MSL: Public Spectacle or Learning Opportunity?

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The landing of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover is indisputably a public relations coup for the agency. The event was a tightly organized, highly successful and greatly entertaining public spectacle. NASA is keeping close track of media reports, Web hits and other measures of public interest.

Such statistics are not real measures, however. They are only indicators. It remains to be seen whether the interested public will remain engaged in the MSL mission as tantalizing yet ambiguous science results start to roll in.

Given its flagship status, technological challenges, budget problems and schedule delays, the MSL mission had been news for years before launch. NASA invited hundreds of guests to the Nov. 26, 2011, launch, trucking them by busloads to viewing sites. As MSL is NASA’s first astrobiology mission to Mars since Viking, the agency invited the entire community of scientists involved with its astrobiology program, and a significant number attended. NASA’s star launch guest was musician will.i.am, who gave a private postlaunch concert for a select few of the agency’s guests. NASA conducted numerous mass media, social media and public education activities before, during and after the launch.

This summer NASA’s MSL landing publicity campaign shifted into high gear. A Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Web site was set up to enable people to “participate” in the MSL mission via Facebook, Twitter, a “Be a Martian” smartphone app, MSL-related games and activities for students, and “Martian Diaries” — firsthand accounts from people working on the mission. On June 25, NASA invited its social media followers to “the first-ever multi-center NASA Social” on Aug. 3 to preview Curiosity’s landing. On July 10, NASA Mars Exploration Program Director Doug McCuistion and Siemens Industry Sector Chief Executive Siegfried Russwurm held a media briefing at the Farnborough International Airshow to discuss the MSL mission and a “new era of space exploration.” On July 16, a NASA news conference to preview the MSL landing drew attention to the already popular “Seven Minutes of Terror” animation. NASA also announced that, in collaboration with Microsoft, it had developed a new Xbox “outreach” game called “Mars Rover Landing,” designed “to give the public a sense of the challenge and adventure of landing in a precise location on the surface.”

On July 30, NASA released a new video, “Grand Entrance,” narrated by William Shatner and Wil Wheaton from “Star Trek” and depicting Curiosity’s entry, descent and landing. “The goal is to educate the public about Curiosity and build awareness about the landing,” NASA said. On July 31, NASA announced that the Toshiba Vision screen in New York’s Times Square would provide live coverage of Curiosity’s landing. Science and technology museums, planetariums and other community centers around the country organized live public viewings of the landing. From Aug. 2 through Aug. 10, NASA held a daily round of MSL media events at JPL. Since then, it’s provided regular media updates on Curiosity’s activities. And the media have gobbled up every tidbit they’ve been tossed.

NASA headquarters reports the following “final stats for www.NASA.gov for the Curiosity landing” (not including traffic at Mars.JPL.NASA.gov): 1.2 million webcast streams at peak — “more than double the previous record” — and 36.4 million webcast streams over the course of the 48-hour landing event. This number represents more than a third of all nasa.gov webcast streams since NASA began streaming in 2004. “Roughly 3.8 million webcast streams went to mobile devices.” For the landing event, NASA.gov counted about 20 times the page views it records in a typical 48-hour period, and 14.7 million visitor sessions. The MSL landing was “easily the largest live event we’ve ever had,” the agency said.

The Curiosity rover team’s Bobak “Mohawk Guy” Ferdowsi became a media sensation, if fleetingly, largely due to his haircut. On Aug. 13, President Barack Obama made a congratulatory telephone call to the rover team from Air Force One. Commenting on the Mohawk, he said, “NASA has come a long way from the white shirt, black dark-rimmed glasses and the pocket protectors.” Meanwhile, an affectionate video parody of the Curiosity rover team, “We’re NASA and We Know It,” went viral online. “NASA almost couldn’t have asked for better publicity,” the Los Angeles Times reported Aug. 15. “Perhaps it will even rival the 1.7 million views and counting earned by [the] ‘7 minutes of terror’ video” depicting Curiosity’s landing.

On Aug. 16, DVICE, a website of the Syfy Channel’s online network, reported that the MSL team had taken to Reddit — a popular online community — to answer questions about the mission, posting, “We are engineers and scientists on the Mars Curiosity Rover Mission, Ask us Anything!” According to DVICE, “the session exploded and right now has over 7,000 comments.” On Aug. 20, in the midst of postlanding excitement, NASA announced that its next Discovery-class project would be another mission to Mars, called InSight, led by a JPL investigator.

On Aug. 22 the Pasadena (Calif.) Star-News reported that the ZoomWerks Media Group, a public relations firm that specializes in serving the entertainment industry, had worked with NASA on the MSL landing “and invited filmmakers to JPL to bring Hollywood up to date on current space research and what NASA expects to find on Mars. … ZoomWerks’ publicity efforts are aimed at specific audiences, such as readers of Scientific American, Popular Science and Popular Mechanics and fans of the Discovery channel and other science and technology sources.” On Aug. 23, NASA announced that it had worked with Rovio Entertainment, maker of the video game “Angry Birds,” to develop an “Angry Birds Space” update focusing on MSL and Mars. On Aug. 28, NASA announced, “For the first time in history, a recorded song has been beamed back to Earth from another planet” — “Reach for the Stars” by musician will.i.am. (NASA held an “educational event” on Aug. 24 to premiere the song.)

On Aug. 22, MSL program scientist Michael Meyer announced that Curiosity’s landing site would be named “Bradbury” after “The Martian Chronicles” author Ray Bradbury, who was born Aug. 22, 1920, and died June 5, 2012. At a Senate hearing Sept. 12, John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science, testified that he hoped Curiosity’s “Seven Minutes of Terror” would be as inspiring to young people as Neil Armstrong’s Moon landing.

The large numbers of users engaged in Curiosity’s landing are explained in part by growing access to the Internet and in part by NASA’s outstanding efforts to use social media for outreach. How much these numbers may be due to expanding public interest in space exploration remains to be demonstrated. In my field, communication research, media uses or audience effects — that is, what individuals do with the content they receive — are notoriously difficult to study.

Upon Curiosity’s landing on Aug. 6, Grunsfeld said, “The ‘Seven Minutes of Terror’ has turned into the ‘Seven Minutes of Triumph.’” The first-time use of the, yes, terrifying, sky-crane-centered entry, descent and landing system developed for MSL is undoubtedly a triumph of engineering. The rover itself, impressively complex, is working fine thus far. This triumph is just the beginning, however.

MSL science will be complicated. Most scientists understand that research findings almost always involve some uncertainty or ambiguity and are almost always open to interpretation. Following conventional scientific practice, scientists couch claims in a qualifying frame of any and all uncertainties relating to the claims. For journalists, the news value of clarity dictates downplaying or eliminating qualifications and uncertainties attached to scientific claims. At the same time, the news value of conflict and controversy may prompt journalists to highlight uncertainties by contrasting claims (authoritative or not) with counterclaims (authoritative or not).

The MSL landing proved to be a wildly popular public event — a spectacle, to be sure. Spectacles are entertaining, though not necessarily enlightening. I myself am more interested in the science than the spectacle of MSL, and I’m looking forward to results. The carefully orchestrated spectacles staged for Curiosity’s launch and landing clearly engaged the public, in a big way. If spectators remain engaged in the mission and learn something about the solar system they live in and the origin, evolution and distribution of life in it, then I’d say the spectacles would be worth the trouble.

 

Linda Billings is a fellow with the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University and a principal investigator with the NASA Astrobiology Program.