The NASA photo rollout was lame

July 13, 2022 • 9:15 am

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.

25 thoughts on “The NASA photo rollout was lame

  1. It really was a terrible presentation.

    There was a good segment on CBC last night with Bob McDonald from Quirks and Quarks who managed to deliver a far better explanation of the Webb images in the 10 minutes or so he had than those media bozos from NASA did.

    Had to endure the gushing Andrew Chang, but I’ve learned to filter out much of what he says.

    1. I happenstancely at the moment am watching (the replay of) the beginning of this event on PBS. The “Head of Communications” at Goddard Space Center is more the leader of organized Whooping and Hollering. Whoo-Hoo! Yee-Haw! The first two men on stage pointedly refer to the “cheerleader, pep rally” nature of the gathering. Same with one of the four pols gracing the stage several minutes later. (One learns from one of them that Maryland is the center of the universe.) And one of the NASA folks, while trotting up the steps, said he wanted to fling off his jacket at the 50-yard line. The two European Space Agency guys on the video can’t be allowed to speak without some asinine background music.

      “On the count of three I want you to scream, “Go Webb!!” Wear it out, will yuh?!

      But if you want some real histrionics, listen to this morning’s “Morning Edition” on NPR. Alex Filippenko stays on an even keel bearing up under the sonic onslaught of Rachel Martin. Can Valium be sent through cyberspace? Where are Bob Edwards, Robert Siegal and Noah Adams when one needs them?

      I haven’t heard Andrew Chang, but in print my impression is that Dennis Overbye outdoes him in that regard.

      Yesterday and today the hard-copy NY Times, as is its wont, very prominently featured photos on page one. Today the Raleigh News & Observer featurea a quarter-page article, with a small photo, on page 13 of the 14-page section A. I assume the paper reflects the interests of its general readership.

      Well, congratulations to the incredibly competent, creative and innovative STEM-types who have made the JWST possible (and given these other folks a chance to caterwaul and bloviate).

      (Get off my lawn.)

  2. Yes, I watched it too and it was awful! All the calling Canada etc. did’nt work, c’mon, I thought they’d have the best internet…. Waiting for the photos was interminable. I wanted to hear the details about each photo and all we got was broad statements… Better is to look at NASA twitter today as people ask lots of questions on distortions (i.e. gravitational lensing), are all the images from the same timeline… Nature has a really good summary today
    Anyway, the Carina Nebula is now my desktop picture.

  3. I’m glad I’m not the only one to think this. I finally just turned it off. What a wasted opportunity.

  4. I agree with our host, the presentation was pretty dire, given the importance of the JWST project. NASA has given excellent press conferences in the past for major events such as the end of the Cassini mission, so yesterday’s debacle was all the more embarrassing to watch.

    On the plus side, the thousands of scientists and engineers at NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency who built and deployed the JWST most definitely do know what they are doing, and they deserve a standing ovation for their achievement.

  5. I missed this show and, as our host would say, can’t be arsed to watch the rerun. Was NASA’s Michelle Thaller on? From the poor reviews I conclude that she most likely wasn’t. I watch her on YT from time to time and really enjoy the clear, enthusiastic way she delivers her vast knowledge.
    Michelle Thaller

    1. Thaller was on but she wasn’t the problem, IMHO. There were just too many congratulatory episodes and mishaps in switching between sources. They also mostly displayed the astronomical pictures inside a relatively small box most of the time in order that we see the person talking. Total lack of direction and production values, except for the star photos themselves which were spectacular.

  6. “Government-sponsored objective science is a contradiction in terms.” ~ Ayn Rand [paraphrase, from Atlas Shrugged]

  7. There must be a reason why they seem to titrate the pictures out drop by drop rather than releasing many at once. Do they really have only five fully processed pictures at this point? Maybe that’s the answer. They seem to do the same thing with other events as well. I’m curious to know.

    1. Do they really have only five fully processed pictures at this point?

      Well yes, they have few as yet since it’s only started science observations a week ago, having been in commissioning mode since launch. More images should now come along at a fair rate.

    1. The cameras on the JWST operate in the near and mid infra-red, so none of the images depict their subjects as they would appear to the human eye. All of the images use colour palettes that are intended to highlight scientific detail, such as the distribution of a specific element such as oxygen, so they will inevitably appear “processed” or “artificial”. The same is also true of many Hubble images, of course, because its cameras are also sensitive to a range of wavelengths beyond the human eye.

      1. Yeah – imagine if the naked eye could see infrared, radio including WiFi and Bluetooth as well as grandad’s favorite AM on the Oldsmobile radio button presets that need 100 lbs. of force to move [ shhhUNK !] X-ray, VHF, UHF, etc. – we’d be in a cloud all the time, as it were.

        Actually I’m not sure there’s still UHF or VHF for TV…

      2. David, I’d go further and say that most (probably all) Hubble images do not depict their subjects as they would appear to the human eye (even a human eye looking through a very large telescope). Hubble is all about science, and none of their sensors or filters are designed to mimic the response of the human eye, as far as I know. Even Hubble’s so-called RGB or visible light images use filters with sharp cut-offs rather than the response curve of the human eye. This is especially important for red. Astronomers want to see the hydrogen fluorescence at 658nm, the most prominent color in most nebulae, but our eye is not very sensitive to it. So most RGB photos will look too red, compared to what we would see looking through a big telescope. The most authentic astrophotos are those done with ordinary non-modified consumer digital cameras, because they have sensors and sensor filters that mimic the response of the human eye.

        1. The very concept of a telescope represents a kind of image processing. It’s interesting that we we regard making an image bigger and sharper as a good kind of processing but changing the colors is somehow false. Some of these star pictures are undoubtedly upside down too! It’s all in the mind.

            1. The color used for an image pixel can be calculated any way the researcher wants. These days, it is probably unusual for the color of an image pixel to match the color of the light entering the telescope. Color can be even be used to show velocity or chemical composition. It makes the definition of “wrong color” somewhat in the eye of the beholder.

              1. “The color used for an image pixel can be calculated any way the researcher wants.”
                Of course, but one of those ways is to display the actual color we would see when looking at an subject.

    2. Thanks for the explanations. I’m a big fan of science but very skeptical (paranoid) when science is communicated to the general public.

  8. Many people worked very hard to make it happen, so the leadership probably promised some of them time on the roll-out.

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