February 26, 2009

Can NASA be Entertaining?

For one moment, NASA had the attention of the entire world. That moment was in 1969 when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. Today, space travel to low Earth orbit is relatively routine and NASA finds itself in a confounding Catch-22: if an organization’s goal is to make an activity safe and routine, then the organization will attract the most attention only when there’s a terrible accident.

As of this writing, the Space Shuttle has successfully flown to space 123 times. It has failed twice. Many people can tell you about the failures of the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia, but they know little about NASA’s other successful missions. That’s not good when you’re a government agency competing for scarce funding.

Why did space travel capture the imaginations of so many people during the 1960’s, but not in the first decade of the 21st century? What would help?

Many things could help. One example may come from the Mars Society. The society operates two remote locations known as the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) and the Flashline Mars Analog Research Station (FMARS). Each one looks like a space landing vehicle on the barren Mars landscape (actually the Utah desert and Canadian Arctic). Volunteer crews run week-long missions at the stations and do the things that Mars astronauts would do. They even have faux space-suits for extra-vehicular activities (EVA) to explore the landscape around the lander.

They also blog and post videos on YouTube. I found one of these YouTube videos, contacted the author, Ryan Kobrick, who was on a 100 day tour of duty at the FMARS hab in 2007. As the weeks went by, I checked the crew blogs to see what they had been researching, and to see new pictures and videos of their adventure. Occasionally I sent a message or question about the mission to Ryan, and he always responded.

This is Ryan’s video tour of the FMARS habitat:

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Later, the Space Shuttle Endeavor blasted off to complete mission STS 119, and I found myself more interested in the FMARS crew than the real astronauts on the Shuttle and the International Space Station. I felt connected to the FMARS crew because of the two-way communication I had with them.

What if there were more than two Mars analog research stations? What if there were hundreds all over the world and sending kids to Mars camp was as common as summer camp? Imagine the parents attending a mock space launch, and then keeping in touch with their kids via webcam, then attending a simulated landing and graduation. How many people would start to really get interested in NASA? How many voters and legislators would start thinking about NASA again?

~Matt Thomas

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