advice from a fake consultant

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

On Aerodynamics, Or, Space: The Budget Frontier

Forty years ago this week an event occurred that changed the history of mankind forever.

An event so monumental that the memory lingers on, even though the venue where the event took place has been, shall we say, “repurposed”.

But we’re not here to talk about the time that Minnesota Twins Manager Billy Martin appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Instead, let’s talk space.

NASA is forever trying to interest the world in space exploration...and forever struggling to come up with the money to get things done.

Well, I’m not a scientist, nor an engineer, and I don’t assemble rocket vehicles...but I am a fake consultant, and if NASA took my advice, I’d bet my fake paycheck that money would be a lot less of a problem.

“You know what really makes your rocket ships go up?”

“The aerodynamics alone are so complicated—“

“Funding. That's what makes your ships go up.
I'll tell you something, and you guys, too.
No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

--From Philip Kaufman’s movie version of The Right Stuff

So here’s the thing: there was a time when spaceflight was the ultimate exploit...but not any more...or at least not at NASA.

These days, NASA views spaceflight as a job—and the International Space Station has become a workspace.

There is the process any more. Instead, it’s all about launching a payload to a platform where an anonymous Mission Specialist will conduct Fluid Merging Viscosity Measurements.

Even NASA TV, the Agency’s effort to make what they do more accessible to a wider audience, doesn’t seem to understand the basic elements of storytelling.

I mean, think about it for a minute: “Star Wars”, “Star Trek”, “Battlestar Galactica”...“Spaceballs”...every single one of them, with all the imitation space footage that money can buy (even the bad ones), are a thousand times more fun to watch than the real footage of the STS-127 Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver.

How is it possible that the one organization that has more film featuring genuine, no-kidding, space heroism than any other on the face of the Earth can’t make a space movie as interesting as Killer Klowns From Outer Space?

Why was “Apollo 13” actually more compelling to watch...than the actual Apollo 13?

To find an answer, we need to take a short detour—to Alaska.

Have you ever seen Ice Road Truckers? If you haven’t, well, let’s just say that it’s a master class in how to tell a story. In the series, the producers actually make something that potentially could be incredibly boring—watching people drive trucks—into fascinating television, and they do it by applying the three most basic principles of how to tell a tale:

Create one or more interesting “heroes”, a “protagonist” over whom the heroes must somehow triumph, and an interesting situation within which the triumph can either occur...or not occur.

And that’s exactly what happens on the show: the plot revolves around a group of “recurring characters” who face two protagonists: the Arctic, and each other, as they compete to see who will earn the most money. The interesting situations? Trying to get the trucks, and their cargoes, across the Arctic terrain; creating a variety of new “subplots” every episode.

“Say Captain, I’m sick; how far is it to land?”

“About three miles”

“Which way”

“Straight down”

--From 10,000 Jokes, Toasts, and Stories, Lewis and Faye Copeland

So how might NASA TV apply this principle?

The obvious first show: “Astronaut Candidate”. There is a huge amount of human drama in the candidate selection process...and with this show you can “humanize” both NASA and the people they send into space. The protagonists and the interesting situations? The other candidates and the tests required to make it through the process. (NASA does highlight their selection the form of a webpage that links to bios and headshots, and “b-roll” segments on NASA TV’s “Video File”.)

And why not humanize science as well? After all, an experiment doesn’t have to be just a “science payload” can also be a human asking a question about the nature of human existence. “Send My Experiment Into Space” would do the trick nicely; the idea being that you would follow the successful—and unsuccessful—experiments, and the people behind them, from inception to what happens at the Space Station to the “analysis phase” that follows (and at the same time creating interest in science and engineering among students exactly when we need more students interested in science and engineering).

“Rocket Builders” could focus on the activities that take place as the vehicles that transport astronauts and experiments are fabricated and assembled. People have to test rocket motors, transport components, and assemble the vehicles...and all of this has to be done in an extraordinarily hazardous environment under severe time pressures.

The images would be great, and the pressures on the people involved create story after story—and again, we get the chance to learn that space is a people business as much as it is a hardware business.

The final links in the chain, of course, are the flight crews in orbit...and in this regard, NASA has never quite been able to figure it out. We get to see a lot of welcoming ceremonies and farewell ceremonies, usually from a single “lockdown” camera—but we see very little about the actual lives of the crew.

Did you know that in May astronauts performed a series of spacewalks to repair the Hubble telescope? That the work was so risky that a second Space Shuttle was waiting to be launched in case an emergency rescue was required? If you either sort of remember these events—or weren’t aware of them at all—NASA has failed to tell their story.

“In Flight” could be blockbuster programming—and educational to boot—if the right people were behind the camera and doing the editing.

So that’s the story: NASA actually goes to space, and they take cameras with them, but they can’t seem to make space exploration as interesting to the public as driving a truck. They have an entire cable channel full of high drama and big adventure...and yet the ratings are death.

In just the past few days we have been told that NASA is indeed the victim of chronic underfunding that has left the agency “in a terrible position”—and when you can’t tell your story effectively, funding becomes a problem.

On the other hand, if you put the stories of the people who are trying every day to advance the boundaries of science and human knowledge into a format that captures the imagination of that same public...well, bucks, my friends, equals Buck Rogers.

And as Walter Cronkite would have said: “That’s the way it is...”

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