NASA, SpaceX, and Showmanship

Tuesday marked the maiden voyage of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy.  Their heavy lift rocket system to compete with the United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy and Vulcan, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, and NASA’s upcoming Orion replacement – the Space Launch System.  The launch went off with tons of fanfare as millions of viewers hopped online to catch the live stream as Elon Musk’s company fired 27 engines across three boosters to launch his little red Tesla Roadster on an orbit that will cross the orbit of Mars.

Elon Musk just shot a car into space out towards Mars.  With a mannequin in the driver’s seat wearing a production model of SpaceX’s space suit, and the radio blaring David Bowie’s Space Oddity on repeat in the vacuum of space.  Oh, and two words displayed on the radio: “Don’t Panic!”

That’s an attention grabber, and NASA could learn a lot from what SpaceX does to keep the attention of the public.  I’m not saying that NASA needs to partner with a car company and start filling the solar system with an automotive museum.  But aside from the occasional two minute blip on the news, what do we really hear about them?

NASA does some amazing things, and they’ve managed to swipe a few headlines here and there.  NASA has been delivering some gorgeous photos of Jupiter a la Juno.  But it hasn’t really seemed to resonate with the public like a SpaceX launch.

Just about every single flight of the Falcon series of rockets draws a massive audience to their online webcasts.  Whether they’re deploying a Korean Communications Satellite or a Top Secret government satellite that may or may not have failed in flight, SpaceX gets hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of views on every launch.  Their lowest viewed video of the last year appears to be the EchoStar XXIII Technical Webcast at 111,000 views, while NASA has only had 21 of their 300 videos in the last year exceed that number.

So what is NASA’s problem?  Well…it really boils down to showmanship.  If you can put on a show – make a spectacle of your accomplishment – you can capture an audience.  But to do that, you need a critical component that NASA sorely lacks; people.

Elon Musk has become almost a household name alongside that of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.  He’s in the forefront of every major piece of news that comes out about SpaceX and Tesla.  He gets peoples’ attention with crazy stunts like shooting his car into space, or taking pre-orders for personal flame throwers, and people are loving it!  There is even a weekly YouTube show dedicated to all things Elon Musk.

Seriously. This.

Astronauts Scott Kelly and Chris Hadfield did amazing work for NASA from this perspective.  Their regular interactions on social media while they were on the International Space Station kept the attention of the masses by interacting with people on Earth.  Hadfield’s Space Oddity video alone has grabbed over 38 million views on YouTube.  And Kelly’s comedic skit on the ISS with an ape suit grabbed quite a few headlines.  But stunts like these don’t seem to happen very often with NASA, and I think it really hurts them in the public eye.

NASA has always struggled with keeping the attention of the public when things become ‘routine’.  It’s well documented that the live broadcasts from Apollo 13 (prior to the emergency) weren’t being aired because spaceflight had become boring to the public.  The same thing happened with the Space Shuttle.  Granted, their publicity stunt in 1986 ended in tragedy, but had they figured out how to keep the attention of the public in the first place, I wonder if Challenger would have actually been flown that day.  NASA had been under intense pressure to get a highly publicized flight off the ground after a number of delays.  If they already had a level of attention and interest from the public that they were seeking with this flight, you have to wonder if they might have leaned more towards safety and prudence.

SpaceX’s showmanship isn’t limited to Elon Musk alone.  Watch their webcasts.  They have an opening montage with cool music.  Announcers (plural) keeping you informed of what’s going on with the rocket, and how it works (in layman’s terms).  At launch, you can hear the crowd at SpaceX’s mission control cheering at every stage of flight.  Hey, the employee cheering may or may not be staged, but it keeps you engaged and on the edge of your seat!

With NASA, you got a wide shot of the rocket and absolute silence with the exception of the occasional communications callout.  And maybe a monotone voice explaining the dry details of what was going on or what would happen next.

NASA needs to get people engaged consistently.  They need to establish familiar personalities that interact with the public on a regular basis.  I would go so far as to say that Destin Sandlin of Smarter Every Day would be perfect for the job.  He’s personable, understands the underlying science to a lot of things related to spaceflight (because he works in the industry), and knows how to keep people engaged.  If you stuck him in orbit on station for a year, you would have an audience.  Keep him at mission control after that, or maybe vlogging about some of the cool experiments and projects that NASA is working on, and you’d have engagement well beyond that.

SpaceX is making huge strides in innovating the aerospace industry and they’re taking the public along for the ride – quite literally.  NASA needs to figure out what it wants to do.  They’re going to have to eventually choose to either leave the innovation and spaceflight to organizations like SpaceX or Blue Origin and become a regulating agency; or they’re going to have to really start working on their audience problem and find some people to bring some personality to their mission.  If they don’t, I fear that Congress will eventually make the decision by budget.

If you didn’t catch the maiden voyage of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, you missed out on quite a show.  Fortunately, you can catch the recording here: