Monday, July 05, 2010

There's No Business Like Show Business

That is NASA's attempt at public outreach.. and I've yet to see a single newspaper link to it or report it. If you watch it, you can see why. Whenever Lori Garver or Rob Braun is about to explain what the program is about they get cut off.

It's all so glossy and vague.. most the time I think they juxtapose the wrong images with the words.. like "we plan nothing less than to create the future of spaceflight, now" cut to a shot of the Shuttle liftoff.. wtf? "After the safe and planned retirement of the space shuttle fleet.." ohhhh, is that what that shot is for? Wow, someone failed film school.

Then they gotta say some stuff about the ISS and how great it is and fuels the international cooperation and blah blah blah. And while you're being bored by justifications for the ISS program they slip in "we're trying to make this more commercial" and private companies. Yawn, sorry, I fell asleep there, did you say NASA will focus on beyond-low-Earth-orbit, wow, that sounds great.

"We will prepare astronauts for longer trips in space" while showing what looks like a transhab module.. but only because I've seen a hundred graphics of transhab modules and I actually know what they are. I'm pretty sure the public has no idea. Why are those astronauts standing up if they're in space.. hey, that's one of those Moon base transhab modules isn't it?

"While working cooperatively with other space faring nations".. juxtaposed to some big rocket lifting off with NASA/ESA/JAXA logos on it. Garver and Braun chat about how great their international and industry partners are.. we see logos and hardware of Boeing and SpaceX.

"The agency will begin work on transformative heavy lift technology that will lead to a new rocket to carry astronauts beyond Earth orbit".. and then they show the Ares I-X launch... W T F?

"And development will continue on the Orion crew capsule to provide standby emergency escape capability for the space station" .. then Cook says "this is turning over access to LEO to the commercial sector while we focus on the broad range of technologies that we have to have in place before we can go long distances to Mars". Arrrrghhh! Orion Lifeboat is what you call the commercial sector? Are you mad? No, they just took what you said out of context and used it for political justification, sigh.

"Once the stuff of science fiction, new technologies being developed by NASA and its partners will revolutionize spaceflight" .. and we're shown Robonaut 2... cause that's relevant. Don't get me wrong, I think Robonaut 2 is awesome and all and look forward to seeing it do some useful tasks, but I don't see what it has to do with "spaceflight".

"We are investing at a greater scale so we can actually get there quicker.. and we'll start testing them in space.. we have demonstration flights that will be demonstrating these technologies as precursors before we put them into human vehicles" .. and we finally see some BIG in-space interplanetary cruise vehicle. How big is it? It's this big:

That's pretty big! "New approaches to propulsion will free us from Earth's gravity, and send us further and faster into the Cosmos". Uh huh. Ok, what you mean is that with new technology we'll be able to go beyond the Earth-Moon system and actually get back without killing the astronauts, and do it for cheap enough that it won't fizzle out and die after a few missions like Apollo did. Oh wait, you didn't say any of that.

"Spacecraft will refuel at depots in orbit." Wow, that actually looks like a propellant depot might!

"New techniques for rendezvous and docking will allow us to construct the spaceship of the future." And now the public has no idea what you're talking about, congratulations.

"Astronauts will visit and live in lightweight inflatable habitats" ok, yeah, I guess so, whatever you're talking about Mr NASA man.

"And live off the land at their destinations" What? You're showing me a picture of the Moon with a buggy driving up to something.. oh, it's some sort of dump truck delivering 4 or 5 grains of dust to big gold blob! Yeah, I have any idea what the hell you're talking about there. Anyway, clearly the Moon must be one of these destinations you're talking about. I'm so glad you've cleared up that whole "been there done that" thing for us... sigh.

For some reason Braun talked over the last bit saying something about "innovation is the American way", go team! And that NASA doesn't have a monopoly on innovation, so we're back to talking about "partnering with the commercial sector" and we're shown shots of SpaceX's Dragon and the Dreamchaser docking at the ISS. There's no logo on the Dreamchaser, and it looks sufficiently like the Space Shuttle that I'm sure there's at least some of the viewing public that is saying "huh? They're selling the Shuttles or something?"

