Why NASA doesn’t have a Chris Hadfield

May 16, 2013

This item has been updated and corrected.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield produced a stunning music video tribute to David Bowie's "Space Oddity" aboard the International Space Station before returning to Earth this week. It's a genuine Internet hit with an awesome backdrop to boot.

Hadfield, 53, combined his social media popularity, the skills of his Web-savvy son, Evan, and the full support of the Canadian Space Agency to shoot and produce a video seen in recent days by more than 7 million people.

I first watched the video Monday morning and a bad feeling set in almost immediately: The modern-day ways of Washington — its intense focus on budget cutting and no tolerance for the misbehavior or poor management of career civil servants — mean that a NASA astronaut wouldn't dare try something like this.

Let's game out how things might play out if an American astronaut had shot a music video in space.

The astronaut, with a knack for guitar playing, is preparing to leave the International Space Station and transfer command to another passenger. Inspired by his trip, he reaches out to agency officials back on Earth and pitches them the idea of shooting a musical tribute (that's what Hadfield did). Interested, his colleagues back on terra firma help him produce the film. NASA releases it shortly before his departure, it is seen by millions of viewers and initially earns the space agency plaudits for creativity and for reminding people of America's place in space.

But then a lawmaker — of either party — starts raising questions: Why did this astronaut waste his time shooting amateur video in space? Is this why we send Americans to the ISS? Shouldn't he be focused on more serious scientific experiments? What types of experiments is he conducting anyway — and do they really serve a benefit worthy of taxpayer expense?

Reporters eager to keep the story going pick up the lawmaker's concerns and start asking questions of NASA officials. Over the course of a few days, the story balloons into a bigger controversy and the agency eventually apologizes.

But it doesn't stop there: The lawmaker, enjoying all the attention he's earned for raising questions, calls for hearings or an inspector general investigation. Hearings are held, a report is issued and NASA suffers from an embarrassing distraction, all because an astronaut wanted to pay tribute to his time in space and hopefully inspire others to pursue his line of work.

Don't forget, NASA wakes up the astronauts most mornings by playing them a favorite song. (A group of NASA fans produced a well-watched spoof of the song, "I'm Sexy and I Know It" last summer called, "We're NASA and We Know It" — but it didn't feature agency employees.) Several U.S. military units videotaped themselves lip-synching to Lady Gaga in amateur music videos shot on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, while a soldier earned plaudits for posting video shot from his helmet cam that recorded him coming under fire.

But most government employees wouldn't dare try such a thing. On my former beat covering federal agencies, I heard often from career government employees distressed that brash partisanship in Congress and the government's mounting debt were stifling creativity, ambition and any hope of government lawyers, engineers, researchers — and yes, astronauts — remaining ahead of the curve or on the cutting edge. They also lamented that attempts to have a little fun promoting their work could be seen as going too far by bosses nervous of angry congressional reaction.

Could an American astronaut do what Hadfield did? Surely. But do you think they'd dare try? Considering how things are in Washington right now, probably not.

Follow Ed O'Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Editor's note: An earlier version of this item incorrectly reported that a NASA-themed spoof video starred agency employees. It instead starred fans of the agency's mission.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Politics
Next Story
Sean Sullivan · May 16, 2013