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Gen Y and NASA: An Alternate View

By Keith Cowing
March 5, 2008

Editor’s note: The following is from a NASA Watch reader in regard to the recent GEN Y posting. Personally, I belive that this person’s attitude is an example of why many parts of the NASA family are becoming further isolated from the real world – as opposed to becoming more closely aligned to it. My biases aside, this person’s comments do represent a viewpoint prevalent at NASA – and that viewpoint needs to be heard. Other reader comments follow. Send yours to

Keith: Just wanted to provide some feedback to you as a NASAWatch reader and contractor out of Houston regarding the stories about the “Gen-Y” presentation.

Although I did not attend the NGAC at Ames, I was invited and my civil servant “counterpart” did attend. I have read the Gen-Y presentation and reviewed your articles.

Personally, I find the entire “Gen-Y” discussion quite pathetic. This is one of those times where I wish I was *not* part of the group, as I really do not think there was much substance to the presentation. I’ve seen better presentations in powerpoint from children in middle school. Truly, as someone born in 1980, I wish I was born a little earlier so I could be “Gen-X” rather than Y.

Twitter? Why don’t the “Gen-Y” folks just recommend NASA start a MySpace/Facebook/LiveJournal page. Talk about ridiculous. To me, it’s the perfect way to make sure no one ever takes you seriously. (suggesting NASA use Twitter, or the like) It’s no wonder the site is blocked by the centers. If I were NASA IT, the last thing I would do is have my employee’s blogging all day about “what they’re doing”. A waste of time, and a potential security leak, in my opinion.

Does NASA need to better communicate to the public? Absolutely. Could NASA do a better job of “connecting with young people”. Sure. Do you solve these communication problems by creating a MySpace page, or using Twitter? No, you don’t. Anyone that sells you those sites as a “solution” is selling you a fad. Nothing more.

Although I think NASA faces a serious challenge with their workforce, it seems the kids creating the Gen-Y presentation do little to show management “the value of young people”. I’ve shown that presentation in it’s PDF format to a few of my coworkers, as well as friends outside work and the agency. The consensus is that it looks like a poorly done high school project. I’m also amazed the presentation has gained so much popularity. Alas, the public is always interested in something “new and shiny” and always amazed at the newest fad.

I can only hope that NASA management at the centers and at the agency level employs real solutions to their communication problems, rather than rely on the latest .com gimmick. Otherwise we’ll be in for another disappointment, I’m sure.

YMMV. Thanks for reading.

I guess what makes GenY think they are so special that NASA needs to engage them? A majority of the general public could care less about NASA and more about the latest Britney debacle or other vapid news items. Sure every so often pockets of interest follow a shuttle mission (the firefly fans on STS-117, the students for B. Morgan’s completion of the Challenger’s legacy and the star wars fans with STS-120) but for the most part the public doesn’t care. heck one presidential candidate wants to put NASA moon plans on hold for 5 years and nobody blinked. The ISS has been staffed 365/24/7 for years now and the public could care less.

Is it because NASA doesn’t package itself in short frantically edited Michael Bay styled MTV shorts or because space exploration has no impact on their lives. I thought the presentation was a bloated shell of a pitch, that lacked any real content. If I was the administrator of NASA you would have been kicked out by about slide 20, there was no content, no forward plan, no proposals just sugar coated flashy whining about not being empowered.

This from a generation who is more engaged in American Idol than politics or other more pressing issues and they want to help guide the space program because the pay taxes and are the current crop of co-ops or new hires, please. Until NASA has to start taking direct public donations to meet their budget goals I wouldn’t worry too much what GenY thinks cause every tax payer shoulders the load for NASA.

It is great that you are enthusiastic about the space program, but if they were to cater to you now with flashy myspace pages or instant messages from the ISS, what about GenZ? when they grow up your youtube and twitter will be archaic compare to their direct neural interface gizmos. Besides how exciting can you make the ISS going round and round, or a rover taking dusty red photos for the millionth frame or the endless requirement meetings for Constellation? What do you want a blog from some engineer telling you how the vehicle is still too heavy, barely has any redundancy and behind schedule. ooh I feel so empowered.

Keep to your day jobs as rocket scientists, blog on your own, tell your friends about the cool stuff you do, but I wouldn’t expect an agency that is going to take 11 years from VSE to first mission back to the ISS to be on the cutting edge of social technology (maybe the trailing edge)

As someone who thinks that internal marketing efforts are quite poor, I was happy to see the NASA Gen Y presentation. I think the people who are looking for a lot of substance are missing the point. This is MARKETING, people — we’re not talking about the way the missions get done, but the way they are communicated. If you expect that the very wordy PowerPoint charts traditionally presented at NASA meetings and design reviews will be effective in getting the public inspired, you are dead wrong.