"By nurturing this growing American industry of commercial space access, NASA will create new jobs, while freeing itself to do what it has always done best: explore the mysteries of space." Gah.. first of all, haven't you already said this? It was all the way up there with the Orion Lifeboat.. oh right, you didn't mean to associate the Orion Lifeboat with commercial crew.. oops. NASA will create new jobs? Really? That's how it works eh? I guess it's kinda like how NASA creates all those spinoffs that it just provides a little seed capital for and external contractors actually do all the research. Anyway, while you're telling me how NASA is now freed of all these jobs they can explore the mysteries of space, what are you going to show me?

Remember what I said about film school? You don't show a picture of a robot landing on another planet after you just said you're going to offload jobs on the "growing American industry of commercial space access". You can't just cut stuff together ever-which-way and expect people to know that you're starting a new segment. Oh well, let's get back to this terrible promo video.

"Robotic scouts like the Mars Science Lab, and observatories like the new James Web Space Telescope, will comprehensively explore our solar system and the galaxies beyond." Wow, so what's the point of having humans up there then? And btw, the MSL (now called Curiosity) is not a robotic scout.

"As always, NASA vehicles will do new stuff to further unlock the secrets of the universe.." or something. Allow me to translate: we're in the business of doing "science" and nothing else. Curiosity, JWST, manned spaceflight, it's all the same, with the same goals and that goal is "unlocking secrets". This is the message NASA is sending to the public: it's science, fund us. The problem with this model is that sooner or later people with a brain figure out that if you take all the money out of the human spaceflight program and dump it into the robotic spaceflight program you can do a lot more science. In fact, the decades of investment that you're going to need to put into technology development to get people to Mars could literally flood the red planet with rovers. So every time NASA equates human spaceflight with science they do human spaceflight a disservice.. please, STOP IT. Human spaceflight is not about science, that's just a nice side-benefit.

"Closer to home, the President's plan will strengthen our efforts to study and protect our home planet. An expanded suite of Earth observatories will expand our understanding of climate change, and weather and natural disasters" and all that stuff you FEAR and need to be PROTECTED from through STRENGTH. "NASA programs and spacecraft will also stand vigil against potential threats to our planet." Wow, someone read the survey that said most Americans think the best reason to have humans in space is to protect the Earth against asteroid attack. That must be why we're going to an asteroid right?

"An agency wide effort is under way to chart the path of asteroids and other Near Earth Objects". Oh wow, maybe you did go to film school! "And NASA satellites are studying the sun to better predict space weather." Remember, weather? You're afraid of weather.

"In aeronautics, new technology investments will develop the next generation technology system for the entire nation, that increases safety and is friendly to the environment". Yeah, look, the whole aeronautics side of NASA is fundamentally awesome and, of the few people who actually know about it, no-one has a problem with it. Carry on.

"These accomplishments will inspire a new generation of scientists, engineers, and explorers." Lots of stuff about inspiring kids.. which I'm sure it does.. but it's so not NASA's job to inspire kids, and the whole focus on it is received cynically by most kids over the age of 16 cause the simple truth is: there's no money in it. If you really want to inspire kids to study to be an engineer, show them how they can get rich by doing it.

"The agency will sponsor new competitions that foster ideas and innovation for new leading edge technologies and new industries." Hey look, Dave Masten! Do you get the feeling we're getting near the end of this video?

Braun: "We can take the intellectual capital at the NASA field centers and we can turn it loose on some of societies grandest challenges." I've heard this a couple of times and it's pretty shocking that it is being said outright. What they're saying is that rather than laying off civil servants at NASA they're going to give them work that is completely unrelated to NASA's charter. Specifically, this means climate change study.

Lori: "We're going to look back on this time, I hope, and recognize that we opened up the solar system for humanity." Wow, that sounds really interesting Lori, tell me more... oh, they cut away again.

Bolden: "I'm really excited at the things we're going to be able to do cause we now have money to put into research and development of the technology we need to accomplish the goals we set for ourselves." Hey, goals, they sounds good, what were they again? I've been listening to all this Did-you-know-NASA-also-does stuff for that last 4 segments that I completely forgot.

Bolden: "Our goal is to go away from the planet. We want go to asteroids. We want to go to Mars. We want to go back to the Moon. We want to do other things. We want to be able to fly higher and faster." Why? What's it for? Oh, that's right, science, it's for "science".

"Both flexible and sustainable, the nation can start moving today towards these challenging and inspiring goals". What does that even mean? "America's space exploration program will advance new frontiers and provide inspiration for the world." Gah, you almost said something there! "Frontier", that's a nice word. Unfortunately I think it means as much to you as "flexible", "sustainable" and "inspiration" does.

