Culture: October 2015 Archives

Keith's note: The following was sent out by Belansky, Michael J. (JSC-NS231) to a lot of people at JSC yesterday. Given Mark Watney's poo and potato experiments in "The Martian", its seems that this topic is on JSC management's minds these days.

"From: Belansky, Michael J. (JSC-NS231)
Sent: Tuesday, October 06, 2015 10:54 AM
To: HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE (DELETED) Larger image
Cc: JSC-WCC-Work-Control-Center
Subject: Need Your Help

Build 20 Residents,

It seems it's time to send out a reminder about proper potty etiquette. Please remember that only toilet paper should be flushed besides human waste. In the event that more than a reasonable amount of toilet paper is needed, please perform a preliminary flush before overwhelming the commode with massive amounts of toilet paper. If by chance you forget these guidelines and do overwhelm the toilet or notice a clogged commode, please be courteous and report the stopped up toilet immediately by writing an email to JSC-WCC-Work-Control-Center (jsc-wcc@mail.nasa.gov) and .cc both me and David Nayles. This way the problem gets resolved quickly."

An Alarming Number Of People Think "The Martian" Is A True Story, BuzzFeed

"The Martian, the new movie by Ridley Scott starring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on Mars, is being rightly praised for its fairly accurate portrayal of science. But maybe it was too realistic, because an alarming number of people out there have come away from the film thinking it is based on a true story."

Sheila Jackson Lee

"In 1997, while on a trip to the Mars Pathfinder operations center in California, Jackson Lee confused the planet Mars with Earth's own moon, asking whether the Pathfinder had succeeded in taking a picture of the flag planted on Mars by Neil Armstrong in 1969."

Don't worry. Matt Damon won't get stuck on Mars. NASA can't get him there, Washington Post

"We're setting expectations for something that is decades away. The public has a short attention span," said Lori Garver, the former deputy administrator of NASA under President Obama. Doug Cooke, a former NASA associate administrator for exploration, thinks NASA needs to spell out intermediate steps to Mars. There's one obvious stopping point between the third and fourth rocks from the sun: The moon. Cooke says it could be a proving ground for off-world living. "There needs to be more of a plan for actually getting there," Cooke said. "You can't have a flat-line budget indefinitely and think you're going to put all of this together by 2030."

Astronauts again blast off at box office, 'The Martian' lands with $55 million debut, US News & World report

"The 20th Century Fox release, starring Matt Damon as an astronaut left for dead on Mars, exceeded expectations to nearly rank as the top October debut ever. The estimated North American opening of "The Martian" surpassed that of Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" ($47.5 million) and virtually equaled the debut of Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" ($55.8 million)."

Keith's note: Once the feel-good hoopla surrounding "The Martian" fades, NASA will be in the exact same place it was before the film was released: frantically inserting "Journey To Mars" into every public utterance - however tenuous the actual connection - with no clear plan or guaranteed budget to actually make it all happen. And there aren't any more Mars movies in the Hollywood pipeline to keep the buzz going.

The Martian: How NASA Soars - and Stumbles - Simultaneously, earlier post

Film Review: "The Martian", Keith Cowing

"The Martian is a really good movie. It would be a good movie even if it was not set in outer space. But it does happen in space and does so in superbly flawless fashion. The movie is fast-paced and really doesn't miss a beat. Little time is wasted on things that do not support the story. You are on Mars with Mark Watney and you really want to see him get home."

NASA = Mars = Delusional, Paul Spudis

"Apparently, NASA believes that as this movie takes off in popularity, a public wound-up about space exploration will demand that the agency be showered with additional money."

Keith's note: No, Paul I have yet to find a single person even remotely involved in PR or EPO efforts at NASA who thinks that this is going to happen and/or have adopted this as a strategy. Indeed a lot of them are a little leery that some space advocates seem to be operating under this delusion. NASA PAO folks are doing the PR for the reasons I cite below in "Growing The Next Generation Of Space Explorers" I do have to pose the question: why are so many movies (viewed by the public) about going to Mars, and so very few about going to the Moon? Hollywood (at least) tries to make movies that large audiences will go and see. The Moon is not sexy right now - hate to burst your balloon. Whose fault is it that the Moon is not hip right now?

That said, if you strip out Paul's barely suppressed hostility about Mars-o-mania, he does touch on some important points in this posting - and you should read it. As Spudis knows, I think the notion of sending humans back to the Moon has been ignored for far too long. So has the notion of sending humans to Mars. We should do both in a coordinated, synergistic, evolutionary way. The fact that prominent space advocates/scientists fight in public like this simply reaffirms my ongoing commentary about how space policy is (rather is not) made and that space advocates need to stop talking to one another and go outside their sandboxes into the real world and see what passes for important.

I suspect that the elusive secret sauce needed to link what NASA and the space sector can do, what they should do, and how they should do it - in a growing fashion - lies outside the agency all together. Space fans just have to accept some humility, adopt a open mind, and look. Its there. Sometimes it lingers just out of reach when a big space movie comes out. Other times its brought on by something interesting in the sky. Its there. Its like dark matter since we can see its influence. But space fans have yet to figure out how to actually detect it.

So long as prominent members of the space science/policy advocacy communities have these stark, incompatible, almost religious disagreements about where to go (and where not to go) they will make no progress. Indeed as costs increase they are going to continue to make negative progress. Absent from all of these intramural squabbles is a lucid explanation as to why NASA should spend billions of "regular" people's tax dollars on things that a lot of regular folks simply do not understand - all while college tuition has become obscene and health care costs are increasing like a runaway train. Given this dysfunctional behavior I remain totally baffled as to how the space community at large (or its various dueling tribes) thinks that they can just turn around and get the public to clamor for more money for ANY of these projects when they are so utterly detached from the real world that pumps money into NASA's lap in the first place.

