Monday, July 14, 2008

Should Disney Get a Retired Space Shuttle?

Recently, NASAWatch posted a question on what should be done with the three remaining space shuttles still flying (Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour) after they retire. Since I spent a lot of my pre-space career at Disney, I thought I'd ask my Disney friends what they thought of the notion that Walt Disney World "get" one of the shuttles. Their responses were interesting:

    • "a) I thought Disney was already doing this with Mission: Space.
      b) It's difficult to get people interested in Space by displaying and teaching about obsolete space craft.
      c) Perhaps a display combining the limitations of the shuttle with the possibilities availed to us through a new program?"
    • "Makes sense to me! Disney certainly WOULD do a fantastic job displaying etc., certainly would fit in well at EPCOT, and with already having millions of people going to Disney every year anyway ... sounds like a project that's PERFECT for you :)"
    • "I think it is a good idea. With so many children visiting the park, perhaps it will be an excellent tool to develop interest. As long as they don't paint anything on the Orbiter, it sounds like a good exhibit."
    • "We could build a whole new theme park around it. We could obviously get more people interested in space, I think."
    • "Absolutely. That has EPCOT written all over it. You could put it next to Mission Space."

No argument from most of these folks, anyway. This bears some consideration. They all sense an underlying truth: Disney generates fun and excitement; the space program, as it is currently configured, does not. Why?


When I came into the space business, it was after 12 years at Disney and 3 years in the defense business development (proposal writing) worlds. I'd also had some experience as a space advocate. My approach to space, then, has been as a marketer. Disney, for all of its internal quirks--notice I don't work there anymore--is a marketing organization second to none. And when I attended my first International Space Development Conference, I noted the serious need for marketing professionalism within the space advocacy community.

Now there are some government regulations that prohibit NASA from marketing, unless it's hiring/recruiting. And, being a government agency, some of its denizens are rather disdainful of the need for marketing at all. "We do education and outreach," I've been told. The "m" word, it seems, is verboten. But really now: what is NASA TV if it isn't marketing? Well, actually, it probably is education, because as a marketing tool, it's not doing well. I think more people watch The Bedouin Channel.

What is marketing, then? Here's a description of marketing that I used in my thesis to contrast it with technical communications:

In general, marketing communications is aimed at decision-makers and influencers, while technical communications addresses people who use the product. In other words, marketers try to get a customer to purchase a product, while technical communicators explain how a product works once it has already been purchased.

A later presentation I did, based on this thesis, also proposed the notion that technical advocacy (e.g. space advocacy) is really a combination of technical communications, marketing, and politics. You need the audience to understand the material, get enthused about it, and get them motivated to advocate and vote in certain ways that are advantageous to your position. Marketing a trip to Disney World is a lot different from marketing a government program (assuming you were allowed to do so), but the concept and need is the same. And, I must add, there is more to advocate for than just NASA. I want the private sector "out there" too, and that requires a different strategy from selling a government program.

Still, both the space cause and a theme park must still get and hold the attention of their respective audience(s). Despite the uniqueness of the space enterprise, exploration and settlement do not "sell themselves," any more than the American West did. Horace Greeley's "Go West, young man, and grow with the country!" might have been one of the best marketing lines ever used to sell the frontier.

I got off my original track here; I apologize. I meant to answer "Why does Disney generate excitement while NASA doesn't?" and got off on a tangent about what technical marketing is. My apologies. The answer to the original question is simple: Disney does exciting things and portrays them in such a way that other people look forward to experiencing them. NASA does some exciting, nay, intriguing things, and some of those are accompanied by smoke, fire, and earth-rattling, which is always cool. But turn on NASA TV, subject yourself to a few hours of watching astronauts do zero-gravity tai-chi around the International Space Station, and you need No-Doze and a caffeineated beverage to restart your system.

Both Disney and NASA are very protective of their public image, and yet Disney manages to have a fun public image. Again: why? Part of it, I think, is that NASA has lost its sense of humor. They are so used to doing Important, Impressive Things, that they forget about the gosh-wow factor. They frown upon frivolous activities, like space tourism or putting a hotel into orbit.

They've also grown a little too cautious about advertising the dangerous aspects of space. In Apollo, three astronauts died before one Saturn rocket had put a man into space--and NASA kept going. Since Challenger and Columbia, there has been an abundance of caution and -- perhaps reasonably -- an emphasis on safety first. But damn it, that danger gets people's attention! It's suspenseful for me every time the Shuttle goes up now, maybe because of long-ignored physical danger and maybe because we're only now awakening to the fact that there won't be too many more of them.

The world frickin' stood still when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon. A billion people listened or watched at a time when we had only about two billion people alive on the planet. That's a shared moment of wonder few have ever managed to repeat. I mean, because...damn, that was impressive. The first time a human being had set foot on another world. I can still get a shiver up my spine when I hear, "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." I was two weeks from being born, and it still impresses me.

That's the trick, then: NASA needs to start doing great things again: firsts that are new and difficult in their own right. And the good news is, they are aiming to do great things again: building rockets to go to the Moon, building a permanent outpost there, and hoping to go beyond. That's half the Disney equation: do something exciting. All of that will require more money and sustained commitment, but that's our job as involved taxpayers, not just the government's. And then there's the other half: get other people interested in participating. There's still some work to be done there.

Looks like I have my work cut out for me.

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