NASA is sad. (Via Orin Kerr.) They have a spiffy new mission to go to the Moon, which speaks directly to our innermost yearnings to leverage our capabilities and energize a coordinated effort. Really, the kind of stuff that makes us truly human.
If anyone should be excited by this, it’s the two groups NASA cares about the most: young adults, and members of Congress.
At an October workshop attended by 80 NASA message spinners, young adults were right up there with Congress as the top two priorities for NASA’s strategic communications efforts.
But the target audience is not going along!
Young Americans have high levels of apathy about NASA’s new vision of sending astronauts back to the moon by 2017 and eventually on to Mars, recent surveys show.
Concerned about this lack of interest, NASA’s image-makers are taking a hard look at how to win over the young generation — media-saturated teens and 20-somethings growing up on YouTube and Google and largely indifferent to manned space flight.
So apparently, we blame the internets. The leap from media-saturation to Moon-apathy seems a bit of a stretch to me, but I understand that one must blame somebody. I blame the fact that the Moon/Mars initiative is eviscerating honest science at NASA, and also that “we must get there before the Chinese do” doesn’t currently evoke the “we must get there before the Soviets do” xenophobia that was so effective in the Sixties.
But we shouldn’t fear, as there is a solution for the frustrating indifference shown by those lazy kids today: celebrity endorsements.
Tactics encouraged by the workshop included new forms of communication, such as podcasts and YouTube; enlisting support from celebrities, like actors David Duchovny (“X-Files”) and Patrick Stewart (“Star Trek: The Next Generation”); forming partnerships with youth-oriented media such as MTV or sports events such as the Olympics and NASCAR; and developing brand placement in the movie industry.
Outside groups have offered ideas too, such as making it a priority to shape the right message about the next-generation Orion missions.
And NASA should take a hint from Hollywood, some suggested.
“The American public engages with issues through people, personalities, celebrities, whatever,” said George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, a space advocacy group. “When you don’t have that kind of personality, or face, or faces associated with your issue, it’s a little bit harder for the public to connect.”
I understand that the X-Files and ST:TNG are the hot media properties on the streets these days. Never let it be said that NASA’s instinctive feel for the cutting edge of coolness is anything other than maximally supa-fresh.
If I may humbly offer a suggestion. It’s possible that youthful apathy towards the promise of a Moon base is not due to a short-circuit of wonder caused by too-easy access to YouTube videos. It might be, instead, that this apathy is due to the complete absence of any compelling rationale for spending hundreds of billions of dollars on this project. Perhaps we could return to a management philosophy in which we first hit upon a really good reason for doing something, and then we figure out how to do it and work on spreading the excitement, rather than the reverse order. Maybe — just maybe — those kids today are sophisticated enough not to get excited by boondoggles, but they might actually be enthusiastic about learning surprising new things about the universe.
I want to believe.