All Space, All the Time
Is NASA ready for prime time?
- By Todd Kliman
- Air & Space magazine, September 2001
(Page 2 of 5)
An ardent Trekkie, the new administrator turned to the entertainment industry. Goldin created a previously unheard-of role at NASA—that of Hollywood liaison—and in 1997 hired Bobbie Faye Ferguson, a former actress with connections to the Clinton White House, as the director of multimedia services. Ferguson brought a Rolodex filled with show business contacts. Only a few years earlier, NASA had been a reluctant player, but under her direction, it began seeking out Hollywood as a potential partner.
The ending of the cold war had brought a decline of spy films, but as one genre died, another was born. The movie industry could hardly believe its good fortune. Says one producer, “Hey, if [NASA] wants to work with us, great. You’d be crazy to turn that down.” By the late 1990s, the studios were starting to churn out stories about space adventures and heroes, from Armageddon to Deep Impact to Mission to Mars.
Ferguson has since left the agency, but Paula Cleggett, the deputy chief of NASA’s public affairs office, says the agency is still pursuing relationships with filmmakers. “Do we have an office on Hollywood and Vine? No.” But, she says, “We’ll arrange a tour of the Kennedy Space Center, let’s say. Introduce them to specialists. Get them talking, that sort of thing. We want to encourage this. We want to reach as many people as we possibly can, and reaching them through Hollywood is one of the ways to do it.”
This fit in nicely with Goldin’s larger vision of a new and improved space agency. The Administrator’s “care and feeding of the Hollywood studios,” as Cowing puts it, would mean better PR. And that might translate to increased public support and Congressional funding, and perhaps even NASA’s survival as it slouched toward the 21st century without a clear mission, such as landing on the moon.
Meanwhile, the Internet took off, the number of cable TV channels multiplied, and the number of media outlets mushroomed from a handful into thousands. Could the space program, an icon of the 1960s, sell in the fickle new media marketplace? The answer—a resounding “maybe”—came with the Mars Pathfinder landing in 1997. For the first time, images beamed from another planet could be viewed ’round the clock on your desktop computer. The public was fascinated by the novelty of it all: People around the world downloaded pictures of the Sojourner rover rolling across the surreal red landscapes of Mars. NASA’s Pathfinder Web site got 46 million hits in a single day, which was, back then, a record. Surely there was a market here somewhere.
But to talk about a private space information-entertainment business was to talk about a different kind of NASA. Some at the agency did not want to have that conversation. “You had people here who went back to the Apollo days,” says Dwayne Brown, NASA’s acting director of media services. “Historically, this is a very conservative place. There’s a lot of military presence.”
Still, with Radio Shack now filming commercials on board the space station and Pizza Hut sending up pizzas (Tito’s Russian crewmates were the delivery boys, and station commander Yuri Usachev starred in the TV spot), the old ways appear to be vanishing fast. Sensing a new market, Spacehab, a Houston-based firm that builds laboratory modules for conducting research in orbit, last year spun off a venture with the Russians called Space Media, which would use a new commercial module, Enterprise, that the company hopes to dock to the space station in order to “develop space-related media and edutainment [sic] opportunities.” The business plan may have been slightly ahead of its time, however. A year later Space Media was laying off staff, and is now biding its time before rushing to put the first studio in orbit.
While we wait, there’s NASA Television. The agency’s in-house TV channel, which debuted in the 1980s, broadcasts video—mostly, but not entirely, without commentary—of shuttle missions, press conferences, and other events of public interest. The signal can be picked up by any local cable service, and is Webcast on prominent sites like Yahoo. It began, says Brown, “as an engineering tool, monitoring the work that was being done on a particular mission.” At first, when nothing was happening in space, the screen went blank. Today, though, NASA Television has original programming with peppy hosts who, if not quite ready for prime time, add production values to the raw feed. NASA Television is no longer just for agency employees and geeks. “Now it’s defined as a news source,” says Brown.