PR Push: The Role of Communication and Publicity in a Future Human Mars Mission.

Jennifer Laing

Jennifer Laing, School of Business, La Trobe University, Bundoora

--- Abstract - Profile ---


Planning for future human Mars missions will require research on Earth in analogue settings, conducted in the same style and under many of the same constraints as they would on the Red Planet. According to Robert Zubrin, President of the Mars Society, 'By doing so, we will start the process of learning how to explore on Mars.' Mars analogues can be defined as locations on Earth where some environmental conditions, geological features, biological attributes or combinations thereof approximate those thought to be encountered on Mars, either at present or earlier in that planet's history. Mars analogue research carried out by organizations such as the Mars Society and the Mars Institute currently involves a range of disciplines such as biology, engineering, geology and human factors/psychology. One aspect of a future Mars mission, which requires more in-depth study than has occurred to date, is public relations (PR) or communications.

Mars: The PR Perspective

The first human beings to set foot on Mars are likely to be exposed to intense public scrutiny and interest, before, during and post-flight. Gregory Benford’s novel The Martian Race (1999) depicts a PR focused private mission to Mars, where astronauts are required to be observed by video cameras for much of the time and deliver regular broadcasts or ‘squirts’ about their work and impressions of this strange new environment. The crew is less than enthusiastic about this requirement of their contract and had to become used to being 'media icons (pg. 186) … [as] they realized that they were now immersed in what was, for everyone on Earth, an ongoing serial story.” (Benford, 1999, pg. 185).

Much of this PR ‘frenzy’ in The Martian Race resulted from the commercial investors’ need to recoup their funding of the historical mission. Benford (1999, pg. 186) writes, 'The analogy that seemed to frame it all was Antarctica. Scott, Amundsen, and Shackleton had made their classic races across frozen wastes, high drama in a place distant, hostile and worthless. Mars was a comparable canvas for the twenty-first century.

'For Shackleton, self-promotion had been essential all the way. He had paid his expenses with media tie-ins, one way or another: auctioning off news and picture rights before he left, taking special postage stamps along to be franked at the south pole. After he made it, his bestseller had nine translations. He spruced up his expeditionship into a museum and charged admission. With a lecture tour and a phonograph record, a first film of the Antarctic and countless newspaper interviews, he made his way into history – and prosperity. Even when he could not reach the pole, he returned to Europe with a sound bite: Death lay ahead and food behind, so I had to return.

'By the time they actually reached Mars, the world had gotten used to this modern manifestation of the same phenomenon.'

The first humans on Mars may be part of an international government-funded space program, rather than a private expedition, but PR will be equally important to justify the expenditure of tax dollars on such an enterprise. In Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s science-fiction novel The Sands of Mars (1951), a novelist Gibson is sent to Mars to record the voyage and tells the astronauts (pg. 89), 'You’ve got to realize that from the point of view of Earth, Mars is a long way away, costs a lot of money, and doesn’t offer anything in return. The first glamour of interplanetary exploration has worn off. Now people are asking, 'What do we get out of it?” So far the answer’s been, 'Very little.” I’m convinced that your work is important, but in my case it’s an act of faith rather than a matter of logic. The average man back on Earth probably thinks the millions you’re spending here could be better used improving his own planet – when he thinks of it at all, that is.”

The popularity of ‘fly on the wall’ reality TV shows such as Big Brother and Survivor, with individuals constantly monitored by cameras and their moods and conversations open to public scrutiny, and the increasing use of Webcams and the Internet to watch people’s every move, is likely to lead to the expectation that a Mars mission will be broadcast back to Earth in much the same intense way. Astronauts will need to get used to this lack of privacy and the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for watching people doing the most mundane things, let alone work of scientific and historical importance. People living in the Big Brother house are televised in the shower, and while undertaking common household tasks like cooking and cleaning. The first humans on Mars might be under pressure to be similarly filmed for public consumption, even when relaxing or involved in domestic or routine chores.

The closest analogy we have to a Mars mission at present is the intense public frenzy leading up to Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the surface of the Moon. However, the cult of the ‘Right Stuff’ started even before that, when the first astronaut corps was chosen by NASA in 1959.

