Friday, December 29, 2006

Mars just not exciting

Just about anyone with a TV set watched the first Apollo moon landing, but by Apollo 16 the public were growing tired of the spectacle and it has even been said that the Networks received complaints that reruns of I Love Lucy were been pre-empted to make way for live pictures from the moon. Now in a new survey of American youth, NASA faces the glum prospect that even before it has begun the return to the moon and plans to put a man on Mars, the younger generation feels apathy toward the missions.

The problem is more acute than you might think, since teens and twenty-somethings are the ones who in later years will be digging deep for the tax dollars to pay for these programs, especially projects that may stretch for decades at a time. NASA therefore faces a serious challenge here on earth to enthuse a new generation with the spirit of exploration. Unfortunately we’ve not had an orator of Kennedy’s standing for many years – the way Bush junior has talked about the space program has made it seem about as exiting as a tax audit, so the prospects do not seem good.

A recent workshop attended by some 80 NASA personal involved in public relations focused on the Internet as a particularly strong way of getting out the message. NASA has of course already enjoyed some success with online projects. Its Mars mission websites have received very strong levels of traffic; the Pathfinder web site received 40 million hits in a single day when the first images were beamed back of the plucky little rover on the Martian surface. Equally, when it was announced that signs of life had been detected in a Martian meteorite, President Clinton felt it important enough to comment and the story made headlines across the planet. Unfortunately these were both very much flashes in the pan. One has to wonder, even if a flying saucer touched down on the Whitehouse lawn, if in this age of soundbites and rolling news, the story would be more than a seven day wonder. The real challenge is not getting people excited, because clearly there is a latent interest for big space stories, but maintaining the commitment of the public over the dull stretches of time between the news-worthy moments. For instance, how many people give any thought to the present space program – how many even know that there is a permanent presence in space aboard the International Space Station? Were it to spring a leak and they all died horribly in orbit, it would make news, but the daily grind of routine aboard the station is hardly of interest to CNN.

NASA talks of recruiting movie stars to promote their activities, but then mentions Patrick Stewart and David Duchovny as potential partners. Well sorry David, but you are hardly a man in the public eye since the demise of The X Files, and equally, you’re both predominantly associated with science fiction. You’re simply going to be preaching to the converted. Better to ship Renee Zellweger up to the station for a week long stay. There has been some serious sounding talk of Madonna making the trip, but the Russian Duma voted the proposal down. That was actually a great shame and rather short sighted. If as reported Madonna really is keen to make the trip, then NASA might want to consider putting some pressure on their Russian partners, or flying the material girl themselves aboard a shuttle. Sure, it’s all horribly contrived and serious scientists would be horrified at the waste of time and effort, but imagine the publicity.

Something else that really needs addressing is the underlying reasons for going into space. There is a lot of talk about manufacturing in space and developing new technology that can be applied to consumer and industrial products, but such innovations have been slow in coming. Perhaps the biggest push should be made to show the Moon and Mars as potential lifeboats for the human race. Stephen Hawking made just such a case earlier in the year, and again we got that brief spike of interest, but who remembers it now? NASA could even push the high frontier metaphor. America is a country of immigrants, so what better way to promote space than as a new frontier to be conquered. I don’t look forward to the first MacDonalds on Mars, but it’s a price worth paying for the survival of the human race.