WASHINGTON –  If you’ve been a fan of NASA’s website for more than a decade, you can thank an unlikely space geek: actor Tom Cruise.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, who ran the agency from 2001 to 2004, speaking May 11 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Credit: Center for Strategic and International Studies
Former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe could hardly blame Cruise for being baffled by NASA’s old (and since replaced) website. Credit: CSIS

Or so says former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, who ran the agency from 2001 to 2004.

During a May 11 panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) here, O’Keefe said it was the “Top Gun” and “Mission: Impossible” star who encouraged him to redesign NASA’s website. To paraphrase “Risky Business,” sometimes you just gotta say, ‘what the [heck],’ and make your move.

Cruise — who narrated the 2002 IMAX documentary “Space Station 3D” — also lent members of his production team to the effort, according to O’Keefe.

Here’s how O’Keefe related the story:

“[Cruise] came in and visited the offices one day and he’s a big space nut and the whole bit. He told me, ‘You’ve got this great website with tons of information on it and it’s perfectly designed for a lot of research faculty across the globe, I guess, that is going to be of interest to them. But to the rest of us it’s three clicks to oblivion and you go the next thing and you find yourself nowhere.’

Cruise, incidentally, starred in a 2013 movie called “Oblivion”  playing an astronaut who safeguards Earth’s natural resources from alien invaders. But getting back to O’Keefe’s story:

“He said, ‘How about I loan you one of my tech heads … who design my movie trailers and take what you’ve already got, all the information that’s already here and just make it more readily accessible.’ So I took him up on the offer and it changed the appearance of that website in a way that made it inviting, interesting, folks wanted to participate.”

O’Keefe,  a CSIS senior adviser who returned to Syracuse University last fall following a five year stint at Airbus North America, said he often returns to the example.

“Every time I encounter situations like this on how do you make the information more available, I gotta thank Tom Cruise for his blinding flash of the obvious,” he said.

NASA.gov circa 2002

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Credit: Wayback Machine screenshot

NASA.gov circa 2003, post Cruise-controlled makeover.

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Credit: Wayback Machine screenshot

You can listen to O’Keefe tell the story himself. We’ve the embedded the CSIS video below and fast-forwarded it straight to the good part.

Meanwhile, there was no immediate word on what O’Keefe or Cruise think of NASA’s current website, which was thoroughly redesigned three weeks ago to put a heavier emphasis on video, graphics and social media.


Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.