Project Mercury and the Right Stuff Myth

When the first crop of seven astronauts were selected for Project Mercury, their first meeting with each other was at a press conference at NASA headquarters. This group was to live much of their lives in the early 1960’s, both personal and professional, in the full glare of the spotlight, with reporters eager to find out every detail about a group of men who had survived a dizzying battery of tests, designed to weed out those who were not at the very peak of physical fitness and mental health. One of the selectors, at the opening of the first press conference introducing the future astronauts to the world, said baldly, 'I am quite sure that no finer group of men could have been selected by the tests that are available to us today,” (NASA, 1959).

Public interest hit such a peak that even before any of these men left Earth, LIFE magazine covered their lives, both at home and at work, in a series of articles that contributed to the mythical element of being a space traveller. The astronauts, Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom, Gordon Cooper, Donald ‘Deke’ Slayton, Wally Schirra and Scott Carpenter, had signed a contract with the magazine for a fee of $500,000 spread out over four years, in exchange for exclusive rights to their personal stories and coverage of family lives. According to Deke Slayton, one of the Mercury Seven,

'Shorty Powers, our public relations officer, warned us we could expect to have a lot of people bugging us for our personal stories. That was one of our first clues that this was going to be something different from just being a test pilot. We were as green as grass and didn’t know what he was talking about. He said it was recommended – and we later learned it wasn’t just top NASA management, but President Eisenhower himself – that we band together as a group and accept one of the proposals that had already been made” (Slayton, 1994, pg. 74).

They were part of a pantheon of gods – the Astronauts as LIFE magazine called them – and the myth of the ‘Right Stuff,’ explored in Tom Wolfe’s novel of the same name (Wolfe, 1979), has clung to the astronaut ever since, contributing to the public’s view of them as a band of the elite.

'Helmsmen were needed for the great adventure, and the fighter pilot astronaut emerged as the figure most worthy of carrying America's banner to the stars” (Warren-Findley, 1998).

The Mercury Seven found the hyperbole of the press, in particular LIFE magazine, a little difficult to deal with. 'To be fair, calling the seven of us the best test pilots in the world was stretching things. LIFE magazine had been presenting us like we were God’s gift, whether we wanted it or not,” (Slayton, 1994, pgs. 81-82).

PR, or more precisely the scale of the media interest, was already becoming one of the hardest things for the new astronaut corps to deal with. Said Deke Slayton, 'Our biggest problem, in fact, wasn’t with each other, it was with the press. We were all in one office there at Langley, just one big room on the second floor, with desks for the seven of us and our secretary … Every time you’d try to get something done, somebody would be in there with a reporter. It was real aggravating. (The first thing I did when I took over the astronaut office was limit press access to one day a week. Every Friday you had to be ready to be interviewed. The other days you were free.)” (Slayton, 1994, pg. 80).

This level of interest was however surpassed by the event which made the world stop for a brief moment and unite in a common bond of awe and excitement – the first flight to the surface of the moon by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in the lunar module ‘Eagle’ in July 1969.

The Apollo Era

Millions of people world-wide clustered around TV sets to watch fuzzy black and white footage of Neil Armstrong on the Moon or tuned into radios to hear the words, 'That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Buzz Aldrin joined Armstrong on the Moon with the words,” Magnificent desolation,” and the pair later had a live interview with President Nixon, who called it 'the greatest week in history since the Creation.”

Armstrong was chosen as the first person to walk on the Moon with scant regard for the PR ramifications. The official reasons given were that he had seniority over Aldrin, having entered the program a year earlier, and the way the hatch was configured made it easier for the man on the left (in this case the commander) to get out first (Slayton, 1994). Even the Apollo 11 crew itself was chosen purely on the basis of the way the rotation of crews worked out. If there had been problems with the Apollo 9 or 10 missions, it might have been the Apollo 12 or 13 crews that made the first landing, rather than Apollo 11. The only stipulation NASA headquarters had made was that, if possible, one of the Mercury astronauts would have first chance to be the first man to walk on the moon. This did not eventuate with the death of Gus Grissom in the Apollo 1 fire, the most likely candidate.

Actor Tom Hanks, who played Jim Lovell in the movie Apollo 13 recalls the excitement of the era, even prior to the moon landings (; 2000) 'By the time Hanks was in grade school in northern California, the two-man missions of Project Gemini were in full swing. "If it was happening during the school day," Hanks remembers, "we'd go over to the auditorium to see the launch …which was being covered on all three channels."

