During a question and answer session with the audience, O’Brien agreed with a workshop participant that video games are a great way to engage with kids of a certain age, saying that we have “to meet them where they are.” He cited Richard Garriott, son of NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, who made a fortune making role-playing video games and then spent some of that fortune for a ticket on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to fly to the International Space Station, as an example of someone who also sees this as a way to connect with the public.
He also said that NASA has to “step back from unrealistic promises” on dates and deadlines for accomplishing human spaceflight goals. They worked fine in the 1960s when NASA had a blank check, he said, but that is not true today because “we have an underfunded space program.” The debate should be about whether space exploration is important to us—for our children, education, and competitiveness. He asked rhetorically why India wants a human spaceflight program.
SSB member Charles Woodward asked if the best way to engage public interest is “boots on the ground or technology on the terrain.” O’Brien responded that people need to feel that they are part of the mission, and including the public in “the ride” has to begin early. He cited an example of how engineers fought attempts to put a camera on the Apollo 11 lander because of weight considerations, but 8 to 9 weeks before the mission “saner minds prevailed” and a camera was included. “NASA is run by engineers, and there are no mission requirements for public affairs,” and that has to change, he said. He added that “it cannot be tacked on” at the end, but must be part of the mission from the beginning—a “clean sheet mission requirement.”
In a discussion of how personalities like Jon Stewart2 factor into this debate about public engagement and social media, O’Brien said that people have become their own news producers. They have heard the news before watching Stewart or other news personalities. They tune in to those programs because they want to know what that personality’s take is on it. He noted that “the fact that people laugh at the jokes means they must have heard the news or otherwise the jokes wouldn’t be funny in the first place.”
Science journalist Andrew Lawler asked about how to differentiate between journalism and public relations and how to get information out that people will trust and that does not have a hidden agenda, even though nothing is agenda-free, in his opinion. O’Brien agreed that nothing is agenda-free, and the key is to make sure the agenda is not hidden. He used his experience on Spaceflightnow.com as an example. O’Brien said that instead of selling advertising spots to the aerospace companies that support the website, they sell their interviews with him. However, at the end of the workshop Lawler said that paying someone for an interview is ordinarily frowned upon in journalism (see Session 8). O’Brien defended the Spaceflightnow.com arrangement by saying that he still asks all the hard questions, and he is open with the public about the arrangement: “You can say we’re bought and paid for by those contractors … [but] if we tell people that … this is a paid interview, and I still do the questions I would normally do … that’s definitely a new kind of journalism…. I don’t think it’s dishonest in any way and … I haven’t pulled my punch once yet. Maybe that’s one way to make all this stuff profitable in the future, I don’t know.”
SSB chair Charles F. Kennel asked how the story of the retirement of the space shuttle and the somewhat uncertain future for the human spaceflight program should be told. O’Brien answered that the absence of the space shuttle “let’s a little more air into the room” and allows the media to focus on NASA’s other activities. He returned to his themes that the ISS is a compelling story and that commercial human spaceflight is exciting. The multi-year gap between the end of the space shuttle and the availability of a replacement U.S. crew transportation system is “horribly unfortunate,” but he believes commercial human spaceflight is a positive development. It will be possible to tell the story that instead of 500 people flying to space over the past 50 years, as is true today, there will be 500 people flying into space every month in the future. That should be a “very exciting” story, he said, adding, “we’re taking free enterprise into orbit” and there are great storylines there.
2 Jon Stewart is host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central.