Several years ago I wrote an editorial for publication that was critical of NASA TV. I decided not to publish it as I wasn’t sure if it was going to help much given the leadership at the time. However, looking back, I should have just published it, because there has been no improvement in NASA TV programming, in fact, I would say its declined further. So today, I want to express some frustrations and demonstrate with examples what I mean by NASA TV has become irritating at best and annoying at worst.
I have heard for several years that NASA TV is an educational tool for NASA to “inspire and educate” the future engineers, scientists and astronauts. The problem is, in the quest for making things “cool”, they have turned a cool channel into a bunch of stupid, and in many cases cheap looking programming with people who should never be on TV in the first place. They have made these cheap looking cartoons, with people who cant act, (I cant find them on YouTube it seems…take my word for it) sound like they are reading the script, instead of being natural and have no presence whatsoever. Before I go on and link to some videos to make my point…some background on myself and NASA TV is necessary.
When I was 11 years old my parents got our first satellite dish (back when that was new). One of the channels we had on one channel was NASA TV. As a kid who was interested in being an astronaut, I was so excited to have that and I watched that channel 90% of the time. Why? Because they would show the space shuttle missions live, 24/7 till they landed. When there wasn’t a mission up, NASA TV would have programming that was equally awesome. They had interviews from meetings like the World Space Congress, they had NASA TV News (Called NASA Select News I think at the time), press conferences on missions, and show astronauts training. When none of that other stuff was on, they filled it with neat old documentaries NASA made in the early days. Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and early space shuttle mission documentaries were on a lot and it was great! I loved watching them over and over again. Finally, when they had missions up or were advertising the next phase in space exploration (SEI which was later cancelled), it pumped me up because this was the program I might get to work on as an adult!! The quality of acting was great, the quality of imagery for the time was great, the narrators were professional and had great audio presence. I loved it! and wanted more of it. Below are some examples.
Fast forward to the late 2000s. I had moved several times since that time at my parents with the satellite dish and was an adult working space policy in DC. Finally I could get NASA TV again. I turned it on and what did I see? Lousy cartoons, cheesy programs with irritating rap music. Only one hour (if that) a day covering the ISS missions and limited coverage of space shuttle. When they did show ISS, very rarely did you see anything pre-packaged that give a good sense of what was going on. Mostly, they showed Mission Control, or views of Earth pasting by. Sometimes, they would have a video about the next crew launching from Baikonur, but for the most part, it was lame interviews with people who looked like they wanted to be anywhere but there. Then, to make matters worse, the commentators for the missions started having speech impediments, or had scratchy voices that weren’t pleasant to listen to (with the exception of two-one is Rob Navias, the other I cant recall his name). It sounded like I was watching coverage of NASA by a high school news crew. It is that bad. My guess is, after talking with some NASA colleagues, my guess is NASA TV has a small budget, and they have tried TOO HARD, to be cool and now have made it irritating and not worth watching. Below are some examples of what I mean. You can see the difference quickly in the video. NOTE: I fully understand that some of the programs were aimed at different demographics, but my point is…you don’t need to do that to get kids to see how awesome a robust space program is. Doesn’t matter. Why we need to have fashion designers and musicians to tell kids its cool…shows we aren’t doing a good job. I think we could do without Elmo too.
I will say this…NASA TV presently has a few, VERY few, good programs. NASA Edge isn’t bad. But its not on that much. Destination Tomorrow used to be good, but its off the air too I guess. If NASA wants to use NASA TV to “inspire” kids, they need to go back to the early 1990s model and play old mission documentaries, make new ones and stop trying to make them flashy and hip. Just tell the story!! You are turning people off.
Go back to the NASA professionalism, that is what kids want. Not a bunch of kids in baggy pants jumping up and down rapping how STEM is awesome. We want to see astronauts train, fly, do cool things. Even watch test pilots do their thing at Dryden. I know this because when I give presentations to kids, they thrive on this stuff. They want to see REAL space professionals doing their work!! One other positive…just so people don’t think I Mr. Critical…one of the best programs I saw (which was also short lived) was when Mike Massimino did his Behind the Scenes programs. Those were great.
So in conclusion, NASA TV could be WAY Better. They shouldn’t follow the model of SpaceX with their TRL-like music video style programming. Space is cool on its own. You don’t have to dress like you just got out of bed and didn’t shave to attract audiences. Kids still love the tie and vest wearing Gene Kranz type NASA. They want to see that, but aren’t getting it. So they go somewhere else. Commercial space is cool, but NASA is where the professionals are supposed to be. This professionalism needs to return to the broadcasting wing of NASA. We need more Rob Navias type people and less everyone else that has been hosting programs like Space to Ground. Yikes. Example of Rob’s handiwork below.