"The Hunt For Planet B": A Wonderful Documentary That NASA Simply Ignores

Keith's note: I just watched "The Hunt For Planet B", a documentary on the James Webb Space Telescope which aired on CNN. I must say that this is a splendid film. It managed to capture the scope and breadth of what JWST is going to do and the scientific and political complexities that have dogged its development. Most importantly, however, this fim is about the people who have labored to build this spacecraft and those who have developed the science that will now be turbocharged once it is in operation.

When you work on something that takes decades to develop and then has decades of operations ahead, you find your lifetime becoming inexorably intermeshed with the mission. Some of the people in this documentary are young and have their entire careers ahead of them. Imagine what they will learn. Others in this film, some of whom I have known for 30 years, provide the shoulders upon which this next generation will stand. Yet despite their age, they are all compelled - drawn - sometime in ways that are hard to voice - to this mission for a singular purpose - to peer back in time and to understand the origin of the universe and the distribution of life beyond our own planet.

The focus of this film was very much in the direction of the search for life. NASA calls its program Astrobiology - a synergistic mix of astronomers, biologists, geologists, and others who are all drawn together to try and understand the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe. I was at the original organizing meetings in 1996-1998 where Astrobiology was laid out. Back then we had no proof that there any planets - anywhere - except in our own solar system. Now they are discovered almost daily. Planets are not a bug - but rather, a feature of the universe it would seem.

Webb is scheduled for launch on 18 December. The 7 minutes of terror we have all gotten used to for Mars landings will stretch out across nearly a month as Webb journeys to L2 and deploys itself. Hopefully it will. Just as Hubble has caused billions to pause at least once and look at an image of the universe around us, Webb will take that to the next level.

At a time when civil strife is on the rise, a global pandemic threatens billions, and budgets are tight, a multi-billion dollar effort like Webb needs to have some context provided. NASA has done an OK job thus far. Alas, NASA Public Affairs and, to some extent, the Science Mission Directorate, is sadly lacking when it comes to utilizing all possible avenues to provide this context.

This film was shot on multiple NASA locations, featured many NASA employees starting with the SMD AA, and had extensive interaction with NASA, Space Telescope Science Institute, AURA, and Northrop Grumman. CNN offered a free, global platform to distrubute this wonderful documentary. You would think that NASA would want to utilize this opportunity. You'd think that NASA would want to use its social media presence which reaches 50 million people on the @NASA Twitter account alone, and hundreds of millions around the world via its websites. You'd think that good PR like this would be a welcome addition to the story of how this amazing instrument came to be and what it can do. Guess again.

NASA has made no mention of this documentary on Twitter at @NASA, @NASAWebb, @NASAExoplanets or @NASAAstroBio. No mention was made at websites such as NASA.gov, Science.nasa.gov, exoplanets.nasa.gov/, nasa.gov/mission_pages/webb/, jwst.nasa.gov or astrobiology.nasa.gov.

I am utterly baffled as to why NASA PAO, NASA SMD, and NASA's Astrobiology Program constantly ignore things like this. They went out of their way to make NASA employees available. They were certainly aware that it was going to air. Yet when I ask NASA why they ignore it NASA ignores my questions. Yet NASA PAO doesn't pass up on a chance to do product placement for the stuffed Snoopy doll that they are sending to the Moon. And of course, if something goes wrong with Webb NASA PAO will suddenly want all of the news media to run with whatever spin the agency tries to put on the situation. The only conclusion I can draw from this is that something inside NASA Public Affairs and Outreach offices is very broken - and that NASA does not really care that it is.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on November 20, 2021 11:49 PM.

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