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Internet Policies

JPL Employee Complains When People Believe A Website They Developed

By Keith Cowing
November 16, 2018
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Keith’s note: NASA has some pretty amazing websites. Some of the best ones are made by JPL. They are immensely popular. A lot of work goes into making sure that they work, that they are accurate, and, if needed, that caveats are posted explaining why the information depicted may be modified, delayed, or missing. In other words, there’s a lot of transparency and honesty that goes with thee websites – as there should be. Sometimes the websites have flaws that only emerge over time. Usually NASa is good about fixing these bugs. But sometimes a few NASA employees decide to get snarky and try to blame inaccuracies on the inability of news media or the public to understad a lot of geeky details that they should not be expected to know. That’s not how to behave when it comes to the presentation and maintenance of a “public facing” NASA website.
The other day someone at was sharp enough to notice that there seemed to be a signal coming from a Mars Exploration Rover- specifically via a DSN dish in Madrid, Spain. Their source: the NASA DSN Now website. Since Spirit is dead, Opportunity is the only MER rover left who could do this, right? Indeed on the right hand side of the screen you could see that Opportunity was sending information back to Earth. So, assuming that the NASA website was correct he tweeted his observation. Someone replied to note that the NASA Eyes website showed that there were up and down links from Opportunity. Even the unofficial NASA DSN Twitter account @DSN_Status (which gets its data directly from the NASA Eyes website) said that DSN was talking to – and getting data from – Opportunity.

Lots of Twitter traffic ensued. I checked with several NASA sources who said that they were checking to confirm and tweeted that this might be a “false positive”. A short while later JPL tweeted “Today showed what looked like a signal from @MarsRovers Opportunity. As much as we’d like to say this was an #OppyPhoneHome moment, further investigation shows these signals were not an Opportunity transmission.” And that should have been the end of the story.
But it wasn’t. NASA JPL employee Doug Ellison, one of the designers of the NASA DSN website, started to complain on his Twitter account @Doug_Ellison about things he does as part of his day job at NASA JPL. He was whining about how people misunderstood what the website was saying. In essence, it was the public and news media’s fault for getting things wrong. Among his tweets he chided people by saying “Willing a spacecraft to phone home is awesome. Misinterpreting data (in a way that’s been done before) that has people thinking it HAS phoned home isn’t.” In other words its our fault for believing NASA.
I have gotten tweets and emails from people lecturing me how this JPL DSN website works with lots of geeky details. I’m sure everyone is correct. Funny thing: none of what they are saying to me appears on the NASA DSN website. All visitors to this website see is a page showing little graphical dishes sending or receiving animated signas rom spacecraft. NASA tels people to go this website to see what is going on across the solar system. Since NASA is showing this happening as if it was happening in real time, visitors naturally assume that what NASA is showing is real since people trust NASA websites. If this is not a true representation of what DSN is doing then why did NASA go to such lengths to make it look real and not tell people that it is not real.
Right now if you go to this website there is no obvious note to people that the data may not be accurate. There is a little “last updated” notation with a time. And there’s a little “i” link. If you click on it you get this: “Below is the current state of the Deep Space network as established from available data updated every 5 seconds. Click a dish to learn more about the live connection between the spacecraft and the ground. The legend (below) shows the various connections between spacecraft and the ground. A carrier is a pure radio ‘tone’ used to establish communications or for navigation. Data is commands, scientific measurements or housekeeping engineering information. Uplink is commands being sent ‘up’ to a spacecraft. Downlink is data received from a spacecraft.”
In other words NASA is saying that this is what is actually going on with their DSN. Since NASA websites tend to have a stellar reputation when they show stuff like this, one would naturally assume that if NASA is showing something like this then it is accurate.
Based on the obvious flaws in this website’s depiction of ghost signals from a Mars rover, NASA JPL needs to put a caveat on their website saying that information on the website may not be accurate. Or take the site offline. This is an official NASA website and people tend to believe what NASA posts online. Faulting people for doing like some JPL people and fans have been doing, is silly. If NASA JPL PAO can take the time to add “artist’s impression”, “Illustration”, or “false color” to graphics they post then they can put a notice on this website stating that “the graphics depicted are conceptual and may not represent actual spacecraft communications”.
Dialing back the error, what happend? A lot of people were overjoyed to see a NASA website saying that Opportunity had phoned home. They trusted NASA on this. But in the end it was a mistake. Oh well. NASA JPL quickly admitted this. Hopefully JPL will understand that they have engendered an amazing amount of trust among visitors to many of the agency’s websites and will adjust this otherwise cool website to inform visitors that glitches happen. They also need to send at least one of their employees to training class for “NASA Public Outreach 101”.

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