The point of the Gen Y presentation is not to say that NASA employees should spend all day on Twitter and Facebook, either. It’s just to expose the agency to additional options for getting the message out. Other federal agencies are using blogs, virtual spaces such as Second Life, and other Web 2.0 mechanisms to communicate more broadly with this new tech-savvy community. What would be the disadvantage to having NASA’s marketing and outreach people explore some of these options?

Gen X, former NASA employee


By and large I think it is a good presentation, but I have to take exception to characterization of my generation (Gen X) as only about a twelve year segment of the population as shown on slide 30. When the original books were writen on Generation X and the 13th Generation, we were the kids born between 1961 and 1981 give or take a little. It’s depressing to see my generation losing its identity even if the point of those books was largely that we had no defining identity compared to Boomers. As someone born in 1964 who has spent the last 17 years thinking of myself as a GenXer, I’m not prepared to relabled a Baby Boomer (like my parents) or to live in a world where only Boomers and GenYers count.


If Gen Y is proud of (or even just comfortable with) their short attention spans and their need for instant gratification as this presentation implies, NASA, the country, and our planet are in big trouble.

As for Twitter and the like, what we are seeing is the fracturing, not strengthening, of communities at all levels while we exchange shallow thoughts about everything and anything as they pop into our heads. Meanwhile, items of substance and careful, considered thinking and judgment are getting lost in the noise…if they are actually out there at all.

Of course NASA needs to engage Gen Y…we all do. How? Give them a good shaking so they wake up out of their childhood to realize that it’s time for them to grow up and enter the real world–just like we had to. Accommodating their shortcomings instead of correcting them is a fast ride to disaster both for us and them.

Keith- Based on the comments you are posting, I don’t think your readers understand the intent of the presentation. The presentation does not give a complete picture of the situation because it is not a white paper. When I saw it live at NGEC, it sparked a long discussion about generational issues and communication. WE TALKED ABOUT IT! Gen Y is a dialogue-driven, user-content-creating bunch that thrives on *two way* communication. I think the Gen Y presentation has been a great catalyst for opening up discussions about generational differences. It has by no means “solved” the problem. I encourage your readers to reach out to some Gen Y people near them (coworkers, friends, relatives, children) and start a dialogue!

As for the readers that think all of these social networking tools like blogs, Twitter, or Facebook are irrelevant and a fad: I encourage them to think back to their youth and the baseball cards, comic books, tv shows, toys, and other engaging activities of the day. Every generation has new methods of communication and interaction. To reach an audience, you must be where there are people! Advertisers know this very well. Using these new tools to reach out may mean learning a new skill or following a dead end every once in a while. This is called “learning” and “exploring”. If we knew how to reach everyone exactly right, forever, we would be very rich indeed.

Everyone is welcome to contribute to this new, open discussion! I appreciate you including these comments on your blog and posting thoughts on Twitter. I’m going over to Facebook to see what’s happening in the “Support Space Exploration” group 🙂


I saw the Gen-Y presentation last week and almost right away what I took away from it was the near total lack of information. The bits and pieces in the presentation were even shorter than a news sound bite.

If that is indicative of what we can expect from Gen-Y I am going to hide under my desk from now till retirement.

I hope its inexperience and that they learn to communicate and articulate an idea better. Emoticons and text messaging vocabulary will not get the US back to moon by 2020 or ever.

Keep up the good work Keith.

Hi Keith: Your Houston reader’s comments are in synch with mine. I downloaded the presentation and after reading asked, is this all there is? Didn’t take the time to comment, wouldn’t have made any difference after the fact. Regards

Dear NASA Watch…

I’m a huge NASA Watch fan, but…

Too bad you don’t have feedback mechanisms on your posts. That bit about Gen-Y-ers was one of the most vacuous, buzzword-filled bits of pabulum I’ve ever seen. And with a fair dose of leftist imagery to boot (“Shaped” by Columbine? Say what? Can anyone say UT Tower?)

Yeah, NASA’s broke. I get it. We all get it. If we’ve come to this we ought to just close NASA and let the private sector do the job. Or maybe we’ll just let the Chinese eat our lunch — they don’t spend all day in Starbuck’s and on MySpace I can assure you and they don’t need to to get the job done.

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.