The focus on achieving the moon landing by the end of the decade, based on President Kennedy’s clarion call in 1961, meant that the public viewed sending the first man to the Moon as the logical conclusion, rather than the starting point for the U.S. manned space program. Once the Apollo 11 crew returned from their history-making lunar flight, public interest noticeably waned. By the flight of Apollo 13, broadcast networks no longer automatically showed mission footage on primetime television, until the Apollo 13 crew’s lives were put in jeopardy and public attention was caught by the drama.

Once the Apollo 13 crew were returned safely to Earth, public opinion began to swing behind ending the program. After all, why risk lives when man had already walked on the Moon? This squared with NASA administrator Robert Gilruth’s view, to the consternation of some of his own team (Shepherd & Slayton, 1994, pg. 279). NASA had failed to use the media frenzy of a few years back to educate the public as to the scientific and historical importance of their endeavours, rather than simply the race to be first, and this error, based on political considerations, cost them dearly. Where public opinion went, political opinion wasn’t far behind – even one step ahead in some cases. Congress slashed the NASA budget to its lowest level in ten years, and the last three Apollo flights, 18, 19 and 20, were scrubbed. Gene Cernan became the last man to walk on the moon in December 1972, and Project Apollo was then to all intents and purposes over.

PR in the Modern Era – Looking Ahead to Mars

From the Apollo-Soyuz docking in 1975 until the first Shuttle flight in 1981, the U.S presence in space ground to a halt. Other imperatives took the place of the manned space program, which is still suffering from a lack of political support. Astronauts have taken a lower profile and most enjoy relative anonymity in the modern era. Sadly, much of the press coverage is directed at tragedies such as the 1985 Challenger explosion and the 2002 loss of the Shuttle Columbia, with the crews entering the spotlight only after their tragic deaths. Astronauts make public appearances at schools, community associations and businesses (NASA, 2003), and studying media relations is a part of their overall training program (NASDA, 2003).

According to Shuttle astronaut Jerry Linenger, who spent time on the Mir Space Station (Linenger, 2000, pg. 17) his astronaut career started without the intense pressure experienced by his predecessors. 'Unlike the 'Original Seven,” we arrived at the space center without fanfare. Although there was a press conference, we were by no means mobbed by a gaggle of LIFE magazine photographers.”

Public interest in the space program, which largely centres around flights and increments on the International Space Station (ISS), has shifted to space tourism, with civilian Dennis Tito hitting the headlines in April 2001 for his flight to the ISS, followed a year later by Mark Shuttleworth.

Shuttle astronaut Charles Walker (Walker, 2003) was asked, 'What can NASA do better in terms of Public Relations? After reading your thoughts on space exploration, it seems to me that the space agency isn't doing a good enough job telling people what it does correctly and how valuable space exploration/colonization is to humans. ' His response is as follows:

'NASA Public Affairs needs to loosen up, and be creative. They need to let, and train, astronauts and officials to communicate in common language to the American public, and in places where the public gathers. NASA should be at football and basketball games, and on television (did you see the STS-73 Shuttle crew on Tim Allen's Home Improvement show in February?). This situation has improved over the past several years, but it can get lots better.”

Careful planning of PR strategies needs to start now in the context of Mars mission planning, so that crews can use the opportunity to educate the public about what they are doing and why it is important. Astronauts will also need to come to terms with a renewed and intense public interest and selection criteria for crews should include an element for PR skills and aptitude. Training on the role of PR should familiarise astronauts with the feeling of being filmed around the clock and in all situations. PR, rather than being seen as a necessary evil, or an interruption to the ‘real work’ should be viewed as an opportunity to swing public support behind these endeavours and inspire careers in science and technology. Some of this work has begun in the analogue research carried out by organisations such as Mars Society Australia.

The PR Role of Mars Society Australia

Mars Society Australia (MSA) is an incorporated non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting the exploration and eventual human settlement of the planet Mars. MSA is affiliated with The Mars Society, established in 1997 and based in Colorado, USA, and members are drawn from all walks of life - science, engineering, astronomy, astronautics, academia and the general public. MSA’s goals include public outreach programs to promote Mars science and exploration and support for Mars exploration programs, both publicly and privately funded.

MSA’s activities, such as its organisation of the 2002 lecture tour of Australia by Apollo 17 astronaut Dr. Harrison Schmitt, annual conferences and expeditions, attract significant media and public interest throughout Australia. One of its projects is to build a human Mars mission simulation platform in the Outback, similar to the bases the Mars Society has constructed at Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic (Flashline Arctic Mars Research Station) and the southwestern Utah desert (The Mars Desert Research Station). This Australian base (MARS-OZ) will be used for Mars analogue research, and would be an ideal location for studies into the role of PR on a future human Mars mission.

Arctic Mars Research Station (FMARS) on the remote Canadian Arctic Devon Island

Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in desolate Southern Utah

Jarntimarra-1 Expedition

One of the higher-profile activities of MSA in recent times was the Jarntimarra-1 Expedition in October/November 2001, to scout for a possible location for an Australian Mars Analogue Research Station (MARS-OZ). Scientists taking part in the two-week expedition included Dr. Carol Stoker and Dr. Larry Lemke from the NASA AMES Research Center, as well as leading Australian scientists and engineers.

Media coverage involved national radio, TV and newspapers such as the Australian, The Age, and the Sydney Morning Herald and magazines such as the Qantas in-flight magazine The Australian Way, Australian Geographic, and Australasian Science. International coverage included BBC Radio, Wired Online, and the South China Morning Post. Channel Nine’s Today Show produced a 15 minute segment about the expedition, filmed on location near Alice Springs. For many of the crew, this was their first exposure to the media and anecdotal evidence showed a range of reactions to these PR tasks, ranging from excitement that the activities of MSA were being showcased to the public, to mild annoyance and irritation that ‘real science’ was being interrupted.

MSA eventually selected a site near Arkaroola in the northern Flinders Ranges of South Australia as the location for an Australian MARS Analogue Research Station (MARS-OZ). The Arkaroola region offers a wide range of terrain types, has a complex geology, is relatively easy to access logistically, has outreach opportunities, and includes a number of localities previously studied as Mars analogues. Research to be carried out at MARS-OZ is envisaged to focus on, but will not be confined to, four main areas - engineering, science, environmental systems, data management, and human factors.

Scenes from the Jarntimarra Expedition: From the Red Centre to the Red Planet

Expedition One

MSA experience in the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah during Expedition One in early 2003 also attracted strong media coverage and the crew showed a similar response overall to the role of PR in their work, although no formal studies were undertaken to document views and comments. The crew hailed from Canada, the United States, Australia and France, with six Australians, all members of Mars Society Australia (MSA), taking on a diverse series of roles on the mission, which ran from 15 February to 16 March 2003. The cosmopolitan background of the crew was a deliberate strategy, to reflect the likely composition of a future human crew to Mars. Photographic and videography duties were shared by a number of individuals, with one person, MSA’s PR Director, taking responsibility for drafting a press kit and liaison with international and local media.

Media coverage included newspaper interviews with the Canberra Times, Melbourne Herald-Sun, and Sydney Morning Herald in Australia and L’Est Republicain and Le Journal de Haute-Marne in France. A French TV crew filmed for two days of the expedition for a French science show ‘E=M6’ and footage shot by the crew was used by the Canadian Space News on cable TV. An interview with one of the crew prior to departure to Utah was shown on Channel 9’s Today Show in Australia, and features on Expedition One were published in magazines such as Australian Geographic and Australasian Science.

A complete list of the Expedition One crew, as well as background information on the venture, can be found in the official press kit on the Web:

The Expedition was broken down into week-long phases, each building on the one before it in a systematic and integrated way. Phase One focused on the hardware, technology and processes for excursions in the field on Mars (known as extra-vehicular activities or EVAs), while Phase Two concentrated on the science side of EVAs. Both these early Phases tested strategies behind scouting for suitable sites for scientific research on Mars. Phase Three involved scientific surveys of the scouted sites, while Phase Four was an integrated mission scenario, with the crew wearing analogue spacesuits outside the Hab and simulating elements of an actual Mars mission. During the month, the crew conducted studies ranging from gathering and analysing biological samples to testing new spacesuit technology and comparing the functionality and features of various analogue ‘rover’ vehicles. One of the human factors goals behind Expedition One was to see how the different cultural backgrounds and age-groups worked together in a confined and isolated location. A range of measures, informal observations, crew discussions and other means were used to collect information about crew psychological issues.

