All Space, All the Time
Is NASA ready for prime time?
- By Todd Kliman
- Air & Space magazine, September 2001
(Page 3 of 5)
Building on that experience, the agency has begun looking into what NASA Webmaster Charles Redmond, lapsing into new-media-speak, calls “a streaming media distribution scheme.” Translation: production of real-time content for television and the Internet. Redmond envisions a full slate of daily programming, including, he says, “a sort of TV Guide” that would give viewers a daily schedule of programming. And what might the schedule include, besides the occasional footage of a space launch or look inside the space station? “It might be scientists practicing robot missions; it might be scientists in the classroom, teaching,” he says.
“Survivor” it ain’t. But that’s just fine by NASA; entertainment is not the goal. Nor is openness, necessarily. NASA Television, whether distributed by cable or over the Web, will still show only what NASA chooses for us to see. That doesn’t sit well with some, who worry about what Redmond calls the “tension between freedom and control.” James Oberg, a space writer who spent 22 years working as a spaceflight engineer in Houston and who is currently writing a book about the U.S.-Russian space alliance, has been a persistent critic of NASA’s claims to openness. In a recent column in USA Today, Oberg complained about the agency’s editing, or “redacting,” of journals kept by the International Space Station’s first commander, Bill Shepherd, during his stay in orbit last year. Numerous passages in Shepherd’s commentary were deleted before his “ship’s logs” were posted on the Web. “Occasional lapses in candor by NASA media officials in the recent past raise concerns that a monopolized information flow will be a slanted information flow,” Oberg wrote. “ ‘Happy talk’ is easy, but rigorous candor about problems takes a level of effort—and a mindset—that has sometimes been lacking.”
The question of who decides what the public gets to see will certainly come up if non-NASA employees start shooting film in orbit. NASA watchers already complain that the agency is selective about which movie projects are granted access to its training facilities on the ground. The producers of last year’s Red Planet, for example, were not allowed to film on site at NASA centers, while Armageddon and Space Cowboys were granted the full benefit of NASA’s technical assistance. The agency reportedly was miffed at the makers of Red Planet, which had Val Kilmer and crewmates acting at times like fraternity brothers on a road trip. “It did not portray the values that we see in our astronauts,” says Cleggett of NASA public affairs. “It was un-astronaut-like—put it that way.”
Toni Myers, who heads IMAX Space Ltd., dismisses the notion that NASA’s hands-on involvement compromises the integrity of her company’s space-based documentaries. Calling from a “customer support room” adjacent to mission control, where the producer was screening video beamed live from the International Space Station, she says, “These films are a tool to get people reinvigorated, to show the public what NASA is up to. To do what [NASA is] trying to do, you’re going to need huge public support.”
Is the agency practicing censorship? “I wouldn’t say that at all,” she bristles. “They never came to us about something we said we wanted to do and said ‘Don’t do this.’ ”
Myers, who worked on the IMAX films The Dream Is Alive, Blue Planet, Destiny in Space, and Mission to Mir, says that after 15 years of collaboration, a comfortable working routine has evolved between IMAX and the space agency. Myers typically develops a scene list for each mission, which NASA reviews. Working together, the two groups arrive at a shooting schedule. Whether this micromanaging infringes on the creative freedom of her production crews is beside the point, says Myers. “The reality is, this is different from any other kind of documentary. There are issues to account for, a certain protocol that has to be followed very, very carefully [involving] crew safety and so forth. These projects are so difficult to pull off in the first place that it doesn’t really become an issue.”
She contrasts her work with Michael Moore’s ambush-style documentaries, such as the 1989 Roger and Me, a black comedy about layoffs in the auto industry: “It’s about as opposite from that as you can get.”
There is, of course, a marvelous payoff. In exchange for playing by NASA’s strict rules, IMAX gets the goods: intimate glimpses of aerospace arcana, the view that only astronauts normally get. “It’s important for us—our mission, really—to not gloss over the details,” says Myers. “I think that with more out there [on] the cable channels and the Internet…and with a broader fan base, the details become that much more important.”