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NASA Ames’s Open House

(What about rocket building? Very much underway. Too busy working on BAAH-1, my L-1 certification project, actually to write up the progress. But, I’ve taken lots of pictures. Quick summary: airframe done, fins painted and attached, motor mount complete, nose cone painted, rest of airframe primed and ready for final sanding and paint.)

This past Saturday, NASA’s Ames Research Center—all but next door to where I live—hosted an open house to celebrate its 75th anniversary. What a wonderful idea: get the public in, let them see what’s going on at NASA today. And the public was certainly interested: something around (probably in excess of) 100,000 people came to the research center. There were long lines to see what was set up outside the various buildings along the self-guided walking tour.

Long lines. To see some posters and some medium-screen TVs with the sound turned down. Inside inflatable pseudo-mock-ups of the approximate ISS interior section diameter. To see a section of the Orion developmental heat shield, at full scale, propped up to view. To see the outside of the 40×80 and 80×120 wind tunnels. And to try to get through to the opposite side of the center when the single open road connecting areas was closed because of a medical emergency, and no alternate route was opened.

NASA blew it. NASA blew it badly.

Here they had the chance truly to excite people, to inform them, to educate them, to get them enthusiastic. And they squandered the chance.

Take the Orion heat shield exhibit. They could have had ten identical stations set up, in a big circle or square, so lots of people could see at the same time. They could have had blow torches aimed at each heat shield section, controlled by someone (or one someone per station). They could have had thermometers with big displays showing the temperature on each side of the heat shield section as the blow torch’s intensity is varied. Or they could have had one such station with a bunch of big TVs, so lots of people could see at the same time. Now, this static thing that’s interesting to engineers and space geeks becomes this very cool stuff with an obvious demo.

Take the 80×120 wind tunnel. It’s the biggest wind tunnel in the world. A few people—special ones with magic “back stage passes”—could get inside the 80×120, but we poor peons couldn’t. If you didn’t know what the thing was, there was scant little info available. Why not set up a bunch of big screens around the thing (it’s 120 feet wide, after all—and that’s the test section, not even the even larger exhaust outlet!) with staff and volunteers and 30 second video clips of actual tests running in the tunnel—tufted string tests and smoke wisp tests, and explanations of the supersonic parachute deployment test video they had (that was looping with perhaps ten other tests)—so people could see what’s going on?

How about plans for alternate routes through the center in case a road has to be closed? (It would have been trivial to have the security people change the barricades around.)

How about some astronauts—not just one, but a dozen—circulating, or scattered around the grounds, talking with people about what it’s like to be in space, aboard the ISS, to ride the rockets? Talking with people about why people have to be up there, people have to be exploring? Robots and orbiters and rovers serve important purposes, but people still have a place in space—what’s that place, and why is it important? Get astronauts who are photographers and poets and painters and authors and great speakers to talk about these! (We do not need send different people for this: we’ve already sent astronauts with all these hobbies and qualifications into space.)

NASA and Ames, stop thinking like scientists at scientific meetings, and start thinking about market to the public, about selling the incredible, cool stuff that you’re doing—in space, here on earth; for space exploration, for planetary exploration, for terrestrial exploration, for solar exploration; on spacecraft development and aircraft development and watercraft development; to examine the human condition; to enrich humanity.

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