14 May 2009

The Problem with NASA TV

Posted by Ryan Anderson

I want NASA TV to look like this!

I want NASA TV to look like this!

Not like this!

Not like this!

I have a problem with NASA TV: it’s boring!

This has been a pet-peeve of mine for quite a while, but with all of the excitement about the current Hubble repair mission, I have been reminded just how bad NASA TV is.

Think about it. Right now, as I write this, the astronauts are suiting up and preparing for a spacewalk to begin repairing the Hubble space telescope. They are doing this while orbiting 400 miles up in space, falling around the earth at thousands of miles per hour. The repairs are intricate, unforgiving tasks. One wrong move could damage the telescope. One slip with the bulky gloves of the spacesuit and vital scientific instruments, costing millions of dollars, upon which scientific careers are relying, could be lost in space! There is no room for failure! Tensions are running high! Years of training all culminate in a handful of spacewalks!

And yet, for the last ten minutes, NASA TV has shown a stationary shot of part of the shuttle with dead silence, punctuated by occasional astronaut communications that don’t mean anything to a casual viewer. Yesterday when I tuned in, there was dead silence and a wide angle view of the mission control room.

Now, I know that I should be amazed that we can watch live video of people working in space, and I am. But I am watching it in spite of the dullness. This is the sort of thing that should have people around the world glued to their TV sets! We should all be collectively gasping in awe. Instead we’re all yawning.

NASA TV isn’t always bad. Last year for the Phoenix landing, I thought they did an excellent job! They had sexy computer graphics simulating the landing, a professional-looking newscaster doing interviews with people involved in the mission, and it was actually really cool to watch! All that for a robot! Why don’t we have something even better for real, live spacewalks!

There should be dozens of camera angles on the shuttle. Even small webcams would be fine for most of the shots. Just something other than interminable wide angle views! Rather than staring at the door in silence waiting for the astronauts to come out, there should have been cameras showing them suiting up. There should be a professional newscaster speaking during the dull periods of silence, explaining what the goals of the spacewalk are, what the stakes are, how they trained, etc.

And most of all, NASA needs to tell a compelling story. It’s not hard. We’re talking about people! In! Space! Fixing Hubble! Huge stakes! Heroic astronauts! It practically writes itself. When the spacewalk is not actively happening we should be seeing pre-made special sequences about the people involved. We should be getting to know the astronauts, the ground crew, their stories, their struggles, and their teamwork to make missions like this a success.

Remember the movie of Apollo 13? Did they show silent, wide angle views of mission control? No! They were up close, catching the expressions on people’s faces! The struggle to overcome impossible odds! There was dramatic music! We cut back and forth between the action on the ground and in space, wrapped up in the struggle to get home safely. Now, I hope there is never another space mission as “exciting” as Apollo 13, but there’s no reason that the current missions couldn’t be filmed that way. Small unobtrusive cameras, some music and professional production values would go a long way.

NASA TV could be awesome. It should be awesome. Its subject matter is inherently awesome, far more so than the slick-looking cable news channels! And yet a lot more people watch Fox and CNN than watch NASA TV. If we want people to be interested in what NASA does, then it wouldn’t hurt to invest a little bit into conveying the excitement of each and every mission to the public.