NASA at 50: Looking for That Second Wind

By Keith Cowing
August 24, 2007
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NASA at 50: Looking for That Second Wind

NASA loves to try and push ideas at people. Often times, the pictures and information beamed back to Earth are so astonishing and filled with raw excitement that it almost does not matter how things are presented. More often than not, the relevance is not apparent and some additional pushing needs to be done. Alas, that pushing does not always work. Also, there is more to space exploration – and its relevance – than pretty pictures or complicated intellectual discussions.

Yet as amazing as this stuff is – a lot of what NASA does is boring (yet still important). However, no real effort is expended to explain its relevancy to everyday life – and the expenditure of tax dollars – dollars people always seem to feel would be better spent elsewhere (even if they can’t always say why). After all, NASA is a part of the Federal government – and we pay them to do things for us.

“Everyday life” is more than just what “spin offs” may (or may not) have had an origin somewhere, decades ago, in some research NASA did for another reason. “Everyday life” has to do with what you think about in the shower, on the way to work, and when you put your kids to bed.

What am I getting at? At the heart of all of this, in one way or another, is the notion “where do I fit in the whole scope of space exploration? What about me? Do I get to go? Do my kids get to go? If I don’t get (or want) to go, how do I get to express my excitement and interest in those who do these amazing things? What did I do today that might have been different – less productive, or just simply less fun, had space exploration stayed inside science fiction books?”

NASA pushes ideas out based on what they think people understand. What they think is based on what they know. Given that most people at NASA are well over 30, the ideas they have are often out of synch with younger people – and popular culture as a whole. NASA rarely turns off the transmitter so as to turn on the receiver. As a result, NASA’s message falls upon quasi-deaf ears – and the public’s interests are never heard by NASA.

To make things worse, many within the orthodoxy of space exploration are preoccupied with the complexities that go into making space exploration happen. So they often forget to think about the public’s less complex view. As such, you get a lot of very smart people at NASA putting out things that assume a very engaged and educated audience. Or they don’t bother to do so because they assume that only a few people understand or care why things are done – and how they are done – so why bother. In both cases they are wrong.

Yet when NASA does try to be hip they often use the wrong messages, metaphors, historic events – and even language – to get at the younger generation. Since polls of the younger generation about space show either indifference or interest (often both) either NASA is not getting to them or it does not understand how to gauge their interest – or lack thereof. Again, it’s probably a bit of both.

Of course allegations of crazy and/or drunk astronauts, climate change denial, sabotaged computers, and other things at NASA certainly don’t encourage people to stop and pay attention to what the agency is doing. The fact that NASA can’t even get out of its own way with regard to these scandals and goof ups points to other problems as well – and just makes it even harder for NASA to get a fair shake when it comes to taking space exploration seriously.

Someone who is 21 years old today – a college junior who will graduate in 2008 – was born in 1986. Challenger blew up while they were in diapers (or maybe in the womb). Columbia was lost when they were in high school thinking about their Junior prom.

The influential film for baby boomers, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was in theaters 18 years before they were even born – possibly before their own parents were born. If their parents were alive when humans first walked on the moon a year after the film was released they were probably in grammar school.

When I saw the film at age 13 I have to say that it changed my life and focused an already existing interest toward a career in space. Today, the film only shows up on TV on cable channels doing film retrospectives. Apollo footage only seems to show up on the History (Yawn) Channel.

Even if you or your parents never saw it, you are still affected by it today. Not a day goes by – somewhere in the world – where you cannot hear a TV ad using the “2001 theme” (Also sprach Zarathustra) to lend an air of importance to something. No one in the advertising world had even heard of this composition before the film was released.

Much of what the NASA community accepts as a given premise – icons that they use in their thinking about how to portray space exploration – is from another era – an era much of the population never experienced first hand. Have a look at this list of things that define the graduating class of 2009 if you really want to be surprised at how much of what you consider ‘hip’ isn’t hip any more – not by a long shot.

As such, when younger folks do look at the icons that baby boomers cling to as defining moments of space exploration, these non-participants often view these things as cultural archaeology – found culture, if you will. They see these things from the Cold War era with 21st century eyes. They miss many cultural references that we all got in the 1960’s (such as chuckling at the cost of a phone call from a space station back to Earth in “2001”). These kids watch TV that comes to their house via satellite dishes from outer space.