Analogue research being filmed during Expedition One, Utah

Crew reaction to PR duties was generally grudgingly accepting of the need for media coverage, but still displayed a tendency to see it as taking away time and effort from the real reason people were there – to carry out scientific studies and conduct analogue research. A live Web-chat with a science museum in San Diego attracted few of the crew to take part, showing limited interest in this simple form of public outreach, while the presence of the French TV crew in situ had some individuals worried about how this would affect the fidelity of the simulation exercise. A Web-cam was set up to document people’s interactions for human factors research purposes, but this technology was not used to show outsiders what it might be like to live and work on a Martian base. Further research is needed to document these reactions by crews to the PR angle of their work and understand how PR can be integrated into activities and tasks, as well as pre-training, so that there is a better comprehension as to why it is needed and greater interest and confidence shown in handling questions and interviews.

Scales and tests have been developed by NASA as part of the selection of astronauts and were administered to the Expedition One crew as part of psychological research. Thought should be given to including a PR component to this selection process, as the first crews on Mars will need to be able to explain their lives and activities in ways that will bring them to life for the general public. It will be an important part of their role as an astronaut, and those who are unable or unwilling to communicate with people back on Earth will fail to make the most of the opportunity to make space travel an exciting experience for people of all ages, especially the young. Australian-born astronaut Dr. Andy Thomas is clear about the role of vision in society and the importance of encouraging the next generation to take an active interest in space exploration and research programs (Laing, 2000). "This provides them with a sense of hope – something to look forward to – and helps to define the future of our society. If we don't do this, we risk a producing a society which is bland, rather than inspired and visionary.”

Expedition Two

A second international expedition is planned for Arkaroola in the Australian Outback in July 2004 (Expedition Two). The international team (expected to include scientists and engineers from Australia, Canada, the United States and Europe) will carry out a range of studies including:

  • Field trials and human factors research of the Australian-developed Starchaser Marsupial rover;

  • Evaluation of the latest version of the MarsSkin analogue mechanical counter pressure spacesuit;

  • Field trials of field data loggers and their integration with the MarsSkin suits.

  • Geology, geophysics, and ecology.

  • Human factors research into the dynamics of field parties using crews of different sizes, compositions and structures.

Starchaser Marsupial Rover

MarsSkin analogue spacesuit

The vision for Expedition Two is based round a travelling convoy of self-sufficient vehicles that would visit sites of research interest within a 200 km radius of Arkaroola. Localities would include Sturts Stony Desert, thermal bores of the Birdsville track, Gurra Gurra water hole on the Strezelecki Track, Lake Frome mound springs, Lake Frome itself, and all of the features of the Arkaroola area and northern Flinders Ranges. The vehicles would spend 5 days in the field at a time, either individually or in groups, returning each weekend to Arkaroola for crew changes, briefings/debriefings, and resupply. The sites visited would depend on the research objectives of the expeditioners.

The Expedition is likely to attract considerable media interest, based on the reaction to work carried out on the Jarntimarra Expedition and Expedition One. Several TV stations have indicated that they would like to send along a TV news crew to cover activities, and a number of documentary companies have made contact with the PR Director of MSA about filming opportunities.

There is scope for conducting research during Expedition Two to:

  1. Gauge reactions to PR among the crew, both pre and post Expedition;

  2. Look at the optimal ways to integrate PR into the daily tasks and activities of expeditioners.

  3. Consider the content and scope of training programs to cover PR issues.

  4. Devise a scale or test for PR skills and predisposition to handling PR tasks, for integration into astronaut selection procedures.

This will expand upon and confirm the reliability of anecdotal evidence collected by MSA’s PR Director (the author) during the Jarntimarra Expedition and Expedition One.


PR is likely to be a major component of any future human Mars mission, given its place in history and the need and desire of the public to understand what life on another planet might be like. Research in an analogue setting on Earth is timely and will be critical if we are to take full advantage of this opportunity. Future astronauts will need to comprehend the role of PR in their jobs and be selected and trained to perform these tasks to the best of their abilities, so that the world can participate in the experience, while still being allowed the freedom to carry out research and exploration in this unique setting. Finding a balance between these interests will be one of the major challenges of pre-planning to send humans to the Red Planet this century.



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NASA (1959) ‘Transcript of Press Conference of Mercury Astronaut Team’, NASA History Office, April 9, 1959 -

NASA (2003). Astronaut Public Appearances.­­_Landing.html

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