Avatar: A Stunning New World That NASA Continues to Ignore

By Keith Cowing
January 18, 2010
Filed under
Avatar: A Stunning New World That NASA Continues to Ignore

James Cameron’s “Avatar” has continued to break box office records, has won the Golden Globe Awards for “best picture” and “best director”, and is now headed for the Oscars. There is clearly something that the public enjoys about “Avatar”. At a time when NASA needs to re-exert its relevance to decision makers and the public, you’d think that there would be some effort to tap this interest in a movie about the wonders of extrasolar planets, astrobiology, and what may lay out there as we explore space – rendered in unparalleled detail and believability. So, how did NASA capitalize on this phenomenon? Answer: It didn’t.

All I could find online at NASA.gov is this short summary of an article that was written by someone at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and this link to an interview with someone from MIT that aired on CNN. That’s it.

Charlie Bolden did make reference to the movie (without using its name) in his 5 January 2010 speech to the AAS (page 3): “But what of the discoveries we cannot predict as this New Year begins? Thus far, more than 400 extra-solar planets have been discovered orbiting other stars. Last month, a super-Earth was discovered that might be an all-water world. When will someone in this audience discover a Pandora? A real Pandora like the one in James Cameron’s fabulous new movie? And will such a discovery open a positive Pandora’s box – forever changing the way citizens of Earth view ourselves, and our place in the cosmos? Only time – and the best science – will tell.”

Other than Bolden and his speech writers, you have to wonder who at NASA is paying attention to what is going on in society – and who is supposed to be thinking about making sure that the NASA is relevant and responsive to what is happening outside the agency. People from all walks of life flock to see a movie about space exploration – a movie directed by a former member of the NASA Advisory Council – and NASA for the most part is either oblivious – or ambivalent to this immense public interest. Yet the same people at NASA get upset when the public doesn’t support the agency or show interest in what it does. Go figure.

It is not as if NASA does not know how to do cross promotional activities – they recently did one for Planet 51 and before that for “Toy Story” character “Buzz Lightyear“. Apart from the upcoming Hubble IMAX 3D (the trailer is shown in IMAX theaters before “Avatar”) in limited release in IMAX theaters, it would seem that NASA picks movies to promote that are aimed at young children.

What is inexplicable to me is how NASA cannot see this film as an opportunity to promote research it is already funding – research that seems to pop up almost every day (if you know where to find it that is). One example is this paper Planetesimal Accretion in Binary Systems: Could Planets Form Around Alpha Centauri B? which is directly relevant to “Avatar” (Pandora orbits Alpha Centauri A) that appeared today on lanl.arXiv.org which states that “This work was supported … NASA with grant NNX07AP14G … “

A recent poll claims to show that “50% of Americans now say the United States should cut back on space exploration given the current state of the economy”. Yet Americans are flocking in droves to see this movie – about space exploration. In an overly simplistic comparison, it would seem to me that people are voting with their discretionary funds to experience space exploration that they do not think NASA is – or should be – doing with their non-discretionary tax dollars.

If NASA took the time to understand this situation they might just learn what it is they should be doing such that the public will start to support NASA the way that they support Avatar. Oh well. The President and his family saw “Avatar”. He is expected to personally announce what he wants NASA to be doing in a speech on/around 7/8 February. Will his new “vision” for NASA pull people in to participate as has Avatar or leave them outside without a ticket?

Obama State of Union set for Jan 27, budget Feb 1, Reuters

“President Barack Obama plans to deliver his annual State of the Union address on January 27 and will present his budget plan on February 1.”

The New NASA Advisory Council Meets – At Last. But Something Is Missing (2005)

“The previous NAC counted among its members James Cameron. While Cameron happens to be a rather skilled engineer in his own right, he is, foremost, an artist – and a communicator. When he spoke at NAC meetings – and other NASA events – he often sought to infuse his advice with input from the real world outside of NASA. Much of what he had to say would not be expected to come out of the mouth of a professional committee member.”

Avatar: A Stunning New World That NASA Is Ignoring, earlier post
How Will We Travel to Avatar’s Pandora?, earlier post
Pandora Could Exist, earlier post
Video: Avatar, Augmented Reality, and NASA, earlier post

Keith’s update: This appeared at NASA.gov late in the day on Monday.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Meets Award-Winning Director James Cameron

“NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, right, and award-winning writer-director James Cameron, meet at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010. Cameron, who is a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, has had a life-long interest in space and science. The two talked about public outreach and education among other subjects.”

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