of Texas students team up with
NASA to find out
(reprinted with permission)
the world, the name NASA is almost as recognizable as Disney
or McDonalds. Yet, while all three terms may be considered as brands,
clearly Disney and McDonald have more meaning and syntax than NASA. Perhaps
its not so strange then, that so many misunderstand NASAs
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 NASAs
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 NASAs 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 doesnt 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 dont 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 todays market
carry a message that strikes an emotional chord. The teams 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 NASAs 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 NASAs credibility with the public. The
groups generally believed that NASAs 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 Earths
future was a key motivation for space exploration among focus group participants.
NASAs discovery of the eroding ozone has heightened the awareness
of the space programs 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 humans 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 wasnt 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 teams 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 NASAs
budget was less than 1% of the national budget; most respondents believed
it is in a range of 5%-8%. (NASAs 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 todays cluttered media environment that NASAs
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 programs
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
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 Were not just writing a paper, were possibly
affecting the way NASA does its business, which to me is a fascinating
challenge to try and take on. And its 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 NASAs 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).
2001, Janet Osimo, reprinted by permission