A Tale of Two Possible NASA Futures: Yuri's Night and The National Space Symposium


I had a somewhat profound experience several days ago in California - at NASA Ames Research Center to be exact. The true impact of this event is still growing on me. You see, I saw things I never thought I would see on a NASA base - things that give me hope that what NASA does can be truly relevant to people outside NASA's traditional constituency. Moreover, I saw indications that NASA can adapt to rapidly changing trends. The experience? Yuri's Night.

While this was a marvelous experience, one such event alone does not a paradigm shift make. But it certainly gives the current paradigm of how people and the exploration of space interact a powerful nudge. You see, the current paradigm is entrenched in the status quo in such a way that it would require a powerful force to shake it loose. Often times, forces the eventually shift paradigms - and cause changes - and revolutions - emerge from unsuspected and unconnected places - only to converge - and merge in unlikely places.

In this case, one place where such an emergence happened was in a large aircraft hangar, located on an immense military base that has housed weapons - and now houses space agency research - for more than three quarters of a century. One of the featured speakers was a Brigadier General who once led space defense efforts focused at the Soviet Union. Yet, in this most unlikely of places, thousands of young people whose parents were in grammar school when humans last walked on the Moon gathered at a party - a party that focused on the accomplishment of a communist cosmonaut nearly half a century ago at the height of the Cold War.

And they danced all night while images of spacecraft and galaxies floated over their heads.

If anyone can come up with more marvelous incongruities, please let me know.

Lets Party Like Its 1961

A quote from Wired magazine, in a posting titled Space Symposium: If Americans Only Knew What NASA Does..." regarding the Space Foundation's National Space Symposium (held last week) caught my attention.:

"For Michael Griffin, Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), there's good news and bad news in Americans' perceptions of his agency. The good news: Despite some catastrophic failures over its nearly 50-year history, NASA enjoys tremendous public support. The bad news: Most people don't know how the agency impacts their lives."

The other night I had a chance to see this "tremendous public support" with my own eyes albeit in an utterly novel and fascinating location at Yuri's Night at NASA Ames Research Center. At the age of 51, after 25 or more years in and around NASA - and 45 years being fascinated by space exploration, I can say that I have never seen anything quite like this.

Yuri's Night is the brainchild of Loretta Hildago Whitesides and her husband George. It began several years ago as a small series of ad hoc parties for young people to celebrate the first flight of a human in space - cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, on 12 April 1961. Over the past few years the event has quickly spread and has become a global phenomenon - with parties now sponsored all over the planet - including the Arctic and Antarctica.

Indeed, events are now moving offworld. It was announced recently that New Horizons spacecraft will now begin its final encounter with the planet Pluto on 12 April 2015 - Yuri's Night. The mission's Principal Investigator (now NASA's Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate), Alan Stern made this announcement - and made a presentation at the Washington, DC Yuri's Night.

While many parties were held this year, one event in particular allowed Yuri's Night to make a quantum leap forward - the one held at NASA Ames. And in so doing, the event both broke new ground - and scored a hit run for the cause of popularizing space exploration.

The folks at Ames who made this happen are of the young generation of space professionals who are just coming into their own. They think and view the world differently than do those of us in previous generations. Alas, as far as space exploration goes, young voices - and young viewpoints - are woefully few and far between. This event changed that to some extent. Hopefully it is not a one-time event.

The event itself was familiar - yet novel. As a child of the 60's, 70's and 80's I have certainly been in large rooms with loud music and lots of people - some dressed oddly. But this event was different. Some people used the simplistic and often pejorative term "rave" to describe the event - or parts of it. This may be true to some extent, but I know of no "rave" that has ever been filled with dozens of NASA exhibits, NASA personnel - and interspersed with multiple speeches and presentations (with PowerPoint!) about NASA and space exploration. Let's call it an unusual hybrid - a "mash up", if you wish, of a variety of genres, themes, and presentations.

Whatever you call it, the event worked. Spectacularly. People were astonishingly well behaved. I think the firm expulsion out of the hangar of several tobacco smokers was the only thing I saw that even remotely smacked of misbehavior - and I spent a lot of time on the hangar/dance floor. No arguments, fights - no bad behavior - just a large number of happy and engaged people. People were dancing, talking, looking - and participating in - the exhibits. And of course there was the music. I like "trance" and other club music (much to my wife's chagrin) so I fit right in.

Some people dressed in common attire. Others wore costumes - some wild (like the guy with the Sputnik head). Many had blinking lights - indeed, Google handed out some spectacular buttons even the most conservative NASA officials were seen wearing.

Overall, it was a clearly "spacey" evening. You almost felt like you were hanging out in a dance club a century from now on a spaceport landing strip at times. Space program purists might scoff at that - but hey, many people's view of what space exploration means revolves around what their life might be like in a distant place and time, not what rocket NASA is building today.

To add to the futuristic look and feel the event was also webcast live, blogged, and had a virtual component underway in Second Life. Indeed, some people there looked like avatars I have seen in Second Life. That bi-directional overlap between real and virtual worlds was especially fun for me.

Speakers included space explorer Anousheh Ansari, space scientist Chris McKay and Ames Center Director Pete Worden. All spoke with passion about the exploration of space - in terms that clearly resonated with the audience. Indeed, the audience showed little hesitation in cheering and applauding.

