In space, no one can hear you explain
How NASA has handled—or mishandled—the new exploration initiative, though, doesn’t compare to the mess that has resulted from the agency’s decision to call off the SM4 shuttle mission to Hubble. While there may be very good technical safety reasons for that decision, the process was so poorly handled that it has created a controversy that has drawn attention away not only from the exploration plan, but also other ongoing efforts, like the Mars rover missions.
From the assembled evidence, it seems that NASA hoped no one would notice that it had canceled SM4. Other than a hastily-assembled press conference several hours after O’Keefe delivered the decision to project officials, the agency did little to explain its decision. The agency even failed to issue a formal press release announcing the decision. Instead, for weeks NASA relied on an odd mix of teleconferences with members of the press, Congressional testimony, and, most bizarrely, letters to the editor of newspapers that published articles or editorials critical of the cancellation decision. (see “Life after Hubble”, February 2, 2004; and “Space shuttle safety and the Hubble servicing mission”, March 8, 2004)
By failing to take a proactive approach towards explaining why it had canceled the shuttle servicing mission, the agency left itself open to attack by supporters of the telescope. As it turned out, the telescope had a lot of supporters among astronomers, the general public, and many politicians. The public in particular, who had been fed a steady stream of spectacular photos from Hubble for over a decade by NASA, now felt betrayed by the agency. Thousands have responded by signing online petitions asking NASA to “save” Hubble in one fashion or another, or by contacting NASA or the Space Telescope Science Institute directly.
The SM4 cancellation has also posed problems for the new exploration initiative. Because the decision was announced just days after the plan was unveiled, many people have linked the two; for them, coincidence implies causality. Although the shuttle safety issues that led NASA to cancel the mission were independent of the initiative, many people have indelibly linked the two, to the detriment of NASA and other supporters of the exploration plan. As Washington Post reporter Guy Gugliotta put it in a front-page article in the paper’s Sunday, March 21, issue, “What emerges from this outpouring is an ‘us-vs.-them’ truculence that views the Hubble’s demise as collateral damage in what many see as the administration’s misguided march to the moon and Mars.”
More recently, NASA has apparently become aware that it needs to be more aggressive in supporting its decision. A week and a half ago the agency published a six-page white paper explaining in detail why it canceled SM4. The paper’s executive summary also makes note that NASA is “aggressively investigating innovative ways” to extend Hubble’s life, perhaps through robotic servicing missions. The paper does a good job explaining the issues involved with a shuttle mission to Hubble. The problem, though, is that such a paper should have been published in mid-January, not nearly two months later, after so much damage had been done to the agency’s reputation.
Had NASA been more proactive in its approach to dealing with Hubble, much of the damage could have been avoided. By providing the full details behind its decision up front, and also coming up with a contingency plan to keep the flow of data coming to scientists—as well as pretty pictures for the public—much of the outrage surrounding the decision could have been blunted. Such an approach would certainly not have pleased everyone, but it would have lessened the public criticism of the decision, and allowed NASA to focus more of its energies on building the future—the exploration program—than on defending the past.
Both the SM4 cancellation and the new exploration program demonstrate that NASA, for whatever reasons, is today often unwilling to share or volunteer information to explain its programs and decisions. By simply providing a few simple estimates of the cost of the exploration program, rather than being evasive, the agency might find more members of Congress willing to support the plan; at worst, NASA and the administration would know which members have concerns about the cost of the venture. Had NASA provided more information two months ago supporting its decision to cancel SM4, it might have avoided, or at least lessened the severity of, the maelstrom of controversy that has ensued and now poses a threat to the exploration program itself.
If, as these two cases make clear, withholding information is a self-destructive behavior, why is NASA doing it? To answer that, one would likely have to know the inner workings of NASA and its relationship with the administration, something that is far beyond the scope of this commentary. What is certain, though, is that NASA needs to become more proactive in its dealings with the press, politicians, and the public, sharing information to support its initiatives and decisions. Otherwise, its current problems will only grow worse, and new ones will doubtlessly appear. That’s no way to explore the universe.