Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘NASA’

29 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Werner Herzog on America and His Lifelong NASA Dream

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“The country has always had a capacity to rejuvenate itself, pull itself out of defeat and look to the future. There has always been space there to create real change.”

“America,” young Italo Calvino wrote upon his first visit to the United States, “is the land of the richness of life, of the fullness of every hour in the day, the country which gives you the sense of carrying out a huge amount of activity, even though in fact you achieve very little, the country where solitude is impossible.” But for a land this vast, full of this many people of such enormous diversity, what is “America,” really, if not an abstraction onto which each person projects his or her narrow slice of experience? The landmarks, icons, and stereotypes that have come to signify “America” as a kind of shorthand certainly don’t even begin to capture the full dimension of that abstraction, for the measure of any country — as that of any person — lives between the lines of such shorthand, in the richness of the ordinary and the of the aliveness of the mundane.

From Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (public library) — the same wide-ranging interview by Paul Cronin, three decades in the making, that gave us the legendary filmmaker’s no-bullshit advice to aspiring creators and his thoughts on creativity, self-reliance, and how to make a living doing what you love — comes Herzog’s meditation on America. Remarking that contrary to some critical interpretations, his film Stroszek was not intended as a critique of capitalism — “The film doesn’t criticize the country; it’s almost a eulogy to the place,” he adds — Herzog tells Cronin:

What I love is the heartland of the country, the so-called “flyover” zone, like Wisconsin, where we filmed Stroszek and where Orson Welles was from. Marlon Brando came from Nebraska, Bob Dylan from Minnesota, Hemingway from Illinois, these middle-of-nowhere places, to say nothing of the South, the home of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. I like this kind of terrain, where you can still encounter great self-reliance and camaraderie, the warm, open hearts, the down-to-earth people. So much of the rest of the country has abandoned these basic virtues. I like America for its spirit of advancement and exploration; there is something exceptionally bold about the place. The idea of everyone having an equal chance to succeed, no matter who they are, is impressive. If a barefoot Indian from the Andes had invented the wheel, the patent office in Washington would have assisted him in securing his rights.

As an immigrant myself, having brushed with the less generous sides of American law during my decade-long tussle with the immigration system, I found Herzog’s optimistic take on the attitudes embedded in other aspects of the law particularly heartening:

When I made The Wild Blue Yonder I discovered an extraordinary cache of footage shot by NASA astronauts in outer space, and was told that because it was filmed by federal employees, the material was “property of the people.” I asked, “Can I, a Bavarian, be considered one of the people?” Such images, it turns out, according to American law belong to everyone on the planet. This is a unique and astounding attitude to the world. Naturally there are things in the United States I’m ambivalent about, just as there are when it comes to Germany. I could never be a flag-waving patriot. But there are many reasons why I have been in America for so many years. The country has always had a capacity to rejuvenate itself, pull itself out of defeat and look to the future. There has always been space there to create real change. I could never live in a country I didn’t love.

Recontextualized NASA footage used in Herzog's The Wild Blue Yonder

Herzog, indeed, holds a soft spot for NASA. “We thank NASA for its sense of poetry,” he says at the end of The Wild Blue Yonder, a line that reads like a eulogy itself as we bear witness to NASA’s tragic downward slide in government priorities today. In contemplating the necessary risks of the creative life, Herzog shares with Cronin his dream of joining NASA — a notion that seems so naturally resonant with his penchant for the lyricism of wanderlust:

I would never complain about how difficult it is to get images that belong to the recesses of the human heart, that show unexpected things we have never seen or experienced before, that are clear, pure and transparent. I would go absolutely anywhere; that’s my nature. Down here on Earth it’s hardly possible any more. I wouldn’t hesitate for a second if given the chance to venture out with a camera to another planet in our solar system, even if it were a one-way ticket. It’s frustrating to me that astronauts never take advantage of the photographic possibilities available to them. On one of the Apollo missions they left a camera on the moon, slowly panning from left to right, then right to left, for days. I yearned to grab the damned thing. There are so many possibilities up there for fresh images, and I always thought it would be better to send up a poet instead of an astronaut; I would be the first to volunteer. I did actually once seriously consider applying to NASA to be on one of their missions. Space travel is unfinished business for me, though these days I wouldn’t be allowed. You need a complete set of teeth to get inside a spaceship.

Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed is a magnificent read in its hefty totality. Sample Herzog’s life-tested wisdom further here and here, then complement this particular bit with Debbie Millman’s illustrated literary geography of America.

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06 JUNE, 2014

Amusingly Cryptic Warning Signs from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Autotuned

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A serendipitous adventure in science communication.

When artist, designer, and educator David Delgado first arrived at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to work with the artist-in-residence there, he was immediately struck by the strange signs around the space, often cryptic and seemingly nonsensical. He found himself captivated by the disconnect between the dry, mundane language of these cautions and the immensely interesting processes, materials, and operations they were trying to describe. A solitary keyhole, almost alien in its arbitrary placement, bears the label “lazer bypass” — something partway between Alice in Wonderland and Alice in Quantumland, or the set of a science fiction movie.

When his friend Lee Overtree, Artistic Director of the wonderful arts education nonprofit Story Pirates, came to visit, he too took amused notice of the signs. Using Delgado’s photographs, he decided to compose a song using the app Songify to autotune his reading of the warning text from the various signs.

I recently bumped into Delgado at the World Science Festival, where he told me the story of their sign-turned-song, as an aside to an unrelated conversation about Ray Bradbury’s conversation with Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke. I was instantly smitten with this geeky labor of love. So, with high permission all the way up from NASA’s Media Office, here is the end result for our shared delight:

More of Delgado’s original photographs of the signs below:

Complement with NASA’s formal Art Program, featuring Serious Art by such luminaries as Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, and Norman Rockwell, then take a tour of JPL’s predecessors with these gorgeous vintage photos of NASA facilities.

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18 MARCH, 2014

Marketing the Moon: How NASA Sold Space to Earth

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When the mission became the message and NASA undertook the monumental task of explaining rocket science to an audience looking to the stars.

It wasn’t until the soft beep…beep…beep of the Sputnik satellite reached Earth on October 4, 1957 that the Soviet Union could declare the first unequivocal success of their space program. The Soviets had launched Sputnik in secret, and the news took the United States by surprise. It was Soviet policy that every launch would be kept secret unless it was successful, and that its public would only be fed propaganda. The Soviet government would deny ever having attempted a manned lunar landing until 1990, and cosmonauts who died in the line of duty were erased from the public record. (The details of the training-accident death of Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut to orbit the earth, were covered up until 2013.)

One year after the surprise launch of Sputnik, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was founded. The U.S. space program was determined to be markedly different from the Soviets — it would be an “open program” in which facts and data would flow freely between the agency and the public using an extensive public relations program, explain authors David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek in Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program (public library). It was a radical proposition: NASA, not the military, would release information and information would be released before, not after, a mission — an antithesis to the typical military strategy of confidentially. Tragedy would be reported alongside success.

Despite the somewhat cynical title, Marketing the Moon is not simply a story of the “selling” of the space program or the “spinning” of the NASA public relations machine — rather, it’s a rigorous and unvarnished look at one of the largest and most successful disseminations of science education in the twentieth century.

Reporters at Cape Canaveral during the launch of one of the Mercury missions

How could rocket physics, geology, astronomy, and more be explained to the lay person? How could the chain of information — from the lab to the Public Affairs Office to the TV producer to the host to the viewer at home — retain accuracy and clarity? Using rare press materials from the early days of NASA as well as the Apollo program — press releases, reference material, news bulletins, and photographs of reporters at work — Scott and Jurek show that the launch of a fact was as precarious as the launch of a missile: both could spectacularly fail to reach their targets.

The staff of the Public Affairs Office at Mission Control in Houston, 1965

The Public Affairs Office would control the consistency of the information, not its message. From the beginning, the office hired ex-newsmen to work as reporters inside the agency, determining which stories the public should know and in language that would be accessible — reporters knew what reporters would need. It was a move that today might be labeled “brand journalism,” but at the time was a revolutionary step for a government agency that needed its story told accurately and efficiently.

Press kits prepared for the major contractors in the Apollo programs, including IBM and Omega watches (Courtesy Richard Jurek)

Control, however, became the topic of one of the most controversial media relationships set up by NASA: the LIFE magazine / World Book contracts, which paid $500,000 to the Mercury 7 astronauts and their wives in 1959 (because then, decades before women took to the stars, women’s role in space exploration amounted to being astronaut wives), as well as a $100,000 life insurance policy that wasn’t provided by the government. It was easy to see the contract as “cashing in” on a project funded by taxpayers, but NASA had perhaps naively understood the contract as protecting the astronauts from being hounded or exploited by the media. The astronauts could only talk about their personal lives, not the missions.

The exclusive LIFE magazine coverage of the wives of the Mercury 7 astronauts

NASA created materials that addressed reporters’ needs in press releases, bylined articles, background materials, sponsored media symposiums, television newsreels, and fully produced radio broadcasts complete with interviews and sound effects. Every mission was explained pre-launch by the Public Affairs Office and reported with text and visuals far more elaborate than any press kit.

Before the Apollo 11 launch, journalists received The Apollo Spacecraft News Reference, a thick, three-ring binder with tabbed pages for easy thumbing. It included detailed diagrams of the command module, oxygen tanks, the spacesuit, and much more. It was an encyclopedia of technical information that would have been considered high-treason to release under the Soviets, but NASA considered the reference book an essential “classroom handout” for a proverbial public of fascinated students.

A series of books several hundred pages in length, that detailed technical concepts and vocabulary for reporters covering the Apollo 11 launch (Courtesy Richard Jurek)

Any advertisement that mentioned the space program had to be submitted to NASA in order to both maintain both factual accuracy and ensure that no product was directly endorsed. Contractors could advertise that their product had traveled to the moon, but not that it had been used. No astronauts could be shown in an ad, only their anonymous suited counterparts. Photographs taken in space were government-produced and therefore were in the public domain.

Advertisements couldn’t show the face of any astronaut, nor suggest the product had actually been used on a mission. This ad for Tang would have been vetted for accuracy by the Public Affairs Office.

Television proved to be one of the hardest and most important outlets for NASA to tell its story. The Public Affairs Office made sure that the producers had access to model spacecraft, maps, graphs, charts, as well as interviews with scientists and guidance about the right questions to ask. The mission was the message; the concept was easy to explain, the execution much harder. Walter Cronkite, who would propel CBS into the pole position during the Apollo 11 broadcast, relied on information from the Public Affairs Office as a much-needed crash course:

Covering the space program presented a challenge to us all… There was a great deal we had to learn about the mechanics of space flight and the idiosyncrasies of the physics of moving bodies in the weightlessness and atmosphere-free environment of space.

The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite during the tense coverage of the Apollo 13 mission. (Courtesy Richard Jurek)

The Public Affairs Office considered itself a champion of accurate scientific information, created to “furnish Congress and the media with the facts — unvarnished facts — about the progress of NASA programs,” explained its founder in 1959. Congress was just as important an audience, and it is an unfortunate reality that space education falls in and out of fashion with the budget of each new session. Public affairs was more than a perception, it was the life and death of the space program. When the lunar module of Apollo 11 began its fifty state tour, public relations was taken over by local affiliates, and the effect was more sideshow than science fair.

Dick Cavett interviews the Apollo 15 astronauts, 1971. (Courtesy Richard Jurek)

However, this is only the story of the public perception of NASA and the space program, not the public’s appetite for space, which has thrived for decades on the ecstatic visions of Carl Sagan, and has been reinvigorated with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s relaunch, and loving tribute, to Sagan’s Cosmos. With his clear yet poetic communication of complex scientific ideas, Tyson has championed science on all platforms and has mastered the art of the soundbite:

A soundbite is useful because it triggers interest in someone, who then goes and puts in the effort to learn more…

Communication of the work is as important as the work itself, something that Wernher von Braun knew as he stood to address the reporters at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center after the Apollo 11 astronauts were headed back to earth aboard the command module Columbia:

I would like to thank all of you for the fine support you have always given the program. Because without public relations and good presentations of these programs to the public, we would have been unable to do it.

For a bittersweet complement to Marketing the Moon, see Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s urgent and poetic antidote to the precarious fate of space exploration today.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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