All Space, All the Time

Is NASA ready for prime time?

Air & Space Magazine | Subscribe

For many, it was the mother of all vacations, a middle-aged millionaire buying himself the ultimate joyride. U.S. businessman Dennis Tito’s tour of the International Space Station last April was also a certifiable pop culture event, and the media coverage it engendered, from launch to Letterman, should come as no surprise. Interest in space travel, after all, is not limited to the very rich, and media executives are always looking to satisfy (read: sell to) their audience.

If this desire for more direct access to space is not quite welcome news at NASA, which was furious at Tito for forcing his visit at so early a time in station operations (and the nerve of him to hook up with the Russians!), neither is it really news. For the last several years the space agency has been changing—some say reluctantly—the way it gets its message out to the public. Or rather, how it allows others to get the message out.

It started with Hollywood. NASA has permitted a growing number of film directors to use machinery that was once the exclusive domain of real astronauts. Ron Howard filmed parts of Apollo 13 aboard a KC-135 airplane NASA uses for weightlessness training, while Clint Eastwood slipped into the agency’s gigantic water-filled neutral-buoyancy tank to shoot parts of last year’s Space Cowboys.

Nor is it unthinkable anymore that film crews will go beyond simulations. Titanic director James Cameron has made no secret of his desire to send himself on the ultimate location shoot, and has approached NASA administrator Dan Goldin about visiting the International Space Station. In fact, the Canadian-born director has become, for Goldin, a kind of anti-Tito—willing to let the agency dictate when he might fly and under what terms. Speaking before a Congressional committee in May, as pictures of a gleeful Tito were being beamed back to Earth, the administrator said pointedly that Cameron understands “the right way and the wrong way to do things,” and was willing to wait until the space station partners work out a policy for allowing tourists on the orbiting outpost. No deal has been struck, but Cameron is already mulling over what he’d like to do if he gets up there: a documentary on the space station, maybe, or shooting footage to support his pet project—a series of productions about future human missions to Mars. Rae Sanchini, president of Lightstorm Entertainment, Cameron’s production company, says the director “would see it as a working trip. He hopes to capture imagery that will excite people about the potential for space exploration, since he’s such a believer that it’s a critical part of man’s destiny.”

Also hoping to excite the masses and rack up big ratings is Brainpool Television in Cologne, Germany, which envisions a reality-based TV show called “Space Commander,” whereby players would compete for a seven-day trip to orbit. Mark Burnett, the producer of the hit series “Survivor,” had originally intended for his follow-up effort to be called “Destination: Mir.” The Russian station’s fiery fall to Earth earlier this year nixed that plan, and Burnett was forced to settle on the Australian Outback. But he hasn’t altogether scrapped his plans for another reality-based space show, called “Destination: Space.” And amazingly, the idea no longer seems all that farfetched.

Of course, rocket ships and space shuttles always seemed to have been lifted straight from a movie screen anyway. Even the theatrical suspense of  the “3-2-1”countdown, a staple of rocket launches since the beginning of the Space Age, originated not with an engineer but with a silent film, Fritz Lang’s 1928 Woman in the Moon. What’s new is that NASA has become more comfortable exploiting the connection between technology and entertainment.

The Toronto-based IMAX company, which has been producing space-based documentaries filmed by shuttle astronauts since 1984, pioneered this fusion with films like 1985’s The Dream Is Alive, a 37-minute tribute to the space shuttle. But distribution has been limited to large-format theaters, such as the one at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. And even though IMAX has settled into a steady relationship with NASA—the company is already shooting film aboard the International Space Station—the involvement of partners like the Museum has lent the company’s space films the sober aura of public information rather than show biz.

However, the climate really started changing at NASA in 1992, when Goldin took over as Administrator. At the time, says Keith Cowing, a former agency scientist who now edits a savvy insider’s Web site called nasawatch.com, “NASA needed to be shaken out of its complacency. Many sacred cows needed to be slaughtered.” Dan Tam, who heads NASA’s commercialization office, remembers Goldin issuing an early manifesto claiming that “We have not done a very good job in communicating with the rest of the world.” Alan Ladwig, who left his job as the head of NASA’s policy office in 1999 to help launch a Web site-cum-space entertainment company called space.com and has since gone on to become a consultant, says, “One of the things Goldin recognized is that you need public support. The question is: How do you get that support?”

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.

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.”

