Sunday, 6 June 2010

Thoughts from the former colonies

I'm sitting in my hotel room on the campus of Gallaudet University in Washington DC waiting to head off on my trip to Abilene, Kansas, and the Eisenhower Presidential Library. I've been here since Wednesday night and it has been a very busy few days - built around two days in the NASA HQ Historical Referenced Collection. I had a flying visit to the Collection back in 2006 - but it was literally a couple of hours. This time round, I was at NASA HQ all day Thursday and for most of Friday too. Many many thanks to Jane Odom for making me so welcome (and taking me out of the bowels of the building!) in what was clearly a very trying week for her, and to Liz Suckow for her great patience and understanding in keeping me stocked with research boxes and escorting me around the labyrinthine corridors of the NASA underground world.

I never thought I'd get back-ache from research, but hunching over and photographing documents all day has done nothing for my already rubbish posture. However, the volume of material I've collected on this trip means that digital images are essential - I couldn't afford the extra baggage charges for many hundreds of pages of photocopying.

So, what have I gleaned from my tow days with my nose stuck in papers from '57-60? Well, first, that I spent too much time reading the material and not enough copying it for later analysis....well at least at first!

While the Sputnik 1 media coverage and IGY papers reflected much I'd already seen, several interesting seams of information opened up.

For one thing, it was interesting to trace the challenges NASA's Head of Public information Walt Bonney faced as NACA became NASA and the interest in space exploded. Papers show he was understaffed - especially when it came to press officers - and thus NASA's attempt at image making was largely ineffective. The media managers were reactive - responding to hundreds of calls and an average of 45 in person requests every day - and were a team of around half a dozen; the field officers had a tendency to go native - either favouring their chosen beat reporters and correspondents or working to the agendas of local management rather than NASA HQ. As Scheer took over the wider Public Affairs mandate, his memos became increasingly waspish as he sought to put NASA image management on the front foot. I'm not sure he was entirely successful.

In terms of the influence on Presidential decision making, it's fascinating to see the moves and jostling among Presidential advisors - and to see how quickly opinion changed as events over-ran the most solid of predictions from the 'experts'. Frnma Defense-mentality of no information on launches for instance to all kinds of agenda-fuelled lobbying, it's clear to see the President had more opinion than he could reasonably deal with in heading off the post-Sputnik outcry and putting America's efforts in space on a firm footing. Kennedy may get the credit, but he does largely seem to have stolen ike's clothes on this.

The next few days at Abilene will be pivotal in fixing my views on Eisenhower and his process of policy making - especially how the media influenced it, if at all (I still believe it did).

Finally a point on Gallaudet. For four days, I've felt totally a minority here. All the staff sign and many of the people I've met on the campus, from the breakfast waiting staff to people on the shuttle bus have little or no hearing. The common language of campus is ASL - and everybody here, hearing impaired or not, signs elegantly and eloquently. I don't. I have one word: 'thankyou' which I've used a lot. This is an impressive educational facility and has had a strong effect in shaking me out of my communication complacency over the past few days. I think that's a pretty good thing.

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