The Phoenix Mars Lander: Where are the Media?

by R. J. Forman

Remember when people got excited about space exploration?

Probably not.

If you’re reading this blog you’re probably a little too young to remember those days.

However, there was a time when a landing on the moon was the top of the newscasts.

Those days are gone.

It’s an ugly day in the news.

It’s an ugly day in the news every day.

Even when the news wires seem bereft of ugliness, the media go ahead and turn anything they can ugly for the monetary benefits of spectacle.

Lots of ugly stories about just how terrible the human species can be to each other and other earthly creatures crawling across the headlines: death, torture, politics….

But in space things are pretty cool.

For instance, NASA announced Thursday, Sept. 18 that it is extending the Phoenix Mars mission.

That little space craft is up there on Mars digging trenches near the Martian North Pole.

Good for Phoenix!

The three-legged spacecraft has been at it since May 25th.

Phoenix was supposed to wrap up at the end of this month but NASA Spokesman Dwayne Brown said the space agency will invest about $6 million to keep the exploration going through December.

The spacecraft is digging through the dirt to see whether the site could have been favorable for microbial life to emerge.

When Phoenix launched for and landed on Mars it got a small mention on all the television newscasts. We haven’t really heard much about the probe since. So I’m telling you now, it’s up there plugging along and they’re going to keep him digging for awhile longer.

Phoenix is the first craft to touch Martian ice with its robotic arm.

So let’s take a moment away from the ugly, look to the sky, and celebrate Phoenix and its extended time on Mars…where the space probe will eventually retire and turn into a weather station.

(The graphic is an artist's rendering of the Phoenix Mars Lander descending; the graphic is from NASA and therefore in the public domain. To see a short video of views of Mars from the Phoenix, please check below.)

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NASA LIS said...

As someone entrenched in the communication of the Phoenix mission, there has been considerable public support. As you point out, it's just not carried as part of today's general news coverage.

Phoenix was one of the first NASA missions that used such social network sites like Twitter as a way to push information to interested people. It quickly became Twitter's second most popular site. And if you looked at the traffic of the NASA web site during the time the spacecraft was landing, www.nasa.gov had more traffic on the Phoenix page than Twitter had on its entire Internet site.

Today, www.nasa.gov has higher customer satisfaction ratings than traditional news Web sites run by the New York Times and CNN.

But you do raise an interesting point. We're quickly learning that the days of disseminating information through traditional media are nearing an end. Media are simply too fragmented to have the impact we saw in the Apollo era of three or four primary sources of news and information.

NASA spends a lot of effort these days finding new media avenues with which to tell its story unfiltered. We are happy to report that there is still considerable public interest in the agency's missions regardless of the the mainstream media report.

But I share your frustration. Gone are the days of dedicated space-based network reporters. I fear we'll never see the kind of coverage we once got from broadcast journalists like Jules Bergman and Walter Cronkite.

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