What are the nation's perceptions of NASA?

University of Texas students team up with
NASA to find out

by Janet Osimo
(reprinted with permission)

Around the world, the name “NASA” is almost as recognizable as Disney or McDonald’s. Yet, while all three terms may be considered as brands, clearly Disney and McDonald have more meaning and syntax than NASA. Perhaps it’s not so strange then, that so many misunderstand NASA’s goals and what it actually does. According to a recent study conducted by graduate students at The University of Texas at Austin, only 62.9% of Americans recognize that space exploration is closely related to NASA’s work. Mistakenly, 31.4% assume that NASA is involved with SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.

These findings among others have emerged from an innovative academic partnership between NASA and students from the University of Texas at Austin that began in the fall of 1999. Recognizing the important role that public support and opinion play in the success of the space program, NASA has provided funding for student research to identify specific problem areas and determine successful methods to boost awareness of and feedback to the agency. Using contemporary advertising and marketing methods to analyze public awareness and support surrounding the agency, a unique approach in a traditionally scientific and engineering culture, the students have sought to obtain a greater understanding of NASA’s standing among the public it serves.

The first step of the interdisciplinary student team was to define and target a message based on values and priorities – a basic advertising method. To define the values and priorities the public has for space exploration, the team examined the task of space exploration similar to that of any branded product. The brand in this case was NASA and the product (or mission) the team focused on - sending humans to Mars. The team wanted to understand the perception the public has about a Mars mission, uncover these values and the emotional attachment that is associated with space exploration and going to Mars.

Many proponents of planetary exploration often promote the benefit of scientific findings as basis for space exploration. When John Edgren discussed modeling institutional change, he concluded “clear-cut scientific justification for any particular belief or behavior is illusionary.” Yet, scientific reasoning for space exploration doesn’t resonate or strike an emotional chord with the majority of the public. Bill Moyers reminded Isaac Asimov in an interview in his book “A World of Ideas” that, even Benjamin Franklin met discontent from others when experimenting with the lightning rod. “You don’t need a lightning rod. If you want to prevent lightning from striking, you just have to pray about it.” Products and brands that are successful in today’s market carry a message that strikes an emotional chord. The team’s first task then was to see if there was an emotional chord they could identify.

The team elected to examine the attitudes of segments who might have varying opinions and knowledge about NASA. To start the process they sought to uncover the values of those who feel the strongest about space exploration -- members of the National Space Society and Mars Society . Focus groups that were held with members of both groups, helped to identify some of the core issues and values associated with those who support putting humans on Mars. Although respondents indicated they would like to see humans go to Mars participants agreed, and a follow-up survey confirmed, that the majority believed that building and completing the Space Station should be NASA’s first priority. The respondents also indicated that the delays in completing the Space Station as well as two failed robotic attempts to land on Mars, has hurt NASA’s credibility with the public. The groups generally believed that NASA’s reputation will be recovered only when the Space Station is successfully completed. Although the failures may have shaken the confidence of the public in the feasibility of going to Mars, according to the follow up survey, 76% of respondents believe that NASA should continue its exploration of Mars despite the setbacks it has experienced.

The student team also found that a concern for the environment and Earth’s future was a key motivation for space exploration among focus group participants. NASA’s discovery of the eroding ozone has heightened the awareness of the space program’s contribution to preserving the environment. Survey results confirmed that there is a correlation between the environmentally concerned and the likelihood they would support a mission to Mars. This may lead to strengthening support and attention to space exploration. Robert Ornstein (“A New World A New Mind”) explains that what captures human’s attention is that “Our brains tend to evolve and understand the portion that most affects our capacity to survive and reproduce.” This was certainly true of our race to the Moon against the Russians. It wasn’t about science. It was about survival. The credit NASA receives for discovering the eroding ozone has increased support and attention to space exploration.

But what about the misperceptions the students discovered that the public has of NASA? Only 63% of the respondents believed space exploration is closely related to what NASA does. With this finding, the student team set to gain an even deeper understanding of how the public perceives NASA. While still in the preliminary findings stage of their present research, the team has uncovered some startling perceptions.

