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All Space, All the Time

Is NASA ready for prime time?

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.

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.”

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