I love the space program. In 1969, as a child I sat riveted to the black and white TV screen with my family as Neal Armstrong took those first tentative steps on the powdery lunar surface. I was listening to the radio when the space shuttle Challenger exploded with the first teacher to go into space on board. As a youth, the whole idea of space travel fired my imagination and I still love science fiction around space (ie. Star Trek, Star Wars, First Men in the Moon, Contact, Deep Impact, Lost in Space, Capricorn One…).
Sadly, it is not science fiction that NASA is struggling for direction and budget as the space shuttle Atlantis counts down to the final chapter of the shuttle program. Why? I don’t know all of the reasons, but I have some opinions.
NASA has missed the mark in its quest to maintain public and congressional budget support–public relations. What, you say? Don’t they have cool Tweetups, Facebook fans, kids education programs, and more press releases than you can count? Yep. In fact, NASA flew 150 NASA twitterers to view this week’s launch.
However, I really had to search online for information about the HUGE societal and economic returns generated by the space program. ENORMOUS may be a better word. Thousands of spinoff companies selling everything from Teflon to heart pumps, to mylar balloons can credit NASA for the technology. The GPS in your smart phone and the miniaturization of computer chips trace their roots to the space program. Baby food and LED lighting advanced at the feet of space research.
So, what has been the payback in dollars and what is the cost. I’ve seen estimated of several dollars returned for every dollar spent in space. The lowest estimate I found for return on investment (ROI) on Wikipedia was 33%. I’m OK as a taxpayer getting that return on my tax dollar. Name another government program with that kind of return. Wikipedia reports 350,000 jobs spawned by the space program. USA Today reported at one point that nine of the Top 25 Scientific Breakthroughs came from space. However, there is precious little easily consumable metrics reporting for the general public.
Yes, NASA Spinoff Magazine provides a mountain of information to in intrepid congressman or committed reader. But, among all of the astronaut tweets this week about technology and waving to the public from space, I see none sporting a thousand different things we enjoy every day coming from NASA programs. Those astronauts should have been briefed, “Guys (and Gals), our back’s against the budget wall. When you speak, when you Tweet, when you Facebook talk about the awesome ROI of NASA.”
There should be a section on NASA’s home page and its virtual pressroom dedicated to the ROI of space—in brief snippets the Twitter age can consume. “Enjoy that smart phone and your car with miniature computers inside, thank an astronaut.” That’s under 140 characters, right? Yes, I heard the iPhone is going into orbit, but did they mention that space research made it possible?
Every NASA press release should feature something we enjoy from the space program. Their website should feature a counter that shows the growing NASA ROI (opposite the Federal deficit counter for all of its other programs)
Oh, and what about that nasty NASA budget? A 1997 poll reported that Americans had an average estimate of 20% for NASA’s share of the federal budget. The truth, it’s around .5%, one-fortieth of the perceived budget. And, at the height of the space race (1966), it was less than 5%. Sounds like poor Public Relations education to me.
It’s sad to think of that NASA treasure trove of smart folks going to work in China or Russia because of downsizing of the most profitable Fed program I know of. Is the U.S. really built to be a follower or a leader in the space industry? The future of technology and our quality of life can only benefit from a robust space program. But, NASA is going to have to do more to sell the public benefits. That starts with great Public Relations.
Maybe I should move to Houston to give them a hand.