When the science writer Shannon Stirone was working on a recent feature for Popular Science magazine about what happens when people die in space, she had a simple question for officials at NASA, the nation’s space agency: Did they have contingency plans for such sad endings?
How to explain NASA’s seemingly reflexive obstruction in response to a simple question?
She emailed the public information officers, or PIOs, at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for months. They are NASA’s gatekeepers, in charge of fielding reporter requests, directing them to scientists, setting up interviews, and (sometimes) sitting in on said interviews. When her repeated attempts to obtain information from the agency failed, Stirone filed formal requests under the Freedom of Information Act. These were rejected.
She then moved on to the Canadian Space Agency and its biggest celebrity: astronaut Chris Hadfield, famous for his use of social media from space. Hadfield came right out with the information: He said the crew simulated such situations, and that if someone died, for instance, on a spacewalk, he’d keep them in their suit and stick them somewhere cold in the spacecraft.
“He answered the question in a phone interview,” says Stirone, who added that even now, she could not understand NASA’s seemingly reflexive obstruction in response to a simple question. Stirone told me this story as part of a survey I sent to space writers, and asked them to pass along to others, to solicit a variety of experiences with and perspectives on NASA communications. Among all the federal agencies, which deal with touchy subjects like immigration, war, and the environment, NASA seems fairly benign, after all. Its vision for itself reads, “We reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind.”
But the same sentiment doesn’t always apply when reporters try to reveal the unknown about NASA itself — also for the benefit of humankind.
Chief among the duties of communications staff at NASA is facilitating media requests, but requests from established reporters writing for national publications are sometimes ignored or dealt with on timescales that, compared to the news cycle, are geologic.
When I was writing a story for Vice’s Motherboard site back in 2015, I needed a comment from someone at NASA about its process for astronaut selection. I requested an interview five times over three weeks before receiving a two-sentence statement from one agency PIO, and links to public webpages from another. A similar 2016 request while I was working on a story for Wired magazine received no response at all. When my subsequent piece stated that NASA did not respond to a request for comment, a different PIO contacted my editor to say she was “surprised” that I reported this fact.
She was, perhaps, the only one who was surprised. Another request I sent to NASA, for a Scientific American story about the agency’s funding for near-Earth asteroid research, also yielded silence.
While each reporter’s mileage may vary, I’m not the only one plagued by a slow speed limit. “I always anticipate having to wait for several days to hear back,” says a national space reporter who, like many of the reporters I spoke to, wished to remain anonymous to avoid making her relationship with the agency even less productive. All told, she says, the process is usually “a week from start to finish, which is unacceptable when I have a hard deadline.” Other reporters told me of responses that came after the story’s due date, a chronological hard-stop that PIOs knew in advance.
Because reporters know the NASA train arrives late, if they don’t need NASA’s comment, they sometimes seek out specifically non-NASA sources. The lags can also stop them from pitching NASA stories in the first place, seeking greener pastures that are easier to cultivate — like universities and their space scientists, who don’t always have to book their interviews through media staff, something NASA often requires.
Stirone says NASA scientists haven’t always been so unreachable, and that some even used to schedule their own calls with reporters, without the need for including communications staff. “Now a majority of scientists will connect to the PIO right away instead of risking a conversation that the center is unaware of,” she says. (The change seems to have come largely the past 10 months or so, perhaps reflecting the influence of the new administration. The agency is always a bit on edge during political transitions, since the budgets come from the new president, and new presidents have a habit of canceling well-established programs.)
Even if a reporter can see their way to an interview within their deadline window, the exchange is often monitored by agency PIOs acting as babysitters. Joshua Sokol, a Boston-based science writer, recalls one recent and seemingly straightforward story about the science of a new study. He contacted the NASA scientist involved, who then flushed him through to an agency spokesperson, who in turn delayed the interview to check in with headquarters.
When interview day finally came around, Sokol got a surprise: “Right as I was about to ask if it was okay to record so that I could transcribe quotes later,” Sokol recalls, “the PIO asked [me] the same question.” Sokol asked whether recording interviews with journalists was a new NASA policy. No, the PIO said: It was old, official, previously ignored, and now enforced.
These extra layers of scrutiny and handling inhibit both sides of the interview, Sokol suggests — and make working with NASA more difficult than it needs to be. “Once the scientist agreed to chat, it would have been nice to just … chat,” Sokol wrote in his survey response. “Like I do for other physics and astronomy stories with scientists all over the U.S. and the world, without the fuss.”
Not all reporters encounter difficulties. Alexandra Witze, a freelancer who writes largely for Nature, says she typically gets interviews within 72 hours, and that her sources don’t always bring communications staff into the conversation. PIOs rarely (but occasionally) give her crickets, she says. What’s her secret? Witze suggests treating PIOs like sources, instead of people who simply connect you to sources. “In terms of NASA PIOS, they vary a lot in quality, as is the case for any federal agency,” she says. “The way to get information out of them is to develop relationships and work them as you would work any source.”
“The way to get information out of them is to develop relationships and work them as you would work any source.”
Even Witze, though, didn’t succeed in demanding NASA’s information via FOIA, and the agency ultimately denied her request — and an appeal — in 2015. She’s not alone. While few government agencies have stellar reputations when it comes to responding to FOIA — EPA granted about half of the requests sent its way in 2016 and the Department of Defense granted about 35 percent — NASA is notoriously unresponsive at just 14 percent. NASA, too, has a habit of scolding requesters that is unusual for a federal agency. In my case, FOIA requests for a copy of a contract between a NASA center and an engineering firm, along with official/annual reports written as part of a contract whose number I also provided, among other documents, have included the admonition that the Freedom of Information Act “was not intended to reduce government agencies to full-time investigators on behalf of requesters or to allow requesters to conduct ‘fishing expeditions’ through agency files.”
Adrienne LaFrance, editor of TheAtlantic.com, has heard that line before. Among other things, she’s requested records from NASA’s Slack conversations, with date parameters. Her FOIA contact, though, said the request was too broad, and that LaFrance needed to include the names of the Slack channels she wanted to search. “The names of the channels aren’t made public, so that effectively closes off public information,” LaFrance says she told her.
Meanwhile, in July, I sent requests with identical wording but different contract numbers to the Air Force, the Army, the Government Services Administration, and NASA. The first three agencies are currently processing the requests. Only NASA asked me to stop with the ‘fishing expeditions.’
To be fair to NASA, all of the reporters I communicated with had positive stories of helpful PIOs, fast responses, and successful interviews. And all of them do productively cover the agency. But why are, say, the Army and the Air Force, which are dedicated to military affairs, often more open than an agency allegedly dedicated to revealing the unknown to humankind?
Perhaps because NASA likes its messages to be positive and apolitical, and because it’s constantly budget-beleaguered and, so, worried. “In many ways, particularly those relating to science initiatives, education, and mission achievements, NASA excels at providing accessible and useful information on its activities,” says Krystal Wilson, a former NASA contractor and current project manager at the space-sustainability think tank Secure World Foundation. “In other ways, especially those related to budget and human space exploration, NASA is more at the mercy of a cyclical political process.”
But, she says, openness should be one of NASA’s most prominent personality traits. “In order to achieve the secure, sustainable, and peaceful uses of outer space benefiting Earth and all its peoples, it’s imperative that NASA, as one of the largest space agencies in the world, be able to communicate transparently and openly about its short and long-term plans.”
With the exception of asking in an email to repeat the name of the publication I’d be writing this essay for (I’d indicated in an earlier voicemail that it was Undark), NASA did not respond to my request for comment.
Sarah Scoles is a contributor to Wired magazine and the author of “Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.”