Last week, I was writing a blog entry about the future of NASA in anticipation of the public Augustine Commission meetings when I remembered a philosophy for engaging the public that I first heard when I was in the Goddard NASA Academy in 2006. It is simple and powerful, and it could change the way that space is viewed by the public. It also goes against the way that most technical-minded people think, and that is why it has not been implemented to the degree that is necessary to drive strong support of pace exploration.

The idea is to tell a story.

It’s really that simple. Although he is probably not the first one to advocate this strategy, I first heard of it through a packet of information assembled by Bob Rogers and given to me by Alan Ladwig. Bob is an expert at catching the public’s interest: he designs content for museums and theme parks. In those situations, they want to design something so compelling that people have no choice but be be drawn in.
I encourage everyone interested in engaging the public to download that packet and read it. It will change the way you think of reaching the general public. When I read it, it was like a lightbulb in my brain switched on. Here’s the basic gist of it:

The way to engage the public in space exploration is to use the elements of storytelling, which can be broken down as: 1) Empathetic or engaging characters 2) frustrated in their attempts to reach 3) a well-defined goal.

You need all three to engage the public. For empathetic or engaging characters, we essentially need heroes. Astronauts need to be public figures to a much greater extent than they are today. Their suitability as a public figure needs to be part of the selection criteria. The public should know all the astronauts by their first name, and follow their lives the way they follow the lives of hollywood celebrities and sports superstars.

It doesn’t have to be just the astronauts though. Anyone involved in space exploration can be the main character of the story, the main point is that there needs to be a sympathetic main character with whom the public can connect. Oddly enough, the closest we have to that right now are the MER rovers! Because they have been so personified, there is genuine public interest in the scrappy little rovers. People know their story and root for them, celebrating their achievements and worrying about their troubles.

That brings us to point 2. NASA needs to make the challenges involved in space exploration much more clear. In its fear of failure, NASA has shifted to a tendency of putting a positive spin on everything! This actually make the public less interested! They need to be on the edge of their seats, worrying that their favorite characters are facing deadly peril at every turn! NASA TV should have breathless descriptions of the dangers that astronauts are facing. All the million things that could go wrong! We want the audience to imagine the fear of flying in a spacecraft with only paper-thin walls between themselves and sudden, violent death. The loneliness of spending six months in space, away from friends and family. The beauty and wonder of looking down on the Earth. In other words: Emotions.

And finally, there needs to be a well-defined goal. One of the most interesting points that Bob Rogers makes in that packet is that the actual nature of the goal doesn’t matter that much! What matters is that the main characters of the story want with all their hearts to reach their goal. If the public has connected emotionally with the characters, then the public will want the characters to succeed!

As advocates of space exploration, we are all familiar with the lists of reasons that space exploration is necessary. Those lists are great, and they are necessary in some cases, but they are fundamentally logical arguments, and that is why they fail. To drive true support for space, we need to dig deeper and engage people on the emotional level. Instead of talking around the water cooler about the characters of their favorite TV show, people should be talking about the main characters in the ongoing saga of space exploration.

The idea is simple, but I expect that a lot of space advocates will dislike it. It goes against the left-brained way of thinking. As Bob Rogers says in the packet, it entails embracing an entirely foreign value system that places things like myth, archetype and emotion ahead of facts and scientific truth.

But if we really want public supporters numbering in the hundreds of millions, this is the way to get that support. If you doubt that, consider the average person’s interest in Hollywood compared with their interest in space. Or if you would prefer, consider the interest in sports. Sports and movies are appealing precisely because they provide the formula for a compelling story in a simple and easy-to-digest package.

NASA can use the power of Story to gain legions of supporters. The question is, will it?