Published on: Mar 3, 2016
Transcripts - Nasa Project
The Public Relations of NASA
Jacksonville State University
The Public Relations of NASA! 1
Table of Contents
Early Years 4
Apollo Program 6
Shuttle Program 8
PR Strategy and Crisis Response 11
Private Sector and the Future 15
The Public Relations of NASA! 2
For ages, we have thought of reaching the heavens and exploring news worlds. Today,
the organization leading the way in this quest is the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration. For nearly 70 years, NASA has been on the forefront of space
exploration, technology development, engineering and propulsion breakthroughs, and
inspiring people all over the world to shoot for the moon – and beyond. Their journey
has not always been smooth and trouble-free. Tragedy, failure, close calls, and
condemnation have dotted its fascinating history. Public Affairs (NASAʼs public relations
department) has been responsible for interacting with media and getting NASAʼs
messages out to their publics and the general public at large. This work will study the
history of NASA, its media relations, public relations strategies, crisis responses, and
the challenges the administration faces for the future. Whether in the mist of a crisis or
its planned missions, NASAʼs public relations has helped shape the space industry and,
thus, the world.
The Public Relations of NASA! 3
" The history of NASA begins after World War II. President Eisenhower approved
the launch of a scientiﬁc satellite into Earth orbit in 1955 and for the continuation of the
Defense Departmentʼs efforts to advance jet and propulsion technology (Greene).
Tackling this feat was the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics along other
military programs. The Soviet Union, though, was hot on Americaʼs heels.
" In 1957, Russia launched the satellite, Sputnik. Many in America, especially
those in the government and military, were sent into panic-mode. No country had ever
sent an object into space before, thus, the implications for military use were frightening.
In response, the US Congress and President Eisenhower created the National
Aeronautic and Space Administration on October 1, 1958 to streamline research and
development of rocket and aeronautic technology (“Deﬁning events” n.d.). With its
inception, NASA incorporated, according to its History Program Ofﬁce,:
" three major research laboratories-Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Ames !Aeronautical
! Laboratory, and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory-and two smaller test facilities. It
! quickly incorporated other organizations into the new agency, notably the space science
! group of the Naval Research Laboratory in Maryland, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
! managed by the California Institute of Technology for the Army, and the Army Ballistic
! Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama, where Wernher von Braun's team of engineers
! were engaged in the development of large rockets (Garber & Launius, 2005)
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" Only days later NASA conducted its ﬁrst launch, Pioneer I. The Pioneer program
was intended for planetary exploration, but Pioneer 10 and 11 are remembered today
for leaving the Earthʼs orbit and venturing outside the solar system. The popular
Mercury missions in the early 1960s were largely responsible for determining how man
would fare in space (Garber & Launius, 2005). During these signiﬁcant missions, Alan
Shepard (on Freedom 7) and John Glenn (on Friendship 7) became the ﬁrst Americans
to enter space and to orbit Earth, respectively. With Russia making faster
advancements in space missions at this point, America was ﬁnally starting to catch up.
" 1962 was a pivital year, not only for NASA, but for communications. NASA
launched the Telstar satellite on July 10 1962 aboard Echo 1. This satellite carried the
ﬁrst telephone and television from space. Designed by Bell Telephone Laboratories, this
feat set the foundation for modern wireless technology (Telstar, n.d.).
" Gemini continued the progress with a successful space walk by Edward White,
Jr. in 1965, the ﬁrst by an American (Garber & Launius, 2005).
" Some Americans, especially some in government, were not so pleased about
spending vast sums of money on something they thought might not yield substantial
returns. “How can the government justify giving millions of taxpayersʼ dollars to ﬂight
projects when so many people are poor and hungry?” This was the question on so
many minds throughout the space program.
" For some, apathy was prevalent rather than distain. After the ﬁrst missions of
Shepard and Glenn, some became disinterested in space exploration. When networks
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interrupted the regular programming to cover a Gemini Launch, people called in to the
stations to complain about missing The Viginian or Batman (Makemson, 2009, p.108).
Othersʼ attitudes were ones of anger. The “Poor Peopleʼs Campaign,” created by the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was heavily opposed to sending people to
the moon. A SCLC leader, Hosea Williams said, “Why should we be worrying about
sending three men to the moon when here are [a mother and her children] dying of
starvation? If we can spend $100 a mile to send three men to the moon, canʼt we, for
Godʼs sake, feed our hungry?” (Makemson, 2009, p.182).
