NASA communicating to survive. NASA is now sixty years old, and more than ever, it is everywhere: on social networks, in the media… Impossible to escape. Its media omnipresence, its ability to communicate, are key elements of its strategy. And for a good reason: since its origins, it is an essential factor of its survival.
Difficult to escape the deluge of images and information that invest social networks. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat… Every information is relayed by several hundred accounts, all affiliated with NASA. Each event is the subject of a communication operation. NASA is everywhere, and its images of the Earth as those of the most distant stars are constantly ravishing and amazing. Why such a desire to be known, to be seen, for an organisation whose main purpose is to conduct scientific experiments? The most obvious answer is the justification of the substantial budgets that NASA requires: twenty billion American dollars in 2017, or point fifty percent of the U.S. federal budget.
In reality, if NASA communicates so much, it is not so much to be made known as by absolute necessity: “It is necessary to distinguish the enormous technical competence of communication of NASA, and the need for this competence. If it invests even more in this effort, it is because the space agency needs it”.
NASA communicating to survive, has long owed its existence to its ability to tell and play political calculations. Its media omnipresence is almost the survival instinct. Through storytelling, it has managed to become a symbol of the American psyche.
NASA, showcase of the American society
When the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was created on July 29, 1958, it embodied the bipolar confrontation in its most absolute affection at the time of the Cold War. Its only objective then was to compete with the Soviets, who managed, on October 4, 1957, to put the first Sputnik satellite into orbit. “It soon became apparent that Sputnik’s satellisation had to be made once, because the American model was being undermined. This is what will structure the American political debate of the time. What space is the vector of, is the confrontation of two models of society”.
The creation of NASA responds to political demands, and the Democrats do not hesitate to take advantage of the situation to weaken the Republican Party. “The United States of America asked questions about the organisation of their society. Space will be seen as the revealer, the showcase of the overall state of a society, its performance, its productivity, its inventiveness, its creativity… From the beginning, it is an issue of communication. This is an essential dimension: there is a strategic dimension, but there is the showcase dimension of society”.
The stakes of NASA are above all soft power issues, which aim to extend the influence of the United States of America around the world. When Yuri Gagarin, in April 1961, made the first manned flight in outer space, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, newly elected, must react. This will be the Apollo program. On May 25, 1961, in a speech to the U.S. Congress, the President of the United States of America announces the sending of a man to the Moon: “We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too”.
Some of his advisers blame the program from the outset for being too expensive. Kennedy responds to his scientific advisers that if they have something as spectacular as a flight on the Moon to propose to him, he will do it, but only if they have nothing better to offer him (implied, to show the world the excellence of the United States of America). The Apollo program was born. “Kennedy gave the space agency the means to accomplish its mission: as early as 1963, funding from NASA accounts for more than two percent of the state budget, peaking at almost five percent in 1966”.
Announced disappearance of NASA
When Kennedy died in 1963, his vice-president, Lyndon B. Johnson, succeeded him. If he has pushed hard for the adoption of the Apollo program, he does not fail to remind James Webb, the director of the space agency, that NASA’s mission is to put a man on the Moon, and that’s all. “What the directors of NASA realise is that, far from being the space exploration agency that would show a kind of future for American society, the American space agency has the appearance of a kind of alibi for political communication, to show that the United States of America is the dominant model of society. It is a tool of propaganda finally. After its mission accomplished, it should not exist anymore, Johnson proposed to repeal NASA and return to NACA, a research and development office that dealt with aeronautical aspects”.
When, on July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first human beings to set foot on the Moon, the mission of the space agency came to an end. “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”, and a great showcase for NASA, which broadcasted the event to more than five hundred million people around the world. Already, the American space agency had understood the power of images. It knows that its survival depends on its ability to communicate.
Fight for survival: a taxi for nowhere
Shortly before this Moon landing, Richard Nixon came to power. He is also the President who communicates live with Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. But the new U.S. President does not want to maintain the substantial funding allocated to NASA. He continues the budget cuts initiated by his predecessor. For its part, NASA has proposed a more daring program: it wants to install a lunar base in the late 1970s, before launching an inhabited mission to Mars in the early 1980s. The link in this chain is the Space Shuttle project, the only element that will keep Nixon, who judges the rest much too expensive.
And if the president of the United States of America spares the Space Shuttle project, it is not out of passion for space, but by pure electoral strategy: “Nixon was obsessed with the silent majority at the time. He’s going to do political polls in what he called the battlegrounds states, the key states where the Apollo program was set up, and he really wanted for re-election, that pruning the space programs would not rock the big voters on the other side”.
Nixon does not want to assume the role of the man who put an end to manned spaceflight, whose prestige, after the feat just achieved, is still great. Moreover, he wants to help the states where the aeronautical industry has developed, which is heavily lobbying for the Space Shuttle. He decides to keep this aspect of the program. But in the absence of a space station where to send the Shuttles, the critics do not miss to be heard: “Taxis for nowhere” are denounced. NASA, for its part, jumped at the opportunity to demonstrate all that can be done with these famous Shuttles, including military applications.
The slow decline of the American Space Shuttle, NASA communicating to survive
When Jimmy Carter came to power in 1977, his transition team simply recommended cancelling NASA. Because of lack of real objectives, the inhabited flights towards space don’t convince anymore. It is the geopolitical situation that saves them, because it must be verified that the disarmament agreements that Carter intends to sign with the Soviet Union will be respected. “We are going to start suggesting to him that thanks to the satellites, he will have these means. What better instrument to send these satellites than a Space Shuttle modified for these purposes?”.
The Reagan administration, which succeeds Carter’s, will only reinforce this military interest, especially with its “Star Wars” project, also known as SDI. On the public side, the first Space Shuttle flights have had some success. “By maintaining manned flight, NASA has managed to maintain the particular idea that America has of itself. There is an identification with the notion of pioneer exploration, overt destiny”.
But their exorbitant cost gradually push the public to lose interest. Especially since the accident of Challenger, January 28, 1986, which disintegrates with all of its crew, and gives a dramatic dimension to the conquest of outer space. All NASA manned flight projects are then temporarily suspended. Gradually, the conquest of outer space is set aside. Under George H. W. Bush, the withdrawal of the Space Shuttle is planned for a space station called “Space Station Freedom”, with the intention of returning to the Moon and Mars. “This time we are going back to stay there. And after that, an adventure to tomorrow, an adventure to another planet: a human mission to Mars. Why the Moon? Why Mars? Because it is in human nature to fight, to find. And because it is the destiny of America to lead the space conquest”.
A paradigm shift: From space to Earth, NASA communicating to survive
The project is highly criticised, unlike another program announced by George H. W. Bush’s presidency “Mission to Planet Earth”, which proposes to use NASA’s satellite network to better understand how the atmosphere works and terrestrial ecosystems. Under Bill Clinton, the agency’s budget continues to plummet, falling to less than one percent of the American budget in 2001.
NASA communicating to survive has, once again, no more roadmap. It can happily rest on the birth of the International Space Station (ISS), which became a partnership with the Russians. The American space agency does not deprive itself obviously to communicate on this international cooperation.