In Essays, Innovation

NASA is sending an experimental, highly innovative, totally risky rocket to circle the Moon later this month that could change the course of history.

And nobody cares.

NASA has been breaking my heart ever since it made the Apollo program look about as exciting as a tax audit. Granted, our government isn’t particularly good at communicating, with its squishy and shifting pandemic declarations as just one example, but NASA isn’t just enforcing a law or issuing a new postage stamp.

They’re sending a new rocket ship to the Moon!

There are two core problems that suck all of the energy out of NASA’s communications:

First, it’s focused on itself and on process. The Artemis missions are part of a plan to build a base on the Moon and then send astronauts to Mars. A generic “we” are doing it for science, economic, and inspirational benefits that “will change the world,” according to a glossy propaganda video.

Does that “we” include you and me? Can you cite a single so-called “benefit” from the program? Are you excited?

A simple rule of effective communications is that you don’t tell, you show, which is why there’s nothing inspiring about NASA’s pedestrian descriptions of its intentions. Its how is utterly devoid of a why…why this, why now… almost as if it’s based on a leaden PowerPoint presentation that it gave to politicians in order to secure its funding.

Most of the media coverage reflects this focus on process over purpose, even in consumer-oriented tech outlets like Gizmodo and Wired. It’s all about NASA’s intentions, not ours.

Imagine if it looked outward, at us and our world, and demonstrated why we needed it. There are credible and potentially moving arguments to be made about its relevance to climate change, speeding tech innovation, creating new industries and jobs, even asserting American global leadership.

For example: Its plans for a base camp on the Moon could be all about inventing and testing next gen designs for homes and energy use back on a climate-changing Earth (“if you can survive the elements there, you can survive them anywhere”). Instead, it’s all about procedural elements of the program. Also, the description hasn’t been updated in almost two years.

Second, it draws on the worst nonsense of commercial marketing and PR.

The mannequin onboard Artemis will be named Moonikin Campos, thanks to a public poll, and its sponsored radio platform got over a million votes for a Spotify playlist that includes surprises as David Bowie’s Space Oddity (the list was last updated in 2019).

At least they didn’t allow Artemis to get named Boaty McBoatface.

Getting people engaged in a immense and profound initiative isn’t the same thing as launching a new candy bar, however. Votes and clicks are meaningless without, well, meaning.

Here’s a crazy notion: Instead, NASA should draw on the best practices of entertainment and religion.

Entertainment marketers use movie or video game launches as opportunities to get people involved, not just aware. Content is pulled out of them — such as the money behind a production, drama on the set, reveals of special effects, personality profiles of actors — which lets them engage with people in different ways via different media.

There are supposedly dozens of countries working on elements for the program, and I think companies, too (I vaguely remember that Toyota is working on a new lunar rover?). Those stories are lost in the morass of corporate propaganda blather no more authentic or relevant than a music playlist of songs that mention the word Moon.

Providing stories worth reading, watching, or hearing is more compelling than stunts, and they’ve been core tenets of religious communications since The Beginning.

Religious engagement involves user internalization of content, personal responsibility for participation in unfinished work, and a passionate if not always literal understanding of the payoff for it.

Such mechanisms for belief are far beyond the tricks NASA and its vendors have adopted to prompt exposure. It would be intriguing if they were willing to throw those marketers out of the room and risk exploring why and then how to bridge that gap.

It won’t happen, of course, since it hasn’t happened already.

I’ve been a diehard fan of manned space exploration ever since I sat in front of the TV and watched every Apollo mission. That means I literally watched public sentiment wan as the program got predictable and its punchline more mundane. I knew why I kept watching but almost everyone else lost interest.

NASA has perpetuated this disconnect ever since and now it’s about to take the next step in an initiative that should be not only known but cherished as a transformative, inspiring narrative. Only nobody cares.

It breaks my heart.

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