" By 1966, NASA was preparing to enter into the moon-exploration phase. The
Mercury and Gemini projects had been leading up to an end goal of landing men on the
moon. In May, 1961, John F. Kennedy gave a landmark speech in which he declared: "I
believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out,
of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth" (Greene, n.d.). This
may have been responsible for the publicʼs outcry. Although, unknown to many
Americans, the Russians had already successfully sent an unmanned probe to the
moon in 1959 and made the ﬁrst controlled lunar landing in 1966 (Cavendish, 2009),
slightly ahead of Americaʼs ﬁrst unmanned landing. This only solidiﬁed NASAʼs
" Apollo 1 was to be the ﬁrst in a series of important scientiﬁc endeavors. This
mission, however, collided with tragedy. During a routine test on the launch pad, a ﬁre
broke out in the astronautsʼ capsule due to exposed wiring and the highly oxygenated
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air. Some accounts give the cause of death as burning and others as smoke inhalation.
Nevertheless, the astronauts perished and NASA subsequently made several changes
to improve crew safety (Agencies, 2014).
" Apollo 7 returned Americans into space in 1968. Apollo 8, 9, and 10 were
manned missions to prepare the ﬁnal steps and analyses for lunar landing. On July 20,
1969, two of the three-man crew of Apollo 11 touched down on the moonʼs surface. Neil
Armstrong made his giant leap for mankind onto the dusty soil, followed by Edwin
“Buzz” Aldrin. Samples were collected, pictures were taken, and a ﬂag was placed as
the two men marveled at the scene and the experience. After 21 hours on the moon,
Aldrin and Armstrong rejoined orbiting crew member, Michael Collins, and returned to
Earth (Launius & Gibson, 2012).
" The world watched the events live at home on television. Stories are now abound
of people forgetting disputes between enemies and feeling a sense of pride and unity of
the human race. This project is largely credited for getting a generation interested in
" Five more successful Apollo missions were carried out through the early 1970s,
with a multitude of tests and experiments undertaken. The lunar rover was introduced
on Apollo 15 – a longer, expedition-like mission (Launius & Gibson, 2012). The most
dramatic Apollo mission (other than, perhaps, Apollo 11) was Apollo 13. During the
journey to the moon, an oxygen tank exploded which presented a drastic problem.
NASA scientists and engineers formulated a plan to conserve the crewʼs oxygen supply
and sling-shot around the moon and back to Earth. The mission was technically a
failure, but the country rallied around the astronauts for making back safely.
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" By 1973, the mission to the moon was over – or at least put on hold. NASA
embarked on other ventures such as Skylab and the Pioneer and Voyager probes which
sent back images and information from their journeys through the solar system and
beyond (Launius & Gibson, 2012).
" Throughout the 1970ʼs NASA experimented with idea of a reusable spacecraft
that could glide back to earth with no propulsion assistance. This project came to fruition
in 1981 with the birth of the Space Shuttle Program (Garber & Launius, 2005). The
Space Shuttle Columbia was the ﬁrst to launch (A prototype, Enterprise, was the ﬁrst to
be constructed for test purposes). The Space Shuttle Challenger was next to debut.
Among the crew was astronaut Sally Ride, who became the ﬁrst female American in
" Discovery and Atlantis were put into commission in 1984 and 1985, respectively.
NASA proceeded to perform many successful missions with satellites and research
craft, such as Spacelab, until disaster struck once again (National Geographic, n.d.).
Garber & Launius (2005) explain:
“On January 28, 1986 a leak in the joints of one of two Solid Rocket Boosters attached
to the Challenger orbiter caused the main liquid fuel tank to explode 73 seconds after
launch, killing all 7 crew members. The Shuttle program was grounded for over two
years, while NASA and its contractors worked to redesign the Solid Rocket Boosters and
implement management reforms to increase safety” (n.p.).
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" The Space Shuttle Program enjoyed over decade of relatively smooth sailing with
its remaining three shuttles; a fourth was introduced in 1992 – Endeavor. Missions
included construction of the International Space Station and the launch of the Hubble
" The third major, and most recent, NASA disaster occurred in 2003 involving the
shuttle Columbia. Columbiaʼs research tasks on microgravity were completed and the
shuttle was able to reenter the atmosphere and prepare for landing. Due to damage
sustained from foam debris during take-off, the heat-resistant tiles failed and the ship
broke apart into ﬁery pieces, killing all seven members (Agencies, 2014; Launius &
" President George W. Bush announced the retirement of the shuttle program in
2004. The shuttle missions pressed on until 2011 when Atlantis ﬂew the last shuttle
mission in July, 2011. Bush did, though, recommit our vision for space exploration. He
said, the “cause of exploration and discovery is not an option we choose; it is a desire
written in the human heart” (Launius & Gibson, 2012).
