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NASA Goes Social to Take Its Case Directly to the People

If you want politicians to give you money, you need to build public support for what you do.

NASA has been doing just that since the 1960s. Back then, to build excitement for missions to the moon and beyond, the space agency would send astronauts and astronauts-in-training on tours to towns all across America, giving stump speeches about the space program and its goals.

These days, NASA does much the same thing, but now it harnesses the power of the Internet to make its case.

One way it does so: It invites people with significant social-media followings to NASA facilities and events. Which is why, on the day President Obama released his 2017 budget proposal, I found myself at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field — next door to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. — to watch a live stream of a “State of NASA” speech by NASA administrator Charlie Bolden and to hear from other NASA folks in person.

What good is NASA?

Bolden and those other speakers all stayed tightly on-message. Their first talking-point: NASA is “all about making people’s lives better” — an attempt to tie the often-abstract business of scientific research and space exploration to the tangible benefits they provide for the American public.

Sure, you can argue that space exploration and pushing the boundaries of science are inherently important. But such arguments don’t always carry a lot of weight with people who feel that every dollar spent on a Mars rover is a dollar taken out of a social program here on Earth. NASA knows that a lot of people view the space program as remote and irrelevant to their daily lives. That’s a view the agency is constantly trying to fight.

So during his speech, Bolden made a point of highlighting NASA’s business ties. That message was especially resonant at Moffett Field, where a public-private partnership with an Alphabet (formerly Google) subsidiary has led to facility upgrades and budget improvements.

Moffett Field, where Google, er, Alphabet is up to something. (Photo: Google)

NASA says it creates 1600 new technologies every year and that it has helped private businesses transfer thousands of them into the marketplace. Bolden also pointed out that there was more venture-capital investment into private space business in 2015 than in the previous 15 years combined, largely owing to NASA’s commercial cargo and crew programs. NASA Ames is even working on a cloud-based air-traffic system for drones.

NASA versus Congress

Another perception problem NASA is seeking to correct: The public thinks NASA takes up nearly a quarter of the federal budget, when the actual number is one half of one percent. NASA fights this misperception with the message that the agency gives great value for the money it does get — that all of its high-profile initiatives consume just a tiny fraction of the federal budget.

It’s a strange time for NASA, politically: Congress is skeptical of its plans to go to Mars, and Tuesday’s budget did not provide many specifics beyond targeting a Mars landing in the 2030s. The proposed 2017 NASA budget is actually lower than what Congress provided NASA for 2016, continuing a strange divide between the Obama Administration and Congress.

Like it or not, NASA is going to Europa. (Image: NASA)

This year Congress authorized a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa that NASA didn’t want, and the 2017 budget reluctantly continues work on that mission, albeit with lower funding and a delayed launch date. Expect Congress to press the issue during its 2017 budget process.

What’s next for NASA

While the give and take between NASA and Congress is sure to go on — with the election of a new president later this year as a complicating factor — the fact is that NASA has a $19 billion budget for 2016 and a $19 billion budget proposed for 2017. Here’s some of what the agency is planning on doing with that money:

Mars Robots: NASA continues to fund the Mars 2020 rover mission, the latest and highest-tech rover to be launched to the Red Planet. The proposed 2017 budget also starts work on funding the next mission on Mars past 2020, whether it’s an orbiter or a lander.

Journey to Europa: Jupiter’s moon Europa interests scientists because it’s got a huge water ocean that could possibly contain life. It’s also a subject that fascinates Congressman John Culberson (R-Texas), who chairs the House committee in charge of NASA’s budget. NASA’s current administration reluctantly supports the program with a start date in the latter half of the 2020s; Congress wants it to happen in 2022 and include a lander.

Space Telescopes: The James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s long-gestating sequel to the Hubble Space Telescope, is being assembled at a NASA center in Maryland right now, targeting an October 2018 launch date. Next up is WFIRST, another space telescope due to be launched in the mid-2020s.

Return to Human Spaceflight: The plan is to have NASA’s Commercial Crew program — in which astronauts are carried to the International Space Station aboard private American spacecraft, instead of renting seats on the Russian Soyuz capsule — fly its first two crewed missions in 2017, following two demonstration flights.

Your new ride to the Space Station. (Image: SpaceX)

Snag an Asteroid: NASA is gearing up for a robotic mission in the 2020s that would lasso a small asteroid and propel it into near-Earth orbit, at which point astronauts using NASA’s new Orion long-range space capsule would rendezvous with the asteroid and explore it. It’s an esoteric mission that’s designed to test human spaceflight beyond the moon’s orbit, without the extremely long travel time it would take to get to Mars.

Finding Exoplanets: The TESS mission, which will scan the entire sky to find planets circling around stars even closer to Earth than those found in the Kepler mission, is on track to launch in 2018.

Those are all the plans currently in progress, but here’s where the reality of politics comes back in: In 2017 there will be a new President and Congress, and quite possibly a new NASA Administrator. NASA’s plans and priorities could shift quite dramatically in a year’s time. Such is life when the cutting edge of space exploration is wrapped inside a government bureaucracy.