Sunday, April 22, 2007

Master Class

Yesterday I saw Charles Elachi, Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratories give what was obviously a well-practiced pitch on behalf of space exploration, which for the robotic missions run by JPL has been remarkably successful during the past few decades. JPL has managed to make effective appeals through digital rhetoric for many years now, first by using images that captured the public imagination by capitalizing on computer imaging technology and later by using computer animation to make technically ambitious missions seem possible. Before the current Mars rovers were even airborne, this animation shaped public expectations, as it did when we saw Spirit and Opportunity, as they were being prepared in the clean room at JPL years earlier.

He presented a classic PowerPoint lecture to the assembled audience, albeit one that included many of the terms that can only be described as "theories" in the online rhetoric legitimated by the Bush Administration: "The Big Bang," "Evolution," and "Global Warming."

In a tip of the had to mash-up culture, Elachi actually showed this Heinecken beer commercial before the animations of actual past and planned Mars missions, which parodies the rovers' virtuoso performance. (I discovered later that there were other parody commercials in this genre.)

I have to say, when it comes to government websites, the Mars Exploration Rover Mission home page is one of the best. It uses images and information graphics effectively, it is updated regularly, and it establishes a collaborative ethos that is appealing to the public. Cal Tech, which operates JPL on NASA's facility, has also created this Cool Cosmos page for classroom use. Unfortunately the main NASA page for kids, The Space Place, contains some pretty idiotic content. Based on its emphasis on website awards, I would bet it's an early government site, which needs updating. The "educational" activities there include irrelevant word matching and descrambling and a cretinous "Emoticonstructor" serving as a place-holder where a better demonstration of "artificial evolution" should be.

Of course the most inspiring image I saw all day was from 1953, which showed women who "were JPL's 'computers,' doing flight path calculations for rockets and compiling experimental data, as well as well as graphing performance data from JPL's wind tunnels." They also did FORTRAN programming and designed the very earliest prototypes of computer animation software. Notice how there is both a woman of color and a pregnant woman among the group. (Click on image to enlarge.) For more on the history of women as programmers at JPL see how "Women Made Early Inroads at JPL." Unfortunately, despite the critical work they did for technically challenging missions, these women received few opportunities for job advancement into the all male echelons of upper management.

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