I spent a day at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida this week while I was attending a user group conference nearby in Orlando. As my wife and I rode around the vast complex, I thought about the many things that public relations and tech marketing folks can learn from the way NASA tells its story to the public.
NASA has always spent a lot of money on PR. Sending people into space is dangerous and expensive, and continues to be so. And while the company’s reputation isn’t what it used to be compared to the “Right Stuff” 1960s when we were trying to land on the moon, they still do a lot of things right when it comes to getting their message across and educating the public about what it takes to work in space.
I admit it – I am a space junkie and grew up fascinated with astronauts and the whole lunar landing thing. Growing up on Long Island, I knew that the local space contractor was Grumman and that they built the spidery lunar lander, and even had a model of it in my bedroom too. Later, I spent some time at the Cradle of Aviation Museum which isn’t far from where Lindbergh took off for Paris, and got to meet Fred Haise, one of the Apollo 13 astronauts (Bill Paxton plays him in the film version) when he gave a lecture there several years ago. (Just to complete the connections with Lindbergh, now I am living in St. Louis. He also wrote his memories when he was living in Port Washington, NY, where I lived for many years too.)
What made the visit to the space center memorable were the testimonial videos from long time NASA employees – they were short, You-Tube like segments about people that had rather odd jobs, but took pride in doing them -- for decades in some cases. As an example, the various pieces of each shuttle need to be put together in a special building called the Vehicle Assembly Building and then towed over to the launch pad. The guy who drives the tractor that tows this multi-million ton rig talked about how he isn’t exactly NASCAR material – the tractor’s maximum speed is one mph – but when he gets to the pad he has to position the rocket within a sixteenth of an inch for it to be properly launched. You could see him positioning the rocket with a joystick in the video and wonder how cool is that?
Another video was about the guy who runs the recovery operations to pick up the booster rockets once they are ditched in the ocean. NASA recycles them but first they have to track them down after the launch and the process isn’t easy. We saw videos of divers wrangling the boosters – everything is bobbing up and down in the ocean while the drivers try to attack the lines to tow the rockets back to shore.
The best part of the complex for me was the actual firing control room that has been reassembled and shows you what happened the moments before and after one of the Apollo launches. Those of us that grew up glued to our black and white TVs watching many moon launches will find this the iconic techno stage setting fascinating, and it was great to see the attention to detail – the various instrument panels lit up as they came into play during the countdown. Now we have space entrepreneurs that can run their launches remotely over the Internet with just a small staff.
Even though I visited the space center when I was very young, I wasn’t prepared for how vast the place is – you need to take a series of bus rides from one site to another, and of course much of it is very much a working industrial site that is off limits to the general public. My wife and I got to go in a simulation ride that shows you what liftoff in the shuttle feels like. And we ate lunch literally underneath the huge Saturn V/Apollo rocket that is lying horizontally and stretches close to 400 feet.
What was special about the space program, then and now, is that it takes the right mix of teamwork and selflessness and ingenuity to pull all this technology off. And while the shuttle fleet is aging, it is a testimonial to how many of them we have launched successfully and how well it really works. While some might argue that sending people into space is a luxury we can’t afford, I like to think that the innovations and sense of discovery continue to inspire many of us in the hi-tech field. I give NASA a lot of points for doing such a great job, and the next time you find yourself in the area do plan on spending some time at the space center, and maybe skip a day at the theme parks that ring Orlando.