How Matt Damon could rocket NASA to Mars in real life, MarketWatch

"Public support is seen as crucial to the agency as it works to make due on a promise to send humans to the red planet within 20 years. As excitement regarding the potential to travel to, land, and possibly even live on Mars grows, scientists say it could prop up NASA's missions and help secure ongoing funding. This week, a number of scientists heralded the film's factual accuracy, NASA announced a breakthrough discovery regarding flowing water on the red planet, and a rare blood moon on Sunday attracted a significant amount of attention on social media sites. The momentum has set the film up for a solid opening weekend, with Fandango reporting that pre-sales for "The Martian" are exceeding those of the 2013 sci-fi thriller "Gravity." Box office tracking company BoxOffice.com estimates the film will rake in $56 million this weekend."

Keith's note: OK, so lets just say for a moment that a visually stunning movie about an adventure on a strange new world sets box office records and goes on to make a billion dollars or more. In the process media visibility is relentless and the movie sells itself through word of mouth and a creative PR campaign. And oh yes, the real NASA is part of the PR effort. Well, take out the NASA part and the film I was describing was "Avatar". A couple of years later "Gravity" had a smaller, but similar effect. And Last year's "Interstellar" made its mark with some distinction as well.

Where is the budget bump for NASA directly (or even indirectly) attributable from these films? Did NASA's astrobiology and extrasolar planets budget get a big bump? ("Avatar"). How about human spaceflight? ("Gravity") Breakthrough propulsion and astrophysics? ("Interstellar"). Did Congress introduce bills inspired by any of these bills? Did the White House initiate any new legislative efforts? Did a citizen's movement arise and deluge Congress and the White House with letters asking for more support for space exploration thus causing a policy pivot? No.

Ignoring recent history (as space advocates regularly do) the usual space advocacy suspects have been trumpeting "The Martian" as a game changer for NASA and space exploration. Will it have an effect on inspiring young people? Of course it will - as did all of the other films I mentioned plus others. Decades ago like "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Star Trek" shaped my future career (and still do). And the inspiration in the near term may grown and evolve into something more pervasive and real in years to come. No one doubts that these movies can affect people in a life altering way. But there's not going to be special congressional committees called into existence to respond to citizen demands as a result of "The Martian" - since there will be no such demands.

NASA has been closely linked to PR and education and public outreach in connection with the movie - a wise, excellent decision. So far NASA has conducted itself perfectly, using the film to help explain basic things that it does and when drama trumps science, why this was done and what the real science is. They also helped the producers make it as close to reality as is practical with any scifi drama. There is no downside to this. Well, actually there is: NASA has nowhere near the budget for the Mars stuff in the film and what work it is already engaged in is beset with cost overruns and significant delays. But the movie goers aren't going to see a budget presentation. They are going to see a story. Maybe they will walk out of the theater with that story playing in their head. And perhaps some time in the near (or far) future when asked about space in a poll, or to vote for someone who mentions space, they might see their actions driven by this film (and others). But signing petitions and engaging in organized lobbying? I think not. Its just a movie.

But if people make humans to Mars something that they own as a result of seeing this film - something that they internalize personally - or see as what their children want to do, then you have to nucleus of a chance to sway policy decisions. This only happens if you plant the seed and nourish it. And this interest should not be forced to conform to the tired, broken tactics that Space advocates use (i.e. talking to one another but not the 99.999% who are not in the room). Rather it should be sought out in poor inner city schools or farming communities - not just magnet/charter schools in rich suburban communities. If space advocates want to so this space stuff for all humanity then they need to involve all of humanity.

This magical change that the space advocates expect will arise and will alleviate all of NASA's woes will not happen. Movies - even the most popular and successful - have yet to affect NASA's space policy. As my long-time friend Alan Ladwig noted, no one makes movies about NIH (or NSF) but their budgets go up without that cinematic boost. As far as NASA is concerned I (and Alan!) would sincerely love to be wrong - but I do not see it happening with "The Martian".

But this film will have a positive impact even if it's impact invisible at the moment. And other movies will follow with similar impacts. NASA will derive its best benefit from this and future scifi movies in terms of soft power - not from an onslaught of loud space advocates doing a march up the Mall in Washington demanding money for NASA. Rather, it starts with a student paying a little extra attention to a hard class in school this month - or changing their major next year. Maybe its a new merit badge in scouting or an interest in greenhouses or hacking an Arduino board to do something new. Maybe its a parent picking a different birthday present. Or maybe its a slowly building gut feeling that there are things out there that need to be explored. And the secret to this is education. Alas, NASA's education system, however well-intentioned, has been underfunded, uncoordinated, and mismanaged for decades. That needs to be fixed if NASA wants to have the next generation equipped and able to engage in the adventures the agency wants to embark upon.

Space exploration supporters in general need to take a lesson from "The Martian's" Watney - and "Insterstellar's" Cooper: become farmers and grow an army of supporters no matter where the potential supporters may live. The place to start is where those supporters actually are in terms of their dreams and interests. You can't force your dreams onto someone else.

When you set out to grow a tree you do not hammer a stick of wood into the ground and just walk away. You plant a seed or a seedling and then wait. And you nurture when needed. Space advocates need to put aside their hammers.


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This page is an archive of entries in the Culture category from October 2015.

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