention of either database. Indeed go to Let's Explore Space Station Science with a searchable database. No mention of either database.

Another overlooked resource is extremely comprehensive NASA Spaceline which is "compiled weekly, contain citations to articles from peer-reviewed journals and other recent publications of interest in the space life sciences." It is buried on the NASA Taskbook website which no one in the real world ever hears about. The ISS Program Office and CASIS make no mention of this listing of their own research results. Indeed, the only complete archive is on our SpaceRef website back to 1999. NASA's support for this service has wavered - but we did a diving catch to make sure it was not lost. So ... I could go on - but I have been doing that for decades. Have a look here.

When it comes to stunning imagery and stories of the moment, NASA constantly manages to thrill, awe, and stun the world with its audacious accomplishments. Yet the same agency manages to hide much of its treasures - thus limiting the full impact of its discoveries and limiting its ability to have an impact beyond its comparatively small governmental sandbox. Maybe the Biden folks will fix this once and for all.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on March 2, 2021 8:50 PM.

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