Guest Blog: “Grand questions” in space exploration generate great stories: the challenge is how to tell them

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Space scientists want to improve and expand their communications with public audiences about the work that they do, conveying its value and excitement. But in order to do so, they need to better understand their various audiences, get over their fear of new media, and dive into the world of Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere. A partnership between communication experts and space scientists is the logical path toward fulfilling these goals.

These themes, among others, emerged out of three days of dialogue engendered by the Space Studies Board of the National Research Council on how to improve and expand communications about the U.S. space program (SSB Workshop, “Sharing the Adventure with the Public: The Value and Excitement of ‘Grand Questions’ of Space Science and Exploration,” Nov. 8-10, Irvine, Calif.).

The aim of the workshop was to explore key questions driving U.S. space research and exploration and identify effective ways for communicating with public audiences about progress toward answering these questions. Participants were a mix of SSB members and other leading space scientists plus professional communicators ranging from journalists to scholars of communication. Discussion revolved around these questions: How did the Universe begin, and how is it evolving? Are we alone? How did our Solar System begin, and how is it evolving? Will Earth remain a hospitable home for humanity? What could the future hold for humans in space? “NASA’s success in public outreach has varied over time and across the spectrum of its programs,” the SSB noted in its statement of purpose for the workshop. “Notable successes such as the Apollo program and the Hubble Space Telescope have stimulated broad public excitement and a feeling of ‘ownership’ with NASA’s science and exploration programs. A recent perception, however, is that there are fewer successes than in the past. One major reason for this perception may be that many of NASA’s missions now take years to develop to the point where noteworthy milestones occur or significant results begin to appear. … Continuously involving the public and conveying the value and excitement of missions during their long development periods can be daunting.”

It was clear over the three days of dialogue that everyone present cared about science communication (we were, admittedly, a self-selected group), though approaching the subject from many different perspectives. We agreed that space science has no dearth of good stories to tell and that a well-constructed narrative is a powerful way to engage an audience. No clear consensus emerged on the purpose, goals and intangible values of space research and exploration, though many participants identified the search for life in the universe as an important driver of the narrative of space exploration.

The first 50 years of space exploration, said SSB Chairman Charles Kennel, created “a revolution in thought” that has yielded these grand questions, which will drive the next 50 years of exploration. “The rigorous scientific approach finds its purest applications” in attempts to answer these questions, said International Space Science Institute Director Roger Bonnet, and also “offers a unique example to those who by ignorance, arrogance, or personal interest claim that science is wrong.”

Ed Stone, former director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, described JPL’s efforts to meet unanticipated and huge media demand for information during the Voyager missions’ planetary encounters as some of NASA’s earliest efforts in public engagement and participation. Today, anybody with access to the Internet has access to data from planetary missions, he noted, but the science community still needs to find or make opportunities to explain what the data and resulting discoveries mean.

Journalist Miles O’Brien, chair of the NASA Advisory Council’s Education and Public Outreach Committee, urged NASA to let its “army” of experts communicate wherever, whenever and however they find fit about the work they do in space research and exploration. Including the public is not a part of NASA’s standard approach to communication, “and that has to change,” he observed.

From my perspective as a scholar, analyst and practitioner of communication, the space community need not struggle to communicate the “excitement” of space research and exploration. It is inherently interesting and engaging (and, yes, often exciting). My message to the space community is this: think more, and more broadly and deeply, about the value and the meaning of the work that you do. It will help you to tell your story — no marketing plan required.

Scientists must tell their own stories — it’s the way to convey the excitement. “People-izing” science, as one speaker put it, is a constructive path toward engagement. By working together, scientists and professional communicators can figure out how to tell the stories of science more clearly, deeply and meaningfully.

A final note: While audiences for information about space science and exploration are highly diverse — in gender, age and education as well as in values and beliefs — the audience for the SSB workshop was not. Regrettably, the workshop was not Webcast, and it was held during the work/school week from 9 to 5, meaning that access was limited for many people. On the plus side, Alan Ladwig, Deputy Associate Administrator for Public Outreach in the Office of Communications at NASA Headquarters, participated in the workshop, “tweeting” about the three days of proceedings (see http://twitter.com/alanmladwig#). The SSB will issue a report on the workshop early next year.