Contemplate this for a moment: a 50-something retired military general (Worden), addressing a crowd of young people who had been listening to loud trance music and wearing costumes and bright lights. His repeated admonition? "Let's party like its 1961" - a comment I first uttered on NASA Watch days before. I felt an exciting shiver as I heard my words repeated in such a magical place. Obvious incongruities aside, all in attendance connected with what Worden said.

While the final reviews are just coming in (see for yourself) it would seem that most people certainly enjoyed the event. Many saw it as unusual and groundbreaking - often times this was their first encounter with NASA itself. Others just came to dance. When all is said and done, 4,000 people certainly have a new way to think about NASA - and space exploration - provided in a totally unconventional fashion.

Dancing With Dinosaurs

Back to the Wired commentary from the National Space Symposium. To a great extent, many of the aerospace types who attend the National Space Symposium year after year (so as to give each other awards) don't really know (or care) what the public thinks at the end of the day. To be fair, a few do. And I know of a precious few who are actually enlightened in this regard. But most don't know. It is those NASA contract dollars - and how to get them - for the sake of stockholders - that they are more focused on.

Of course, it is not really their fault. This is their job. They also labor under the increasingly incorrect assumption that more money flowing into their corporate coffers should be the goal - and that this would be directly indicative of NASA's success at conveying the importance of space exploration to a tax paying public. The inverse result being that less money - or no prospect for aerospace sector growth - somehow means that NASA is not getting "the message" (whatever that is) out. In other words, its time to buy more ads in the Washington Post for congressional staffers to (hopefully) glance at while riding the Metro to work in the morning.

Public support for space (NASA?) is out there (I guess) - but public understanding (as noted by Wired) often is not. And when it is, NASA often does not understand why people support what it is that they do. Events such as the National Space Symposium where NASA and its contractors meet often resemble a bunch of dancing dinosaurs - woefully unaware of their impending demise - or the factors that are building for such an eventuality.

Alas, the polls that sense general public support are never hotwired into the political process in any meaningful way. They are alluded to but they never really have an effect. Space as an issue never affects elections and is an asterisk in the overall funding game at budget time. Politicians vote for NASA funding for personal reasons. Some of them actually think space exploration is important - which is nice. But mostly, pro-NASA votes are to preserve jobs - and oh yes, to explore the universe too (sounds good in press releases). There nothing wrong with saving jobs, per se - but that is a far cry from supporting space exploration simply on its own intrinsic merits.

So long as NASA's understanding of support (or lack thereof ) for space exploration relies upon polls, industry-sponsored PR efforts, and what career civil servants in their 40's and 50's think they know what the next generation wants, NASA will be throwing the dice when it comes to engaging the public - and cultivating support.

One refreshing - indeed, a most commendable departure from this mindset - was the sponsorship and webcasting of Yuri's Night at Ames by the Coalition for Space Exploration - an organization funded by many large aerospace corporations.

What the aerospace types (and NASA) seem to miss is the notion that private sector - and in this case I actually mean the truly "private" sector (i.e. "private" individuals) may wish to dedicate their time and funds to space exploration if only they can do so for their own reasons - and do so in their own way. NASA and its aerospace sector infrastructure are woefully incapable of sensing - much less tapping onto - this potentially vast reservoir of interest - and support. Again, the Yuri's Night sponsorship by the Coalition for Space Exploration was a significant change in this trend - indeed, it loaded the dice.

Yes, a growing NASA budget would help NASA do a lot of things. But in so doing they will operate in isolation - perhaps only postponing the inevitable as other paradigms shift around them. Monolithic, point source funding is such a 20th century way of looking at things - and is increasingly out of synch with this new open source, globalized, and wired 21st century we are living in.

After half a century of existence it is time that NASA involved everyone else - including the generation(s) who will be in a position to decide what NASA does - and indeed run the agency in a manner that arise from and responds to their needs. Not to do so begs evaporating support - and increasing irrelevancy.

Lingering Questions

I am still trying to understand why 4,000 people - the vast majority of whom were well under 30 - the remainder certainly not your typical space geek - would spend hours late at night in a drafty aerospace hangar at NASA.

But they did.

Yes the music was good, the lights and exhibits stimulating, and the crowd mellow and enthusiastic. But there was something more than sensual comfort operating.

There was an emergent property to all of this. I guess it at least had something to do with space exploration. But in many ways it was also about the future - the future of the future - and what it will be like to live there. In ever-increasing ways, our world is now poised on the cusp of what is and what will be. How that future is shaped is rushing at us at ever-increasing speed - and we all have our foot on the gas pedal.

NASA has always been emblematic of the fast shiny things we hope we will see in the future. Most people may not be able to explain exactly what it is that NASA does, name any planets, or even explain why NASA does what it does - but they have an idea of where they think NASA should be going.

Yet despite that good brand identity, NASA is also beset with some bad impressions in the market place of ideas. Indeed, NASA is so utterly out of touch with people these days that a substantial portion of the populace doesn't even think we landed humans on the Moon.

NASA is running on fumes from an earlier era. Those fumes will soon run out. Absent any new (or renewed) covenant with the populace it may just fade away - like the dinosaurs.

For one fleeting evening at Yuri's Night, the NASA of the past, the NASA of the present, and the NASA of the future were one.

This cannot be allowed to happen just once.

Please follow SpaceRef on Twitter and Like us on Facebook.