NASA: Cultural Dust Storm

When everyone was looking for moondust from the LCROSS mission to crash land into the moon, I noticed something else — a cultural dust storm inside the agency. Did you see it too?

We heavily publicized the “moon landing” prior to Friday’s event. In Washington DC, the Newseum hosted our “Let’s Kick Up Some Moon Dust” party. (Even my mother received an email from NASA inviting her to attend. Not sure exactly how THAT happened. No matter.)

Moon Dust Invitation

I was off work on “LCROSS day,” so I logged onto NASA TV to watch the lunar impact. I mean, really. Who DOESn’t want to see moon dust? Watching the mission coverage, though, took me by surprise.

Stop! Before I go any further, I must in all fairness disclose that I work the “human space flight” side of the house at NASA. I say this only to put in context my perspective. I’m accustomed to years upon years (yes decades even) of Space Shuttle launch and Space Station on-orbit coverage — the hushed, almost flat voices of our Public Affairs folks doing commentary, the CapCom astronaut speaking to the crew, and crew responses. Calm. Even. Almost hypnotic. (No offense guys. I’m just trying to frame my point.)

Back to LCROSS coverage. I listened to chatter between the console folks — camera commands, I believe. Some of the voices struck me as jarring. Maybe it was early in the morning, but I found myself reacting to the sound of the voices. (InCREdibly petty. I know. I know. Who cares what they sound like, right? It’s the mission that’s important! Yes, I get it. Really I do. I’m merely describing my reaction.)

I watched the tiny NASA TV window on my laptop as the spacecraft rocketed closer and closer. I listened to the Go/No Go count and wondered about the spacecraft barreling toward the moon. Could we even turn it around if someone voted “no-go?” Hmmm. Not my mission.

I captured screenshots and posted them on Twitpic. I personally love this near-infrared shot below. I think it would make cool Moon art.

Lunar Surface prior to Impact

Impact! We hit the moon, didn’t we?

Yes, the announcer confirmed “contact”…as in crash landing. I was a bit confused. My little NASA TV screen only showed gray fuzziness. The announcer revealed a second impact. Hard to tell. I was still watching blurry images on my computer.

Further confirmation: NASA TV switched to images of arm slapping/hand shaking in the control room, then camera views somewhere outside where we could see happy people in lawn chairs. Then, back to the Control Room:

The Flight Director stood up, put his hands on his hips, and looked directly into the camera. Odd.

Twitter lit up with Moon Dust…or lack thereof…chatter. Some out in the vast twitterverse cheered the achievement. Some expressed anger at NASA for “bombing” a gentle giant. Some voiced confusion about what happened (mirroring my reaction). Some made fun of the coverage.

The social media world joined in for a global conversation about space. Differing opinions, some unflattering, but conversation none-the-less.

I’ve been thinking about my reaction to mission coverage and wondering what it says about me. I’ll be honest, compared to a Shuttle launch, LCROSS felt like the minor leagues. Does that mean I’m arrogant? I’ve really struggled over the weekend to understand WHY I felt underwhelmed by the “Kick Up Some Moon Dust” experience (other than the fact that we didn’t witness a massive cloud of dust — which may mean water).

Here’s what hit me last night: the culture clash between human vs. robotic, engineering vs. science.

I’ve noticed, through my many years at NASA, that our engineers want to tweak perfection, while our scientists want gather more data, to ask one more question, try one more approach. The LCROSS mission is a success because it’s one more approach to asking another question so that we better understand what questions to ask. Their scientific mission is just beginning with lunar impact. Our human space flight missions, in contrast, end upon touchdown or docking — when we safely arrive at our destinations.

We’ve been doing this Shuttle thing for quite some time. The culture of how we do what and what is acceptable is quite ingrained. Launch coverage and mission control cultural norms rule. I fell victim to my human space flight cultural heritage when I subconsciously compared “our” launch coverage with “their” launch coverage…and giggled. Yes, I admit. I giggled — which is not fair to the serious work behind the mission. I feel very rude. Scientific, robotic missions are ruled by different cultural norms.

Look no further than the contrast between the Houston Mission Control “flat-top” and the California “flip-flop” mentality. Both approaches get the job done — just differently.

Now that I’ve had a few days to process, I apologize to all you LCROSS folks. I let my cultural bias cloud (moon dust?) my perception of your mission coverage. Though, I do hope your Hi-5 guy gets a shot at the late-night comedy shows. He deserves a shout out!

Bravo LCROSS. Ignore NASA’s cultural dust storm. We expect your results to “water” it down.

Cross post on OpenNASA.

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Filed under culture, federal government, leadership, NASA, OpenNASA, space

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