A better slogan for NASA


From the Wired Science blog: last month NASA updated it’s `message construct’ with the core message of:

NASA explores for answers that power our future.

This replaces the previous slogan,

[NASA:] Explore, Discover, Understand.

The NASA Office of Strategic Communications claims that the new message has been `proven to resonate’ with the public.

Somehow this fails to capture my imagination. At the risk of sounding low-brow, I would even prefer a headline from The Onion’s (a parody newspaper) `Our Dumb Century:

[NASA:] Holy Sh*t, Man Walks on F*cking Moon.

(View a page scan from another website.)

The Wired Science blog has decided to take matters into its own hands, sponsoring a contest to propose better slogans for NASA. Thus far the results are mainly of the same low-brow humour as The Onion reference above, including my personal favourite:

[NASA:] All your space are belong to U.S.

This is a reference to a popular ’90s Internet meme.

Anyway, in a slightly less silly tone, I should say that a good slogan is an important starting point for NASA’s public outreach efforts. When I was a kid I still had classmates who used to dream about becoming astronauts. Then they decided that it was cooler instead to aspire to be a transformer or a ninja turtle (ah, the road of broken dreams). Despite the successes of the Hubble Telescope and Mars Rovers in this arena, NASA has largely failed to inspire my generation the way it inspired my parents’ generation.

Even `little things’ like slogans or titles can make a significant difference. Last year the UK merged the `Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council’ (PPARC) and the `Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils’ (CCLRC) into what was originally called the`Large Facilities Council.‘ Among other items, scientists raised their strong concern that the new organization’s name didn’t even suggest that they were doing science. It is now known as the `Science and Technology Facilities Council‘ (STFC), not to be confused with the Swindon Town Football Club.

These days NASA’s scientific mission has been having a bit of an identity crisis. The [politically motivated] Mission to Mars has gobbled up funding and forced researchers to prioritize scientific programmes. These days the public image of NASA isn’t Neil Armstrong on the moon, but rather the internal failures that led to recent space shuttle disasters. Meanwhile, NASA seems to have mixed feelings about its commitment to the ISS (which is now also of questionable scientific value).

At the same time, there are still exciting missions on the horizon such as GLAST, the James Webb Space Telescope, SNAP, and maybe LISA, to name a few that are of relevance to my specific scientific interests.

The goal of an effective slogan should be to highlight NASA’s scientific mission and the sense of excitement and discovery associated with that. I understand that some politics are involved, and the `proper’ thing to do is nod at the `broad economic’ significance of NASA missions, hence the “… explores for answers that power our future” slogan. But putting a flag on the moon was never about economic gain (unless the moon were made of cheese). It was actually more about The Onion‘s headline, “holy sh*t, man walks on f*cking moon!”

When I try to promote particle physics during outreach, it is this aspect of science that I think should be highlighted. I’m sure the LHC will lead to some technological spin offs (large scale GRID computing, for example); but that’s not the motivation for building it. We should promote the sense of wonder and excitement that we get from being able to probe scales of nature so far removed from our own. Further, we should convey the beauty associated with the theoretical framework upon which we have been able to drape our current understanding of nature.

We don’t have the same PR as having an entire country glued to their 1960s televisions watching the American flag attached to the lunar surface. However, the goal of science outreach should be to convey the idea that we’re pushing the boundaries of human understanding in much the same way that Apollo 11 pushed the boundaries of human exploration.

And in order to do that, it helps to have a public slogan that inspires a little more wonder than `NASA explores for answers that power our future.’


2 Responses to “A better slogan for NASA”

  1. Especially with a possibly habitable exoplanet found, I think they should make their now slogan “To explore new worlds and new civilizations, to boldly go where no-one has gone before”.

    Or is that just me?

  2. Dimitri — I’m all for it. 🙂

    That reminds me of an opinion piece I read some years ago that was critical of the ESA’s Beagle 2 programme. The title was something like, “Beagle 2: To boldly go where NASA has gone before.”

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