" Although, not part of the shuttle program, the Mars missions deserve notable
mention. NASA executed the most successful mission to Mars in 1997 up until that time
with the Mars Pathﬁnder. Previous expeditions had been undertaken in the past, but the
1997 mission (along with orbital data collection later that year) gave the world a host of
new Martian information (Missions to Mars, 2014). Subsequent Martian-lander missions
have added to our wonder and understanding of the Red Planet.
The Public Relations of NASA! 9
" Mars, also, is in the sights of NASA for the future. Manned expeditions are still on
the agenda, though it has pushed back through the years. The administration is working
on a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and a heavy-lift rocket to take loads deeper
into space than manned missions have ever gone (National Geographic, n.d.).
" Orion is the most recent venture by NASA. It is a MPCV designed to take
payloads or crew members beyond low-earth orbit. The ﬁrst Orion launch is due in one
day, at the time of this paperʼs completion. Although, designed to be paired with the
developing Space-Launch-System (SLS), it wonʼʼt actually ﬂy upon one until 2018
The Public Relations of NASA! 10
PR Strategies and Crisis Response
" Public relations at NASA is a constant work in progress, just as at almost any
organizations. In the administrationʼs early years, the public relations (PR) function ﬁrst
put to the test with the launch of the Soviet satellite, Sputnik. In what, by modern
standard, had seemed like the right PR move, NASA presented all of its (failed) satellite
information to the public. Ridicule and embarrassment befell NASA for not producing as
successful a satellite as the Soviets. Makemson explained the attitudes of many
In a sampling of person-on-the-street opinions compiled by the New York Times, a
bartender said that Vanguard (a failed, televised rocket launch) “should have been kept
top secret. The rest of the world will think weʼre damn fools in view of what the Russians
have done.” A Wall Street stock Broker added, ʻI think the way the whole thing was
handled was very stupid. We should have kept our mouths shut, the way the Russians
did, until we got our missile aloft. A professional public relations representative noted,
“We put out a lot of advanced publicity, so this failure makes us look foolish. Had we kept
quiet until we made a successful launching, we would have inspired the
world” (Makemson, 2009, p.35).
This illustrates the difﬁculty from a PR perspective concerning issues which have
national and global political impact. NASA started to keep a tighter lid on things for
about a year (Makemson, 2009, p.50).
" During the Mercury program, it became increasingly apparent that the hushed
lips of NASA could not be maintained and keep a good relationship with the media and
the rest of its publics. Walter Bonney, a top public affairs ofﬁcial brought to NASA an
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open-information environment. This honesty and a healthy relationship with a free press
was what separated America from the Russian, to whom everyone seemed to be
looking at as ahead in the so-called” space race” (Makemson, 2009, p.51). This strategy
was the basis for PR operations throughout Mercury and Gemini.
" The Apollo 1 tragedy found NASA ofﬁcials in heated contention with the media.
After the deaths of three astronauts during a routine test, ofﬁcials made many mistakes.
The most immediate mistake was taking to long to even acknowledge an accident had
happened. They reported “a fatality” instead of “three” or “multiple” giving the wrong
impression and false hope (Dalton, 2013). An audio tape tape which recorded the
events of Apollo 1 were also extremely damning as it contradicted what ofﬁcials had
said in previous days (Makemson, 2009, p.137).
" The Apollo 13 crisis was handled very differently. Having learned from the
previous ﬁasco, NASA PR made timely statements, invited journalists into mission
control, and continued to keep open communication with the media and the public
" Throughout the late 1960ʻs and 1970s astronauts appeared regularly in television
shows and magazine features, such as Life. Drumming up support was key NASA to
continue its missions and keep its funding up (OʼCallaghan, 2014).
" After Apollo, the public seemed to lose interest in space. Even with the creation
of the new space shuttle, enthusiasm was down. The Challenger explosion, once again,
prompted NASA to react quickly and honestly. Public favor with NASA wavered, but
eventually restored after the administration took almost three years off to improve safety
standards (Launius & Gibson, 2012).
The Public Relations of NASA! 12
" The 2003 tragedy involving Columbia was handled relatively well by NASA. If
nothing else, NASA conducts thorough investigations and testing to determine causes
of mishaps. In respect to the Columbia crisis, a case study by Emily Schult concludes
that NASA was responsible and cooperated expertly with the media (2006, p.55). and
CNN correspondent, John Zarrella asked, “Would there have been more national
support for the shuttle program, for NASA, and would there have been more public
outcry about the end of the shuttle program if NASA had done a better job promoting
itself? I donʼt know the answer to that, but itʼs worth asking.”
The Public Relations of NASA! 13
" The history of NASA/media relations has a few low spots of note. One signiﬁcant
dispute was between ABC and the administration in 1965 and 1966. ABC claimed
NASA was withholding too much information about its Gemini project. A sour personal
relationship between ABCʼs president and one or several NASA ofﬁcials may have been
a factor (Cressman, 2007, p.133).
" CBSʼs Walter Cronkite was especially fond of NASA and the space program and
had no qualms about showing it on air. He often made it a point to show models and
demonstrations of various technology and spacecraft (Makemson, 2009, p.189-90).
" During the shuttle era, the press seemed to lose some of the interest it had in
NASA in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact when Challenger exploded, CNN was the only
channel to cover it as it happened (Stelter, 2011). Despite the surge of coverage
afterwards, coverage waned throughout the 1990s. The news rooms were convinced
the space program was stagnant and that NASA was not doing a good job of promoting
itself (Stelter, 2011).
" It does seem, however, that Nasa is pushing its new Orion project with strength.
Demonstrations, NASA-hosted media days, and increased coverage are more common
today (Media Day . . . 2014). Perhaps it is only the start of something new and novel
with another coverage decline in the future.
The Public Relations of NASA! 14
Private Sector and the Future
" The researcher assumed going into this study, that NASA and the private space
industry were at odd and were competing for the lone spot in space and major
propulsion. This does not seem to be the case. NASA has always relied on the private
industrial sector. Since the retirement of the space shuttle, NASA has not had much a a
choice but to contract companiesʼ rockets to ferry their equipment into orbit. Although, if
government funding were larger, NASA could once again monopolize the space industry
in America. (Crane, 2014).
" As for the future, Mars is next on NASAʼs radar. Another moon landing has been
proposed as a stepping stone to the Red Planet. The Orion mission just might
revolutionize the way human beings travel in outer space.
" Neil DeGrasse Tyson sums up the spirit of the cosmic perspective – that is, the
vision of unity that NASA and all others who wish explore the universe have – and
shares the common desire for discovery: “The cosmic perspective not only embraces
our genetic kinship with all life on Earth but also values are chemical kinship with any
yet-to-be-discovered life in the universe, as well as our atomic kinship with the universe
itself” (Tyson, 2012, p.260).
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Greene, N. (n.d.). History of National Aeronautic and Space Administration.
" Retrieved from http://space.about.com/cs/history/a/nasahistorya.htm
Garber, S. & Launius, R. (2005, July 25). A brief history of NASA. NASA History
! Program Ofﬁce. Retrieved from: http://history.nasa.gov/factsheet.htm
Launius, R., Fries, C.,& Gibson, A. (2012, Jan. 3). Deﬁning events in NASA history,
" 1958-2006. Retrieved from: http://history.nasa.gov/Deﬁning-chron.htm
Agencies (2014, Oct. 29). Five worst accidents in NASAʼs history. The Telegraph.
! Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/space/11194485/Five-
Stelter, B. (2011, July 8). A demonstration of science seemingly made for TV. The New
! York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/09/us/
" 09coverage.html? _r=1&
National Geographic (n.d.). Space Shuttle Program: Cosmic commuters. National
! Geographic. Retrieved from: http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/
Telstar (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica online. Retrieved from: http://
Cavendish, R. (2009). The Soviet Union is ﬁrst to the moon. History Today, 59 (9).
! Retrieved from:http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/soviet-union-ﬁrst-
Missions to Mars (2014). The Planetary Society. Retrieved from: http://
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Dean, J. (2014, Dec. 4). NASA scrubs Orion launch after multiple delays. USA Today
! online. Retrieved from: http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2014/12/04/nasa-
Makemson, H. (2009). Media, NASA, and Americaʼs quest with the moon. New York,
" NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.
Dalton, D. (2013, July 3). Actually, it is rocket science: NASAʼs professional crisis
" management. MP Star Financial. Retrieved from: http://www.mpstarﬁnancial.com/
OʼCallaghan, J. (2014, April 24).Nasa's Mad Men: How the agency sold the Apollo
" missions to the public and inspired a golden age of space exploration. The Daily
! Mail Online. Retrieved from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/
Schult, E. (2006). Itʼs not rocket science: NASAʼs crisis communication efforts as a
" public sector organization following the Columbia shuttle disaster. Thesis.
" Retrieved from: http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-06042008-133647/
" unrestricted/ Schult_thesis.pdf
Cressman, D. (2007). Fighting for Access: ABC's 1965-66 Feud with NASA. American
! Journalism, 24 (3), 133-51.
Media day at Johnson to explore NASA's journey to Mars. (2014, Nov. 7). PR Newswire.
" Retrieved from: http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/media-day-at-
The Public Relations of NASA! 17
Crane, R. (2014, Oct. 29). Will rocket's 'catastrophic failure' set back the private space
" industry? CNN. Retrieved from: http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/29/us/rocket-
Tyson, N. D. (2012). Space Chronicles. New York, NY: Avis Lang.
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