Honolulu HI (SPX) Jan 14, 2005
I just watched on NASA Web TV the European Space Agency's bizzarre idea of how to present the first landing on a new planet to the public. It was a sorry spectacle - probably the worst PR disaster in the entire history of space travel. Never has a great technical and scientific feat been made to look more trivial.
First, they did not place the raw images immediately on the Web in real time, or show them on TV, or even show them on internal monitors like JPL has done at least since Voyager. Instead we all had to wait for an old-fashioned delayed presentation. (I can't wait to hear Richard Hoagland's interpretation of this.)
One of my favorite memories of Voyager was watching the images of the Uranus moons arrive in real time with a group of planetary astronomers and geologists. We could whip up instant interpretations, argue about them, and wait with bated breath for the next image that might prove us wrong or right. Now with the NASA Channel and the Internet, this amazing experience (seeing a whole new world at the same time as everyone else) can be available to everyone.
What possible reason is there for denying us this?
Second, the presentation got exponentially smaller with time (with no explanation of why). They had about 350 pictures of Titan taken with the descent imager. The world press was initially told that 18 selected images would be available. Then when the TV show actually got started, we learned that the descent imager PI (Marty Tomasko of the University of Arizona) had three ready to show and comment on.
We actually got to see only one image of Titan taken from 16km altitude. But we in the TV and Web audience don't see it at first. Instead it is projected on a screen at the ESOC control center, and we see images of a small group of privileged guests in Darmstadt gaping at the image we can't see and clapping their hands for what seemed like forever.
Finally they show the image to the public. Prof. Tomasko gets maybe 30sec to explain what we are looking at. But before he can show us the closeup pictures, the announcer jerks the mike away. He goes around the room to various high officials and managers and asks them in English for their reaction- but specifies that the interviewees must answer in their native languages!
There is one official for each of the major language bocs paying for the ESA. Anybody tuning in to this part of the program by mistake would think they were watching a comedy sketch.
Before the Parade of Nations ends, my PC Webcast freezes up. By the time I'm back on line, NASA TV is showing the usual pap again with no link to ESOC. But media friends who saw the whole show say that the promised 2 images from lower altitudes were not officially shown or described (one of them seems to have gotten some screen time by mistake).
And how about what we really wanted to see? The first picture from the surface of Titan? It's not shown at all!! They put it up on the web about half an hour later, after the TV show is over. Clearly this could have been available as the dramatic high point of the presentation, if things were properly coordinated.
Quite aside from the lack of information in this presentation, the social attitudes embedded in it are quite incomprehensible to anybody born and raised outside of Europe.
At a JPL landing, the center director and maybe the NASA Administrator might be there, but they wouldn't be the center of attention. The coverage would center on 1) the images 2) the scientists explaining them 3) the bright young people at the consoles who do the real work on the mission. No American mediameisters would think of making managers and politicos the focus of the coverage, and people would complain bitterly if they did.
This is a classic example of a major cultural difference between the USA and Europe that anybody rarely talks about.
For myself, I first ran into it at science conferences in Europe. There was always an 'honorary organizing committee' made up of local political bigwigs that had nothing to do with science. "What's the point of this? What are you scientists getting out of it? Aren't you compromising your academic freedom by sucking up to partisan politicians?"
The answer was "We've always done it this way and if we don't stroke the egos of our politicians they will cut the science budget to punish us."
"But what if another party wins the next election and you get a new set of politicians?"
"They'd still be offended that we were not sufficiently respectful of politicians as a class."
After years of visiting Europe and talking to friends from there, I finally got it through my thick skinned head that most European nations are still mired in pre-Enlightenment thinking, even after 200 years of bloody revolutions.
They may superficially look like modern liberal states, but the old habits can still be found if you scrape off the camouflage. The people in charge no longer wear plate armour and mostly don't inherit their jobs, but they are still aristocrats at heart. The common man still doesn't count for much (even if he has a Ph.D).
And the common man mostly goes along with this. He may vote for "worker's parties" like the Trotskyites or the National Front, but finds it perfectly natural that there are no primary elections in which the workers pick the party candidates or seeing all the top government jobs held by graduates of a single government-run school.
So maybe the average Space Cadet in Europe wasn't as disappointed as I was by this inept, anti-intellectual, reactionary, elitist approach to showing the taxpayers what their euros bought. Probably there won't be many paving stones torn up, or streets barricaded, or protest rallies outside the main gate of ESOC. But one can always hope.
Jeffrey F. Bell is a retired space scientist and recovering pro-space activist.
Huygens 3 Images at ESA
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