YesterdayI watched the NASA rollout of the Webb Space Telescope photos on the NASA YouTube channel. Well, sort of. . . . it was supposed to start at 9:30 Chicago time, and after 10 minutes or so there were still no photos shown. What we saw was a bunch of interviews, introductions to various people, and assorted blather. “GET ON WITH IT”, I yelled at the computer screen! After about a half an hour, I think there may have been two of the five photos shown and explained in detail, along with other non-essential and boring information. I gave up.
In short, the show was too long. People just wanted to see the damn pictures and know what they meant, but what we got—and remember, we the taxpayers funded this thing—was a dog-and-pony show with lame ponies and unenthusiastic dogs. In other words, the presenters were tedious, not very eloquent, and there were too many glitches. It’s much more instructive and fun to just go to the NASA page with the five pictures and read about what they are.
Now remember, the Webb Space Telescope is not up there to entertain us with awe-inspiring and beautiful pictures. It is a purely scientific mission, and different groups of scientists write proposals for what they’d like to be photographed and at what wavelength: all with a specific aim. NASA sorts through the proposals and picks those most likely to produce significant knowledge. The photos are just the beginning of scientific analyses that will take years. That said, NASA was right to roll them out now, as people want to see them pretty badly. (I’m one of them!).
But if they do that, then they need to do it in a way that does justice to the taxpayers who funded the Webb. And that means getting professional communicators of space science or physics. They need not be on the NASA payroll, but they need to give an absorbing (and shorter!) presentation. I’m thinking first of someone like Carl Sagan, the foremost communicator of astronomy and space exploration that we’ve ever had. Sadly, he’s gone, and I don’t know anybody in his league. However, Neil deGrasse Tyson is also superb, and heshould have been the go-to guy to reveal the photos, not a bunch of people who work for NASA and have “communication” in their job title.
People may not agree with me (the New York Times called the presentation a “slickly produced livestream.” It wasn’t. (But you might read the NYT article for information about how the photos were chosen, colorized, and other technical information).
This of course is just the kvetching of a petulant taxpayer who loves science, but I think NASA needs to up its game in terms of communication. In terms of engineering and getting the science done, I have nothing to beef about.