The team wanted to find out if an informed space supporter perceived NASA differently from the general public. The movie “The Red Planet” was fortuitously released during the team’s research. Some might question the realism of this movie, but might agree that these viewers were more interested in space exploration than the general public. Among this group of theater attendees, 82% said they would be more favorable toward NASA if it contributed more to science. (Unfortunately, no follow up question was asked as to just how NASA could contribute more to science.) And only 3% of theater respondents indicated they believed NASA’s budget was less than 1% of the national budget; most respondents believed it is in a range of 5%-8%. (NASA’s budget is less than 1% of the national budget.) The students plan to test these perceptions with a broader sample by the time their project is concluded. While NASA has made their contribution to science known, and their budget numbers have been in the news, it is clear in today’s cluttered media environment that NASA’s contributions and traditional messaging are not breaking through.

Some feedback from the focus groups that the student team plans to explore in future surveys include the generational differences in the experience and expectations of space exploration. The majority of focus group participants were either Baby Boomers, between the ages of 35-55, or Generation X between the ages of 25-34. The two groups had different early experiences of the space program. Generation X participants cited their early experiences of space as watching Star Wars and Shuttle launches. The shuttle program’s repetitive launches over the years appeared to create a level of complacency for space travel. Then there was the Challenger accident. Channel One, a cable channel available to air news programs in schools, was broadcasting the Shuttle launch. A teacher was on board and classrooms across America were tuned in to watch the launch. All participants in this age category cited the Challenger accident as a significant turning point in raising their awareness of the space program and its dangers. Suddenly – for that audience - space travel, once seen as routine had certain inherent risks.

Conversely, Baby Boomers remembered their early experiences of the space program as the triumphs and successes of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. They grew up believing their generation would see humans land on Mars -- certainly by the year 2000. Some remembered feeling they were born at a very special time in history and had a sense they were part of a “chosen generation.” Participants in this age group feel that as they grow older, they are disappointed they may not see humans go to Mars in their lifetime as once believed. One participant said, “I feel like our birthright was sold down the river.”

As the Baby Boomers retire and Generation X takes its place in the work world, it is interesting to note that the excitement of space exploration burns bright. For example, the majority of team members of the University of Texas student research team are members of Generation X And while most of them will go to work for advertising agencies or have careers in marketing, the importance of the project for them is best summed up by team member Matt MacDonald. When asked what working on this project has meant to him he said “We’re not just writing a paper, we’re possibly affecting the way NASA does its business, which to me is a fascinating challenge to try and take on. And it’s a lot of fun.”

Using traditional marketing and advertising methods to analyze public awareness and support surrounding the agency, this University of Texas team has obtained a greater understanding of NASA’s standing among the public. This innovative partnership breaks new ground as NASA, a highly specialized scientific community and a small group of academic non-engineers come together to study public support. NASA hopes to use this information to better understand agency supporters and opponents, as well as design new methods for effectively engaging the public in current and future space exploration programs.

Contributions for this article were made by Neal Burns, Burke Fort and student team member Horacio Gallegos.

Janet Osimo leads the University of Texas at Austin student research team. She received her MA degree in Advertising from the University of Texas at Austin. Her thesis, “Sending Humans to Mars – Using Branding Methods to Gain Public Support” was used in this research.

Neal Burns is the faculty advisor for this student team and is currently a tenured professor in the Advertising Department at the University of Texas at Austin. He received his Ph. D. in Psychology from the University of Illinois, and his M. Sc. Psychology and B.S. Psychology/ Physiology from McGill University. In an earlier life he served as Principal Investigator on several major NASA and DOD funded programs while working for the U.S. Navy and Honeywell Inc. between 1962 – 1971.

Burke Fort is currently the Project Director of the NASA Means Business student competition program at the Texas Space Grant Consortium.

The University of Texas at Austin Student Team members: Matt Bronstad ( PhD candidate Psychology); Arzan Devlaliwalla., (Masters Candidate Advertising); Horacio Gallegos (Masters Candidate Advertising); Matt MacDonald (Masters Candidate Advertising); Kira Proctor (Masters Candidate Advertising).


Copyright 2001, Janet Osimo, reprinted by permission