During a recent visit to NASA‘s Houston Space Center, I kept hearing and seeing a recurring theme: “Failure is not an option”. This was not likely not a coincidence. Though the tours and facilities are presented as a tourist attraction, the folks at NASA clearly want to get out their messages on the value (and potential) of their space agenda. At every event – even fun shows like “Living in Space” – the hosts included a short prologue on the value of space travel and excitement about future missions. Film trailers and promos all had similar language about the value and viability of NASA. During a tour of the Jupiter rocket facility (which was used for all Apollo missions) a retired engineer who worked on the Apollo 11 mission gave an informal demonstration and shared stories on the legendary lunar landing. He certainly appeared genuine, but he was also on message about the huge value and potential of space travel. Finally, it was hard to miss that a good portion of the gift shop was filled with products branded with “Failure is not an option” – the famous statement associated with the Apollo 13 mission (and also the title of a book by NASA scientist Gene Krantz.) Though there are questions about the origin of the statement, it has apparently become a mantra within NASA, and they are now using the theme to brand themselves with outside stakeholders – including visitors to NASA facilities.
The subtext to this visit, of course, is that NASA continues to fight for increased funding and approval of specific programs, such as the relaunch of moon mission. So the ultimate audience for the messages shared in Houston are for President Obama and legislators. NASA seems to understand that their best approach may be to align their staff under a central theme and educate and engage citizens as their advocates. Might their not-so-subtle message to Washington be that they are able and determined to launch successful missions on budget – or “not fail”?