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.