Bolden: "We're going to turn science fiction into science fact." And I'm going to roll my eyes like you roll that big spacecraft around.

"Exploring the universe while better understanding our home planet." Remember? NASA is relevant to national needs!

"In a new era of innovation and discovery."

Worst promo video, eva!

Let's see if I can do better..

And, unfortunately, that's the best I can do without the source material.


  1. This is an industrial film.... made in the style and pattern of all industrial films.

    Yeah, it sucks, as do most of those kind of films. Usually they are made by some poor photographer who has a budget of, oh, $500 or so and a library of stock footage and a sound library. The photographer is usually on staff of a company, so their salary doesn't figure into the equation, but it still is a shoestring operation and they are doing as good as can be done with what they have. They got about two weeks to put together the film (if that long) and the only purpose of the film is to sell whatever "gee whiz" new thing the company or organization has just made to sell it to the shareholders, board of directors, or in this case a congressional committee.

    Since nobody really cares when they see the thing, and after it is seen once it will be promptly forgotten, the film really doesn't have to be all that glamorous anyway. Every once in awhile you might have a filmmaker who actually cares a little bit and puts some real effort into the film, so it might actually have some passing resemblance of something good every once in awhile.

    I guess you get what you pay for. Unfortunately here, even the "Gee Whiz" technology is nothing exciting or anything genuinely informative in terms of introducing something new. That is usually the "hook" on one of these kind of films, as it is often the first introduction of some kind of cool technology to a group of major decision makers. The filmmaker has access to the engineers and researchers making the stuff, and some of the stock footage they are working with is some of the engineering tests of the subject or something put together for the film maker to show off what new technology or gizmo they just invented.

    I'd agree.... as even an industrial film this is nearly the worst video ever. The production values are OK, but I still can't see what it is selling other than pointing out that NASA wants more money from Congress. So does the Head Start Program and the Veteran's Administration. What else is new?

  2. Well yes, you're right but next you'll probably say that NASA is legally prohibited from doing "promotion" and there's some interpretation of that law that says it must suck. :)

  3. Oh I dunno perhaps to the jaded space cadet...
    But to this space cadet there are a lot of subtle easter eggs that make it interesting. Examples:: in the mid-sequence we see Frank de Winne as ESA Commander of the ISS. Twice! "While working cooperatively... some big rocket lifting off with NASA/ESA/JAXA logos on it." you refer to is, I think you will find: ESA's ARV a crewed version of the ATV. Now these subtleties will pass your average American by. But to this British space cadet they are a nice touch. Note the total lack of Union Jack on the Ariane! Indeed for a NASA video the international content is significant e.g. the long nuclear radiator fin of the "International Space Ship" owes somewhat to the Russian design for their latest Mars Project. Although form follows function.
    The Ares ex one [sic] is a also a subtle dig. As all us 'jaded' space cadets know only too well, the "Frankenrocket" was a sub sub-orbital lob. And the finished version has a negative perigee! Meanwhile to the average American the Ares-I X is the most recent visible symbol of 'progress.' Hence the current Congressional spin of "unsustainable" and "lack of budget." Rather than "technological failure" and "total waste of 10 billion dollars which we failed to prevent."
    Note the constant stream of Hubble Images. Again the Great American Public likes Hubble. It also likes lots of Spacey SFX. What it doesn't like is a half hour technical talk on the complexities involved in cryogenic fuel transfer on orbit. Some nice green glow will do. Confirming to this space cadet that the preferred fuel is Methane as if it had been Hydrogen the colour would have been red!
    I could go on. Perhaps I will but over on my blog. If time allows.
    All in all, I give it 8 out of 10 as it is too long for an advert and too short for a mini doc. However if it were placed in the program of a good SF film. Like Avatar for example.

    I would suggest watching it again with the eyes of the average American. Or a 12 year old Space Cadet full of Gee Whizz!

  4. I'll be linking this post at Pajamas Media tomorrow, so you might want to update with a link to your follow-on that shows them how it's done.

  5. Trent...

    I *love* your 1-minute video.

    - Jim Muncy

  6. Yeah, even as an industrial film it sucks. Maybe NASA should hire the guys who did the German forklift safety video: