NASA Television: The Final Frontier
     On the rise of NASA’s television station
     Originally published in The Stranger, seattle
     Subsequently published in numerous regional
     weeklies, including the Boston Phoenix and the
     Chicago Reader
NASA TV: The Final Frontier
There’s a TV Revolution, and the U.S. Government is Behind It
Matthew Richter
“The universe is constantly talking to us.  We just have to listen to it in the right way.” – Astronaut Story Musgrave, the oldest man in space, aboard STS-80.
The search for Self in the cold of outer space; the sight of ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion; a Romulan battle-cruiser decloaking off the starboard bow—these are the reasons television was invented.  News, soap operas, sitcoms: this is the paltry filler between episodes of the Star Trek Trinity (Voyager, Deep Space Nine and Next Generation) and Battlestar Galactica or Space 1999 reruns.
But there’s a television channel that both predates and supersedes all these sci-fi standards, created by a mandate in the Space Act of 1958, giving NASA Television what executive producer Joe Benton calls “a bona fide license to communicate with the American people—a license no other agency of the government has.”
You’ll know the NASA channel when you see it.  It’s the one airing 30 continuous minutes of a midnight lightning storm off the east coast of Australia, as seen from an altitude of 200 miles; the one showing you live shots of astronauts spinning weightlessly in space, flipping globules of orange juice into their mouths; it’s the one allowing a live all-night peek inside Mission Control as specialists stroll, stretch, and play Tetris.  
While CNN might show you the last 10 seconds of a launch countdown, NASA will show you all 10 hours of the countdown, from every possible angle—and when the last 10 seconds finally arrive, there’s 10 hours’ worth of tension in the air.  While Good Morning America might show you a two-minute interview with the crew of the Space Shuttle, NASA TV shows you the full hour the astronauts have set aside for questions from media around the world, in one continuous shot, as the astronauts joke around with each other and rearrange their weightless bodies in between interviews.  The NASA channel is long-form sci-fact for a short-form sci-fi world.
Joe Benton, who works out of NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., is the Rupert Murdoch of microgravity; the Ted Turner of the vacuum.  He’s a man with a noble vision, and the awesome power to make that vision a reality.  “Now along comes me,” he reminisces, with hint of a Virginia drawl.  “I was going to be hired as the executive producer, and I made it quite clear that if they wanted to use television as a communications tool, then I was their guy.  But if they wanted somebody to produce 24 hours of space propaganda, I wasn’t their guy.  They hired me.”
When Benton came along, the agency was mostly interested in short documentaries about each mission—the old propaganda films about the Apollo missions with the warbling soundtracks and the “soon, man shall conquer space” narration.  But Benton saw that something was happening, something… wonderful.  The shuttle missions were starting in the early ‘80s, and NASA has to develop live television setups for operations monitoring video.  At the same time, consumer access to cable television was proliferating.  “Say you’ve got a scientist or an engineer at Kennedy during a space shuttle launch whose sole purpose in life is to look at a bolt,” explains Benton.  “An exploding bolt.  This is hypothetical.  So he’s got to see this bolt when it goes off.  So there’s a television camera aimed at that bolt, and he watches a monitor, all day long.  It’s what he does, he watches.  And when the bolt explodes he calls somebody and says ‘The bolt exploded.’  There are like 142 television cameras aimed at the space shuttle when it launches, and there are people actually watching this stuff.  Now, since the television is being produced anyway, it’s not a lot of trouble and expense for ordinary people to watch it too, since, I mean, they’re paying for it.  We send it up to the satellite, and you know, let ‘em watch it.”
The modern age of operational video on the NASA channel was born.  “I want to start phasing out the ‘NASA in History’ segments [older documentaries], which I think are sort of bullshit,” said Benton.  “They’ve been around the bock like 16 dozen times, and they’re not terribly objective.”  But if Benton wanted to phase out the propagandistic side of the programming, he had to find something besides exploding bolts to take its place, and he had to find it fast.
“I first saw it on a monitor somewhere,” remembers Benton of that fateful day, “and I said, ‘Where the hell did that come from?’ And the guy said, ‘Oh, we’ve got tons of those just sitting on shelves down at Johnson [Space Center].’”
What Benton found that day were “Earth Views.”  “Earth Views” are shot from the shuttle payload bay as the ship orbits the planet.  Sometimes they’re extreme close-ups of the Nile River as it floats by underneath.  Sometimes they’re shots of half the planet, rotating in space like… well, like a globe.  The shots can go on for hours.  “It’s like watching an aquarium,” says Benton.  The colors are breathtaking, the view is utterly unique, and the shots are long enough that you can actually perceive the planet’s movement through space.  “It’s fascinating,” says Benton reverently.  “It’s mesmerizing.”
“Earth Views” is Zen television, a tranquil thing of beauty and wonder during the Thunder in Paradise of those Baywatch Nights.
