NASA’s Invisible Advisory Council

By Keith Cowing
August 3, 2011
Filed under
NASA’s Invisible Advisory Council

This week the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and its various committees are meeting. This body is federally chartered to formally advise NASA – yet the public knows little – if anything about what this committee does. By law the public is supposed to be informed of these meetings, allowed to attend, and offered means whereby they can present their views to the committee. By law, these meetings are announced in the Federal Register. But unless you are a policy wonk, you are not likely to read these notices. That is why I post them on NASA Watch (look to the calendar) and on SpaceRef. Alas, beyond the formal notification process, NASA does not lift a finger to make certain that the public is aware of these activities and the means whereby the public is supposed to be encouraged to participate.

In the past year the NAC has (finally) started to make its meeting more accessible to the public by offering some sessions on WebEx and via telecon. Alas, despite this important attempt to make things more open and accessible they do not have this technology under control. Incorrect passwords are often posted in the notices, and the NAC staff responsible for WebEx and telcons are often clueless as to how this all works. They also wait until the last minute to announce these meetings. If you are not aware of a meeting you cannot participate.

Yesterday I logged in to the NAC’s Education and Public Outreach meeting. For most of the meeting I was the only non-NASA online participant – with two staff logged in. The dial-in telecon was similarly devoid of taxpayer participation. Several people joined for an hour or so – but only after I posted all the login information on NASA Watch (they told me this). At one point in the meeting the subcommittee suddenly changed its agenda and went to meet with another subcommittee. 45 minutes into a 1 hour joint meeting passed before they bothered to tell online participants (i.e. only me) how to connect remotely.

Curiously, during this event, NASA personnel openly bragged about their social media prowess. Yet no one from NASA could be bothered to Twitter or post anything on any NASA.gov websites – even when social media was a topic on the agenda. NASA’s Twitter account has over a million followers. Imagine the impact that the meeting could have had.

This week’s meetings are being held at NASA Ames. It is common practice to rotate these meetings around the country at various NASA field centers and other locations. This gets the events outside of Washington and a little more accessible to the public even if NASA heaps burdensome (and often pointless) security requirements on those who wish to attend.

That said, NASA’s NAC staff and PAO have done a pitiful job informing the public of these meetings. There is no mention of any of these meetings on NASA.gov (unless you happen to look at the NAC homepage – which itself is not up to date and missing lots of important information. No mention on NASA’s calendar, nothing on NASA TV, and no mention on the new open.nasa.gov website.

Of course, NASA usually prefers to ignore the advice that NAC offers, so it is not at all surprising that the agency does not spend a lot of time promoting these events to the public. To bad. Imagine if NASA could have one of their Tweetups at a future NAC meeting such that the public could become more engaged in the process whereby their space agency is advised. Given the public perception – fueled by the media – that NASA is somehow halting a lot of what it does with regard to human spaceflight, you’d think that the agency would try and become more open and transparent so as to explain what it is doing – and correct public misperceptions. But no, NASA does not do that. Nor is it likely to do so.

Here are the week’s various NAC meetings – stop in and participate:

2 Aug: NASA Advisory Council Education and Public Outreach Committee Meeting
2 Aug: NASA Advisory Council Technology and Innovation Committee Meeting
2 Aug: NASA Advisory Council Aeronautics Committee Meeting
2 Aug: NASA Advisory Council Commercial Space Meeting
2-3 Aug: Climate Change Adaptation Workshop
2-3 Aug: NASA Advisory Council Space Operations Committee and Exploration Committee Joint Meeting
2-3 Aug: NASA Advisory Council Science Committee Meeting
4-5 Aug: NASA Advisory Council Meeting

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