A decade ago, the National Aeronautical and Space Administration was a symbol of the American pioneering spirit. Today, NASA has a serious image problem: a string of failures and an inability to control its budget have made it symbolic of bloated bureaucracy. A PR approach that sells the steak rather than the sizzle is called for.
As the Mars Observer spacecraft vanished into thin air—extremely thin air, given atmospheric conditions on the red planet—the nation's space program saw public support evaporate along with the $1 billion mission. And the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which oversees the space effort, felt the pressure to produce rise another notch.
Public support for America's space exploration program has been diminishing for years, as headlines about NASA's mishaps began to outnumber those that detailed its triumphs. The agency, once regarded as the epitome of American ingenuity and pioneering spirit, is now widely perceived as a bloated bureaucracy, more intent on preserving its budget than on scientific achievement.
"What we are seeing is the most fundamental change in the space program since Sputnik," according to William E. Burrows, director of New York University's science reporting program and author of Exploring Space. "People are less in a mood to support what they consider to be frivolous projects when they are out of work and being taxed very heavily."
To a large extent, observers say, NASA is responsible for its own declining image, not only because of its recent problems but more importantly because of the way it has managed its image over the years since the Apollo missions.
"NASA devoted all its energy to selling the sizzle rather than the steak, to the extent that even within the organization people seem to have forgotten how nutritious the steak is," says one public relations professional. "NASA spent so much time presenting itself as if it were in the entertainment business, as if its mission was to make us all feel good about ourselves, that now, when space travel is almost ho-hum, people have forgotten that it also provides real benefits to the average citizen, not in terms of entertainment but in terms of real scientific advances."
In some ways, NASA was created to serve a public relations purpose: to alleviate the national embarrassment and fear that resulted from Soviet leadership in the space race in the late 1950s.
The National Aeronautical and Space Administration was founded in 1958, less than a year after the Soviet Union Sputnik mission that stunned the nation. In May 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, and less than a year later John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. President John F. Kennedy made America's leadership in the space race a point of national pride, and that pride was probably never greater than on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon.
It has been all downhill since then. Or at least, since nine months later, when President Richard Nixon, preoccupied with Vietnam and budgetary problems, decided it was no longer in the national interest to support a high-profile space mission. Rejecting ambitious plans for a space station, a permanent base on the moon and preparation for sending astronauts to Mars, Nixon stated his position: "Space must take its place with other national priorities." According to John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University: "Once NASA's goals were rejected, its purpose became the maintenance of the institution. A siege mentality was developed. NASA circled the wagons and began to he to itself and everybody else."
The space shuttle program was created because the agency believed only an operation that involved manned flight could win the support of Congress. (Congressional aides of the early '70s had a saying: "No bucks without Buck Rogers.") Once the shuttle became the mainstay of the space program, the Administration had opted for good public relations and short-term popularity over good science and long-term value.
The shuttle program was originally portrayed by NASA as being all things to all people. It would be reusable and thus economical, making 60 or more flights a year, hoisting satellites into the sky, patrolling the sky for the military and ferrying equipment for U.S. corporations who would pay the government to provide them with access to the heavens.
Since then, NASA has suffered a series of costly mishaps, of which the loss of the Mars Observer is only the most recent. A $1.5 billion spacecraft bound for Jupiter was crippled by a broken antenna. The Hubble space telescope proved unable to focus properly. A Titan IV rocket recently exploded just 100 seconds after take-off, destroying an $800 million satellite belonging to the Central Intelligence Agency.
The tragedy that started this string of bad luck, of course, was the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger back on January 28, 1986. Seven astronauts perished in that disaster, including high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, whose mother this month published a book critical of NASA's decision to go ahead with the mission despite evident risks.
British public relations consultant and crisis management expert Michael Regester has devoted considerable time to studying the Challenger disaster, and believes that NASA's need to maintain its public image was at least partly responsible.
"Faced with spiraling costs and ever lengthening delays, NASA cut back its training program, cannibalized parts from other spacecraft and deferred the spending of half a billion dollars on safety," says Regester. "There was an increasingly wide gap between the facts and the shuttle's glowing public image. Senior NASA officials increasingly chose to believe the image, which, in turn, drifted ever further away from reality."
Such pressures apparently exist even today. PerkinsElmer, the company that supplied the defective mirror that caused problems for the Hubble space telescope (now a part of General Motors' Hughes Aircraft subsidiary), was determined by government investigators to have ignored evidence that the 7.8 foot wide mirror was flawed because of pressure to hit deadlines and control costs.
NASA points out that only three of the 28 satellite missions it has conducted since 1988 have developed major problems, and that McDonnell Douglas Space Systems has launched 44 consecutive rockets without a hitch. Wes Huntress, the agency's associate administrator for space science, says the contrast between today's run of bad luck and the triumphs of the past is a distortion. "We had glitches and failures back then in the heyday. The very same kind of things that are happening today."
"We have established some very tough goals for ourselves," director of solar system exploration William Piotrowski recently told The Financial Times. "If they were easy to meet, anybody could meet them."
Such responses are not sufficient to silence the space program's critics, who claim that NASA has devoted more energy to entertainment, romance and spectacle than it has to providing real life benefits for those who fund its activities: taxpayers.
"When man in space was new and exciting, space policy could be based heavily on public psychic reward," says Daniel Graham, a retired army lieutenant general and director of High Frontier, an advocacy group and supporter of Star Wars technology. "Taxpayers were willing to back large space programs simply because U.S. accomplishments in space were romantic and made them feel good.
"But the idea of man in space has lost its glitter. Our space program must be redesigned to benefit those who pay for it: the average taxpayers."
