Joe Six Pack and NASA

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We all know by now that STS-126 astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper let go of a tool bag the other day during an EVA in space. This happened when, according to NASA: "one of the grease guns that Piper was preparing to use on the SARJ released some Braycote grease into her crew lock bag, which is the tool bag the spacewalkers use during their activities. As she was cleaning the inside of the bag, it drifted away from her and toward the aft and starboard portion of the International Space Station."

Indeed, this is exactly what happened. A piece of hardware misbehaved, Heide had to deal with that and 19 other things - while item 20 was not getting her full attention and the bag drifted off.

Something like this happens to people everyday at work or at home. In Heide's case millions of people were watching on TV and her tools were a bit pricey. Of course, the media had a blast with this since everyone knows that astronauts are perfect and everything that NASA uses costs a zillion dollars an ounce. And of course some troll is trying to sell her bag on eBay after a miraculous return to Earth ...

This news story from the Orlando Sentinel about the incident is no different than dozens of others - in fact it is pretty straightforward: "So why does a NASA tool bag cost $100,000?": "NASA officials said Friday that they could not give an itemized cost to every tool lost in the mishap, although they did identify everything that was lost. As for the high price tag? "No, it doesn't include the cost to get it to space. Some of the equipment is 'off the shelf,' but some of it is specialized hardware that had to be fabricated, qualified for the tasks and certified for use in the vacuum of space, where temperatures swing between 200 degrees F and minus 200 degrees F," wrote NASA spokesman Mike Curie."

These articles frustrate me - 50% of my frustration usually derives from reporters who often do not take the time to fully understand what is really going on. The other 50% results from NASA's inability to fully answer what could be a really simple question - one that pops up again and again and again. Then again maybe its 40/60 since NASA ought to know by now what sort of questions will be asked and reporters are just doing the best they can with a deadline to meet.

I sent a series of snarky emails to some folks at NASA about all of this. My initial questions were: if you know that this bag and its contents cost $100K then you got the number from somewhere? Right? Or did someone just guess? In an era of full cost accounting and extensive NASA documentation you ought to be able to do a simple cost break down, right? Given that the chronic lament by pundits and critics is how much things cost at NASA, one would think that some strategic thought would be given, once and for all, to come up with a way to explain these costs?

With the new NASA management team coming in with the Obama Administration - one with a different constituency among its overall governing structure, there will likely be a renewed - and enhanced clamoring (internal and external) for NASA to explain why "all this money is being spent in space when it could be better spent [fill in the blank]".

Now more than ever, NASA needs to connect with all sectors of society and explain what it is they do with those hard earned tax dollars. Let's pick one sector that resonates with this episode of "On-Orbit Tool Time": Joe Six pack. By all means, NASA should try and explain why this is rocket science to Joe when necessary. But NASA should also try to tell both sides of the story and make them relevant to the audience. NASA should then explain why this on orbit servicing and the tools needed to do the servicing is part rocket science, and part Snap-on Tools. Why is it that a mallet can be a modified, store-bought item but a drill that works in space costs $100,000 or more? For every specially crafted space gadget there is also something that NASA bought at Home Depot.

There is ample precedent to cite at NASA - recent and historic. There is the mastery of innovation that went with the Skylab repair by Pete Conrad and his crew, the capturing satellites in the early shuttle days, fixing Mir, etc. Add in Don Pettit's recent on-orbit contraptions and tinkering, Scott Parazynski's daring STS -120 EVA, and what is store for John Grunsfeld et al on STS-125 and there is a clear path to explaining all of this with that rich context and compelling content that NASA should using to explain everything that it does.

The media won't go looking for stuff like this beyond a certain point because they have already grown used to how NASA plays the spin game. How much did it cost? Is it important? Is there a spare? WiIl the mission end early? etc. Instead, NASA needs to provide the trail of crumbs and lead the media down the path such that the media can be enlightened and then (hopefully) pass that on to their readers.

And yes, I understand where the costs come from, trust me. I used to do this payload stuff when I had a real job at NASA. Not everyone knows just what goes into the shake, bake, drop, shock tests that everything goes through before it is packed into a Space Shuttle. And that is not cheap. NASA needs to start explaining this a lot better than it does.

STS-125 is going to be a dazzling overload of tools and repairs and the like as Hubble gets one last upgrade. This is perhaps NASA's last highly visible chance to explain the story of on-orbit construction and repair once and for all - with an unusually large audience watching. Unless future crews "drop" more tool bags there remaining ISS assembly missions will be as boring to the media as they have always been.

Indeed, imagine if NASA really put some thought into how the STS-125 mission was portrayed to the public - in advance and in real time. This could become as much a blue collar, Joe Six pack hit as it will be a lovefest for all of us space geeks. Wouldn't it be cool, from the perspective of Joe and his pals, to know that they use some of the same tools that astronauts use - and that they can connect with many of the chores being performed in space. You do not need a PhD to do a lot of this EVA stuff.

Moreover, the distance that many people feel exists between their work-a-day lives and the sparkling ones lead by NASA's astronauts might also find bridges built by such an attention to a broader audience. Imagine hearing someone at the lunch truck saying "Hey, these space guys need the same skills I need to fix things" or better yet "that MD or PhD in astronomy ain't saving their bacon right now - its that wrench"

NASA still has time to do this.

Update: Look at this story from the UK: "See NASA's Toolkit Orbit Planet Earth": "Nasa may have seen the last of it, but we'll get several chances to catch a glimpse from tomorrow through binoculars as it catches the sunlight (yes, there is a hitch) during the early evening. The lost toolbag will rise in the west over Britain tomorrow at 6.40 pm - minutes before the space station itself with the shuttle attached. On Wednesday it will rise at 7.06 pm. But the best flyover will be on Friday just after 6.22 pm and at the weekend, when it will be almost overhead from London."

This is also frustrating. NASA can't seem to bring itself to post links or urge visitors to its websites to look up and marvel at the ISS with their naked eyes - yet UK newspapers spontaneously urge people to use binoculars to look up and see evidence of a "lost toolbag". And guess what: the idea spread such that someone managed to get a video of the bag orbiting overhead: NASA's lost toolbag filmed from Earth (video here at spaceweather.com).

The interest is there - on the part of the media and the public. Alas, the polarity of this story - and NASA's attempts to understand and respond to public interest - are both off from one another by 180 degrees. The media is talking about the lost tool bag. Peopel are reading those sotries and talking about it as well. NASA should have used this event as a wedge to enhance public awareness - not something to avoid discussing - or to spin so as to not make itself look bad.

How many times has Joe Sixpack dropped a paint brush while up on a ladder? He'll understand.


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