I told Benton that, much as I love the “Earth Views,” I thought there was value in the older documentaries as well, and I questioned the idea of dropping them altogether.  “Well, why do you think so?” he asked.  “You tell me.  I’m making this up as I go along.”  I tell him that there’s a delicate balance on the channel between the non-narrative beauty of “Earth Views” and the retro-camp and adventure of the Apollo documentaries.  For every 2001: A Space Odyssey, we need a dose of Alien.  Case in point:
An average night on the NASA channel starts us off with a few old documentaries.  One night’s 1978 The Age of Space Transportation was narrated by Jason Robards, and while it lauded Marshall Space Center director Werner von Braun as The Father of the Saturn Rocket, it overlooked the fact the he was also a Colonel in Hitler’s S.S. before the NASA got a hold of him.  We then moved on to an educational video or two.  The same night’s Quadratic Polynomials in Real Life, I swear to God, presented the equation y=2.4x-(0.179x3-4.2)+(1023.7219/1000000000)x5+.0317.
You actually have to pay pretty close attention if you want to follow the math and science they cover, but if you do you will actually learn something.  This isn’t Bill “Physics for Three-Year-Olds” Nye.  Learn how and why we grew dwarf wheat on the Mir station.  Find out exactly what the tethered satellite experiment was out to prove.  And finally, after perhaps two-and-a-half hours of learnin’, we get to the brain candy, the “Earth Views.”
I tell Benton that good science fiction sets the audience up to appreciate the science embedded within the fiction:  there are those who know what it means to vent the warp plasma cells, and others who could design you a weirding module.  The same is true of sci-fact.  We have to earn the right to watch the calming, meditative “Earth Views.”
After a pause, Benton finally caved in: “Well… all right,” he acknowledged.
The second best thing about the NASA Channel is their live coverage of things down at Mission Control: hours of shots of people milling around and pretending to work behind enormous blue computer consoles.  Kelley Humphries is the Voice of Mission Control for NASA TV, and as such is responsible for translating what he calls “NASA-ese” into regular talk for regular folk.
“I’m the tall, dark-haired guy with the big earphones sitting behind the flight controller, at the back left corner of the room.”
The Mission Control specialists move around the room in seemingly casual but highly deliberate ways, like something out of a Robert Wilson opera; sometimes stretching sometimes shuffling papers, sometimes engaging in what Humphries calls “some low-key horseplay.”  What sort of horseplay goes on at Mission Control?  “Well, everybody’s got to eat, right?  So last week a bunch of us chipped in and ordered a pizza.”
These men and women, from the CapCom (Capsule Communications Officer) to the FIDO (Flight Dynamics Officer), put in 10-hour shifts, and these sorts of antics are to be expected as the elite corps lets off a little steam.  They also, according to Humphries, don’t pay any attention to the camera aimed at them all day and night: “We tune it out.  We’re too busy doing our jobs.”  Yeah, right.  Humphries also claims that the consoles at Mission Control aren’t set up to run Tetris.  Uh-huh.  “It’s a fairly slow, leisurely pace in there,” says the Voice of Mission Control.  “Rarely does something come up that has to be dealt with immediately.”
NASA TV is carried by all of the cable companies in town on Channel 27, the University of Washington TV channel.  Cable companies are required by law to provide a public access channel, a government access channel, and an education access channel.  Now, the UW is a Space Grant University, which means that they receive money from NASA for scholarships, grants, etc.  It also means that they have to carry the NASA Channel on UWTV, which they do from midnight to four a.m. every night, with live mission coverage on weekends (the exact schedule varies from academic quarter to quarter).
Susan Brandt at UWTV gave a knowing chuckle when I said I was writing about the NASA channel.  “Oh we get lots of calls from NASA-heads,” she says.  “People love it.”  It seems like everyone I talk to for this story, from the marketing director at Summit Cable to the receptionist at TCI, gives that same knowing chuckle and a “Yeaaah…” when I mention NASA.  More and more friends have come up to me and announced proudly that they’ve finally seen the NASA channel.  There’s an underground guild forming: the non-fiction Trekkies, a group of those Who Have Seen and Who Understand.
Science fiction on television is the ideal marriage of content and form; stories about a science we can never understand, as presented through the technological medium hardly anyone understands.  Successful science fiction presents us with and invites us into a world where the basic rules of life have changed.  Whether it’s post-apocalyptic earth, or utopian space travel throughout the galaxy, or a time and place far, far away, it is always science that offers us the fiction that societies can be rebuilt and re-imagined.
“We go to space to find ourselves,” says astronaut Story Musgrave.  “We don’t go to space for technical spin-offs like Velcro, or commercial applications like growing computer chips.  We go to space to discover what it is to be human.”
We go to the NASA channel for its camp value, its educational value, and its relaxation value.  We go to discover what it is to be human and awake and watching non-narrative television at three in the morning.  We go to see that Joe Benton is right, that TV can be a communications tool, and that sometimes a slowly spinning Earth can communicate all that needs to be said.