YouTube is famous for its ever-growing collection of amateur videos – compilations of video taken from one source with music from another. Such hybrid presentations are often called “mash ups“. Copyright considerations not withstanding, what emerges is often quite clever. Occasionally, you find gems imbued with profound characteristics.

The person who did this mash up of a montage of scenes from “2001” and a recent pop hit by the emo band Evanescence was likely born several decades after the film was released. To them this movie was as old and as anachronistic as “Gone with the Wind” or “The Wizard of Oz” was to me when I (and many of you) were growing up in the 1960’s. Imagine someone trying to suggest that something Uncle Milty said in the 1950’s had any relevance to the mid-70s.

To today’s youth, things we Baby Boomers take as milestones in our lives are artifacts from another time. These younger folks reinterpret these things in a way far different than we do. We lived them. They found them. They project into and take out of these icons far different emotions and messages than we did when we first saw them.

Moreover, given the electronic gizmos they grew up using, they mix and match and swap and re-purpose things in ways we – or even HAL 9000 never imagined. Things we saw on paper or on film are now all data – and can be mixed and matched, sampled and morphed, overlain and intertwined, and continually reworked in ways we never imagined – almost instantly.

When I first heard the music that accompanies this video (without the video), I imagined sitting in a room with big windows in an old farmhouse in my native New England on a winter day looking out at a fresh snowfall. Moreover, in my mental landscape, the song plays on a public radio station run by a nearby community college. When it is over, the announcer, speaking in classic low-key public radio voice, makes mention of how the snow will fall for another few hours. Introspective, impressionistic music – with impossibly clear and powerful vocals. That’s the mood I bring into this mash up.

Now the video excerpts . I have seen this film countless times and have very firm notions about what it means (to me). Seeing it with these out of sequence edits – and this soundtrack – is jolting at first. But as I watch it, the re-interpretation is addictive. I am 40 years older. So is the film.

Yet have to admit that I may be a little odd in terms of cultural preferences. I run Internet websites, so I have my ear to the ground as far as what kids (my readers) are interested in. I also have music on my iPod ranging from Blink 182, Linkin Park, and the Black Eyed Peas to Bach, Gregorian Chants, and the Beach Boys. I use Facebook, Twitter and lots of other cutting edge social networking tools. I am not a complete old fart – at least not just yet.

If you extract the story of HAL 9000 from the film, and view his dilemma as if he were human, you might find yourself trying to get into his mind and see things from his perspective. One line from this song seems to match this melancholy mindset perfectly: “Don’t try to fix me I’m not broken” as Astronaut David Bowman performs a lobotomy on Hal – that’s something HAL might well say. “I’m still here – I’m not sleeping” – as the hibernating astronauts are killed … even if the lyrics are elusive to our ears, the vocals and music convey a very clear mood.

Might Stanley Kubrick have considered using this music (instead of the “Gayne Ballet Suite”) had he been alive – and making the film today?

Imagine now the videos of moon landings. Grainy blurry images, colors faded, sound flat. Think of what these kids watched on the VCR as they grew up in the 1980s: that 10 year old movie “Star Wars”. They grew up watching fictional footage that was far superior to “reality”. Small wonder that so many of today’s youth are willing to consider the notion that we never went to the Moon.

So long as NASA remains stuck in its own self-imposed rut – promoting a new exploration plan that is marketed as re-doing something that may (or may not) have happened in the 60’s when their parents were kids – something the NASA Administrator calls “Apollo on Steroids” – don’t expect kids to be jumping up and down about the President’s space plans. And if their kids aren’t excited, don’t expect parents to be all that thrilled either.

In 1968 a computer depicted in “2001” goes out of control, becomes paranoid, and kills astronauts. In 2007: an astronaut goes out of control, is arrested and charged with trying to kill someone who is dating a fellow astronaut. A few months later wild allegations of astronauts drinking and flying, stories about ground personnel sabotaging computers on their way to the space station …

Hollywood has already done it all – much better, I might add.

NASA needs to abandon its old way of explaining itself – one that is stuck in the last century – just like the film “2001” was until someone in the current generation sough to reinvent it. And as NASA seeks to reformulate its message, perhaps it could take a look at how it does the things it seeks to promote – and explain. I suspect there are some long needed updates there as well.

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