Graham's solution is placing a greater emphasis on the Strategic Defense Initiative and encouraging greater military involvement in space exploration. While not everyone will agree with that objective, it is clear that any continuation of America's space program must be sold to the public on the basis
of concrete benefits—scientific advances in areas such as communications or weather monitoring—rather than the glamour and prestige of manned space flight.
Alan Towers, president of reputation management firm Alan Towers
Associates, says this means that NASA has to look at itself as if it were a commercial enterprise: indeed, in many ways, it is.
"As long as there was a Cold War, there was a kind of invisible motivator. People were motivated by fear," Towers says. "Once that threat ebbed, NASA positioned itself as entertainment. It was the best show on TV, hosted by Walter Cronkite. But today, people's priorities are different. They want all government agencies to be more accountable, to prove that they are adding value, and NASA is not exempt."
Bob Newman, who headed NASA's public affairs operations a decade ago, says that the agency is still trying to relive its glory days, and warns that plans such as those for the ambitious Space Station Freedom do not match the public mood. "They are heading in a direction the country does not want to go in. They are out of touch with the times."
NASA, he says, has always exhibited an arrogant streak. As the agency reached for the stars in the `60s and `700, that arrogance translated itself into a confidence and exuberance that was infectious. Today, it appears misplaced and out of sync with a more frugal national spirit.
Certainly NASA realizes that it must appear more accountable and more efficient. Daniel Goldin, appointed as the agency's administrator by President Bush 18 months ago and kept on by President Clinton, has himself described the agency's "appalling management structures" and urged NASA to stop re-reading history and start writing it again.
He has earned the confidence of President Clinton and many in confidence by responding swiftly to the challenging of redesigning a less expensive, more focused space station and by drafting budget cuts that slash NASA's spending over the next five years by about $15 billion, but critics say he has done little to articulate the agency's mission either on Capitol Hill or to the general public.
"Nobody outside of the scientific community has even heard of this guy," says one former NASA public relations executive. "He should be out there on talk show circuit and in the news, talking about all the scientific advances we have because of the space program, and about all the wonderful advances we could have."
There does not appear to have been any great effort to articulate a new mission. In a USA Today op-ed piece last year, NASA deputy administrator James R. Thompson spelled out the organization's goals: "President Bush has made it national policy to establish a permanent presence in space. His Space Exploration Initiative includes building Space Station Freedom and expeditions to the moon and Mars. These are exciting goals, far-reaching in their implications to America's place in the world."
This assessment of NASA's mission is illustrative of the agency's problems, however. They are goals that are meaningless, both scientifically and to the majority of the public. NASA needs to talk not about establishing a space station, however high-minded its name, but about the scientific advances that will accrue from building such a station and how they will benefit the average American.
Those scientific advances are real. According to Thompson: "Orbiting observatories will soon allow scientists to investigate the entire energy spectrum. When we restore full optical capability to Hubble we will perhaps see to the edge of the universe, changing for ever our understanding of the cosmos and our place in it."
Unfortunately, NASA seems to assume that the average American is too stupid to understand the science, and so the agency continues to concentrate on selling ideas that sound like dated science fiction.
Says Jan van Meter, gm of the New York office of PR agency Fleishman-Hillard: "NASA faces quite a challenge. I think it has to manage expectations very carefully, to move away from man's exploration of space to the exploration of space. Its a less romantic notion, it's harder to explain to people because you have to talk about science rather than adventure, but I think it has to be done."
David Garrett, head of NASA's news bureau, says the agency tries to focus communications efforts on both hard science and more glamorous aspects of space flight in its public relations effort. It continues to rely heavily on astronaut appearances, for example, but it also works closely with scientific publications to make sure people are aware of the advances in knowledge that have come about because of space flight.
But even within the scientific community, NASA has failed to make its case in this regard. Among the most vocal critics of the space station program has been the Council for Scientific Society Presidents, which fears that its ever-expanding budget will mean less funding for basic research here on earth.
It is even more difficult to get that message into print in consumer media. Ron Rogers, head of Los Angeles PR agency Rogers & Associates, warns against condemning NASA's image management: "Even if you try to tell a technical story, no matter how important that technical story, the media is always going to be more interested in controversy and confrontation than it is in success. It's very difficult for NASA or any organization to tell its basic story in that environment."
In fact, the most aggressive new public relations venture out of NASA is the launch of NASA-TV, a cable television channel which grew out of an in-house news service, and which allows the agency its own medium. The channel airs as a public service on local cable-TV systems from noon until 4am. A 15-minute segment entitled NASA Today is re-run throughout the day, mingled with live coverage of NASA missions and specials such as Adventures in Research: The Poetry of Polymers. A daily show at 2pm is designed for classroom viewing.
One area where the agency is focusing increased promotional attention is on the immediate economic benefits of the space program. In the wake of the cancellation of of the Space Station Freedom project by the House appropriations subcommittee, NASA flooded Capitol Hill with information packets showing a map of the U.S., indicating the 2,000 or more businesses that would benefit from the space station project, and claiming that 11,000 jobs would be lost if it was abandoned.
In the meantime, says news chief David Garrett, it is important for NASA to mobilize the considerable latent support that exists for the space program.
"Every time we do our own research we find that 75% or more of the American public support the space program," he says. "The problem is that since the Challenger disaster our critics have become more vocal, while for most of our supporters this is not an issue that they are going to write their Congressmen on, its not an issue that affects them directly or personally, the way health care reform or higher taxes do."
The National Aeronautical and Space Administration needs to find a way to tap into that latent enthusiasm, to excite the public and to make its case in Congress more effectively. And it needs to do so by selling the steak, not the sizzle, even if that is a tougher public relations challenge, because all the available evidence suggests that the American public is simply not buying sizzle this year.