NASA mission propels engineers into the limelight.
BY MATTHEW McLAUGHLIN
It may have come as a surprise, but a one-ton robotic laboratory, its death-defying landing on Mars, some savvy marketing, and a few wild hairstyles turned out to be the magic recipe for both NASA and engineering—the recipe for cool.
|Photo Courtesy of NASA|
When the Curiosity rover landed on Mars August 5, a total of 36.4 million people watched some part of NASA TV's Webcast of the event and the highest number of simultaneous viewers reached 1.2 million. To provide some perspective, 1.4 million people watched some part of the NASA TV Webcast of the shuttle program's last ever launch in July 2011, and the highest number of simultaneous viewers for the event was 562,818, according to statistics from the space agency.
NASA TV viewers tell only part of the story, though. Another NASA Webcast of Curiosity's landing on the Internet broadcast platform Ustream reached 1.1 million simultaneous viewers, Curiosity Twitter and Facebook accounts swelled by the hundreds of thousands, and more than 11 million unique visitors pushed the limits of NASA's Web sites.
"The numbers were just off the charts," says Dwayne Brown, a senior public affairs officer with NASA. "Without a doubt, this was unprecedented in the engagement from the public and the media."
Also unprecedented was the amount of credit and attention paid to NASA engineers and their profession following the landing. "In years past, this would have been hailed as a scientific achievement" instead of an engineering achievement, says Henry Petroski, P.E., a professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University and author of such books as To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure and The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems.
NSPE member Samuel Florman, P.E., a principal at Kreisler Borg Florman Construction Co. and author of such books as The Introspective Engineer and The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, shares Petroski's view. "Often, scientists were given credit for space triumphs achieved by engineers," he says.
Curiosity Lifts Off
|Curiosity flight director Bobak Ferdowsi, center, celebrates the rover's successful landing with his fellow engineers at NASA's jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, California.|
Photo Credit: Los Angeles Times / Brian van Der Brug
While there's no definitive way to determine why anything becomes popular, several key factors likely contributed to the enormous amount of attention Curiosity's landing received, as well as the unusual amount of recognition given to engineers and engineering.
First and perhaps foremost, NASA went to great lengths to make Curiosity a household name and convey the significance of its landing on Mars. "We were given a challenge by the head of the [Science Mission Directorate] Dr. John Grunsfeld," Brown says. "He challenged us and said, 'I want to make this as big as the Apollo 11 landing.'"
In addition to broadcasting the landing itself, NASA carried out a detailed plan to both educate and engage the public. "When we were building the rover, we actually had a camera in the rover," Brown says. "We had video games, we had apps, [and] we used social media. We basically brought people along for the ride." Arguably one of the most effective pieces of the plan, however, was a short film about Curiosity's landing.
Known widely as Curiosity's Seven Minutes of Terror, the film explains Curiosity's entry, descent, and landing [EDL] system through interviews with engineers and thrilling computer animation. "It explained the engineering
and it was done so well and so clear like a movie trailer," Brown says. "People were sharing it. We were getting reports that people were putting it on TV and showing it to their families."
With the release of the film, another key factor that also contributed to the popularity of Curiosity and NASA engineers first became apparent—the engineers themselves. The overall explanation of the technology was so well done and had such great spokespeople in the engineers who designed it that the landing clicked with people in a way not seen before, according to Brown.
Of course, public interest in Curiosity reached its fever pitch with the successful landing of the rover. It and NASA engineers became the subject of news reports, tweets, and water cooler conversation for days, thanks not only to the success of an ambitious feat of engineering but continued marketing and the surprising charm of engineers like lead EDL engineer Adam Steltzner and Curiosity Flight Director Bobak Ferdowsi.
"It helps when you have engineers that don't look like old, stuffy, pens-in-their-pocket guys," Brown says. Landing a large robotic laboratory on Mars using a jet-powered crane is undoubtedly cool, but Steltzner and Ferdowsi forced people to wonder if the engineers who did it could themselves be cool. Steltzner's pompadour and earrings and Ferdowsi's multicolored Mohawk were like throwing gasoline on the fire—engineers and engineering not only got their due, they became cool and fascinating.
Ferdowsi, who had fewer than 200 Twitter followers the day before Curiosity landed on Mars, had more than 20,000 the day after the landing, and both Ferdowsi and Steltzner appeared in numerous interviews and were the subject of media profiles.
After the Red Planet
While what was accomplished August 5 and the praise heaped on engineering and engineers is worth celebrating, most don't think engineering's star has yet risen.
Calling Curiosity's landing "an engineering achievement of the first order," Petroski is glad it was recognized as such but remains skeptical future achievements in engineering will have the same luck.
"It's important for our nation, for the world, that engineering is considered important and rewarding," Florman adds. "But this one incident isn't enough to counteract other forces—historic, economic, social, et cetera."
Randy Atkins, senior program officer for media and public relations at the National Academy of Engineering, was happy to see engineering receive some positive attention as well but also sees it as a drop in the bucket of what needs to be done to educate people about engineering and get them excited about it. "I think that it was a couple-day news story that captured people's attention [and] probably did put a good light on engineers for a couple of days, but I don't really see the long-term impact," he says. "We have a lot of work to do."
Despite how far the engineering community has to go before the image of the profession and engineers is more like that of Ferdowsi or Steltzner, NASA is confident it has at least made an impact in another important way, an impact that will be revealed one day in the future when an engineering professor asks their student why they want to be engineer. "If we're going to move forward as a country and as a world we've got to get young kids to say this is cool," Brown says. "If we can make a difference, and we have, job well done.