There was a time when the space race was an entirely nationalistic scenario. Countries went to space. Corporations did not. That meant entire populations were lined up behind “their” side gaining and keeping the lead in the space race. That competition jump started the programs in multiple countries across the world through the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Every shuttle or rocket launch was must-see TV. Kids were let out of school classes to watch liftoffs, and countless people made pilgrimages to launch sites across the globe to watch the rockets blast off. Then, the game changed. As cooperation increased in the international space station, nationalism took a backseat to globalism. Without a reason to cheer against Those Guys, people lost interest, and public sentiment wavered.
Then came the space entrepreneurs in the technology industry. Big-name billionaires with the kind of huge goals that piqued interests again. While NASA was conducting important tests that, well, sounded boring to the general public, SpaceX and others were talking about extra-terrestrial tourism, and Musk was actually reusing rockets, landing them safely after launches…something that no one had ever done before.
Meanwhile, as the internet argued over whether or not Pluto was a planet, NASA was watching a finicky spacecraft doing lengthy laps around Jupiter. Our solar system’s largest planet, it takes a long time — 53 days — for the craft, named Juno, to get all the way around. And, though the images are incredible, it’s no longer what passes for riveting television.
And, of course, there are problems. NASA had to stop a planned engine firing that could have shortened the orbit timeline, but determined the move could have created a problem for the craft, which was dealing with a valve issue. Valve issues, engine trouble … not exactly must-see TV. And even the TV news, which used to cover anything “space” obsessively, is now much more interested to see if one of Musk’s rockets is going to explode.
That’s not to say what NASA is up to isn’t interesting. The Juno craft can “see” through the thick cloud cover around Jupiter to explore what’s happening in the atmosphere. This visual is helping scientists learn more about how the planet and its moons formed, important research that can help us learn more about our entire universe. But this kind of thing takes time — Juno was launched back in 2011, and today’s media consumer doesn’t have as long of an attention span as they did 10 or 20 years ago. If they want to grab eyes and attention away from the flamboyant billionaires who are accustomed to wowing crowds, NASA will have to rethink the way they engage.