Tom Rooker, a film producer who worked on Space Cowboys, agrees that moviegoers have become more sophisticated and thus demand accuracy and realism. “Everybody and their dog is looking at things in greater and greater detail,” he says. “The public is getting incredibly jaded. When I was growing up, we were astonished by something like a puppeteer. Nowadays, everybody knows everything. Your typical five-year-old has seen Toy Story and Toy Story 2 and all those amazing things that can be done.”

In fact, says Rooker, what motivated Eastwood to make his film was the wealth of detail and technical assistance that NASA, and only NASA, could provide. The negotiations between Mad Chance, the movie’s production company, and the space agency took a year. “And that was mostly just the arrangements, figuring out the logistics,” says Rooker. The filmmakers granted NASA full script approval. Drafts were vetted by flight directors at both Houston and Cape Canaveral, which weighed in with their editorial comments. “They looked over our shoulders,” Rooker admits, “but they would always, in the end, accept what we call a ‘feasible fiction.’ ” And, in the end, Mad Chance got exactly what it wanted. It got the details. For example, it got the answers to questions such as “When you latch in your feet, does that keep you stable?” and “What is the proper sequence of buttons to push for a shuttle landing?” Not everyone knows these things, says Rooker, but there are “enough people out there who do.”

More productions are in the works, and not just for the big screen. Space-based storylines, says Paula Cleggett, should soon find their way onto prime time TV. And always looming are the new media pioneers who think space can sell big on the Web. The space.com Web site has become an Exhibit A for this argument, and has been carefully scrutinized for the many sobering lessons to be learned.

In the heady days of the Internet boom, space.com looked for all the world like a can’t-miss proposition. It was well-financed, it had Sally Ride and other big names on board, and it even opened offices in NASA’s own headquarters building in Washington. Lou Dobbs, a former CNN anchor and space enthusiast, was in charge. NASA officials started talking excitedly of having a new way to communicate with a new generation.

Instead, only two years later, the company had closed its Washington office. Traffic on the site has continued to decline. And though Dobbs had once boasted of the private sector’s support for space.com, the outfit has been, say observers, hemorrhaging money and on the verge of failure. Some point the finger at the bottoming-out of the dot-coms and the stagnation of the economy in general. Others chalk the company’s waning fortunes up to a simple case of miscalculation. “Like a lot of Web startups,” says Ladwig, “the revenue model wasn’t what it was cracked up to be.” Besides, he adds, “space is a niche market.”

Three months before stepping down to return to television last spring, Dobbs admitted, “We’re faced with what everyone else is—the Web is a lot trickier than expected.” The burning question, says Ladwig, is still “How does a private company come in and make money off something that’s in the public domain?”

A new venture called Dreamtime finds itself in much the same predicament. The San Francisco-based company owes its existence to NASA’s desire to have someone else take over much of its multimedia service, including digitizing its vast photo collection. Shrewdly merging the worlds of Silicon Valley and NASA, Dreamtime won a highly prized contract  last year to partner with NASA on a range of products, including television programs.

The newly formed company beat out 12 others, including space.com, largely on the strength of its track record in the new economy (the founders had created the Excite@Home Web site). Dreamtime promised to invest up to $100 million on such innovations as high-definition TV, and claimed it would provide the public with its most detailed pictures yet of the space station.

More than a year later, the project remained in the development stages, and NASA’s inspector general was asking rude questions about whether the whole deal was too favorable to Dreamtime. Some speculate it will never happen.

Dan Tam, NASA’s commercialization czar, understands the pessimism. “They should be skeptical,” he says. “This is a startup, and there’s no guarantee it will be successful.” Bill Foster, Dreamtime’s CEO, remains hopeful. In fact, to feel his salesman’s energy and enthusiasm is to wonder if the doubters have ever spent any time in his company. “It’s our belief that space can be turned into education and entertainment and be profitable too,” he says. He points to a television program Dreamtime is developing, an “incredible kids’ show” with characters who can “interact with you in real-time. You may call this educational. Somebody may call it a game show or a video game or whatever…. There are no boundaries. Why should there be?” The program will air on NASA Television, he says. Eight or nine other Dreamtime projects are in the works, ranging from documentaries to TV game shows. For Foster, and for NASA too, the programs are more than just entertainment; they’re promotional tools. “The question,” says Foster, “is how are we gonna get a generation of kids who never saw Neil Armstrong and who play video games all day to see the importance of space and science?”

Sending them into orbit is one way, but most of us don’t have Dennis Tito’s millions. So until the price of a ticket comes down a bit, we may have to count on Foster, James Cameron, and the rest of the entertainment industry to take the trip for us, and give us a vicarious sense of what it’s like.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus