by Bill Morris
Since the first moon landing, watched on television by millions around the world, NASA has understood the importance of science communication. The recent landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars has highlighted this.
NASA has an incredible website crammed with information about every aspect of their work and cool stuff like this interactive animation. It has a huge library of stunning images. They even have their own online television channel, upon which you could watch the Curiosity landing live.
Ironically, I had to do this because the television media didn’t make much the event. Admittedly half an hour after the rover’s wheels had hit the Martian dirt it was the second story in TV3 news on Monday, but it has since quickly disappeared into the long media shadow of the Olympic Games.
It’s a far cry from “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” When Neil Armstrong uttered those words from the Moon, the world stood spellbound.
Therein lies the reason NASA today recognizes the need for strong science communication. They know that if they don’t make a big deal out of stories like this; if they don’t make themselves a quality resource for space-related news and images and if they don’t actively engage with the public, the funding will quickly dry up. And missions to Mars don’t come cheap.
The Curiosity landing cost US taxpayers $US2.5 billion. This might sound enormous, but to put it in perspective, that was just $7 per taxpayer. The entire mission cost about the same as 3 days of the Iraq War. And yet space exploration must still compete for every dollar, and is constantly facing further cuts.
And so when Curiosity landed on Mars, NASA went to town on it. This was a big chance for them to remind Americans and the world about what it is they do. Curiosity even has its own Twitter account.
NASA’s example is a good one for scientific organizations everywhere. Sure, most scientific research programmes would struggle to present a story for public consumption as dramatic as a Martian landing. But then the news media didn’t exactly fall over themselves about the Curiosity mission either. NASA countered this by taking things into their own hands – laying on their own TV channel and engaging the public on their own terms with every tool they had.
Many scientists and research organizations could do well to follow suit