Buzz of the Week: Striking PR gold on the red planet

It’s easy to spot mistakes and call attention to problems. That is particularly true in these days of hyper-oversight and second-guessing. The unfortunate corollary to that is it’s just as easy to gloss over successes. And that’s why last week’s landing of the Phoenix on Mars was so...delicious.

Let’s not underestimate how difficult and complex these missions are. The 904-pound spacecraft carrying the Phoenix traveled 422 million miles in 296 days. It then made a soft landing on the red planet by using parachutes and thrusters. Over the years, we have been lucky enough to spend time with Steven Squyres, scientific principal investigator for the Mars rover project and an astronomy professor at Cornell University. From him, we have come to appreciate the challenges facing the Phoenix, and we understand that the landing is no small feat.

NASA has also learned how powerful its images from Mars can be. The space agency provided the public with an online view via NASA TV. NASA also broadcast video via Second Life, the virtual world created by Linden Research. Second Life users can view an avatar-sized full-scale model of the Phoenix launch vehicle, the Delta 2 rocket. The video feed included uninterrupted views of space, the Phoenix rover and mission control.

The space agency and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which handled coverage, did not provide a commentary track. Viewers got to listen to all the commands and drama of mission control unfiltered and uninterpreted. NASA also had public relations officials live-blog the process.

NASA headquarters spokesperson Dwayne Brown said the multimedia approach to covering the Phoenix landing gave the public a new perspective on how space missions work. “This is how you get the public excited and have them feel a part of something wonderful,” Brown said.

Unlike the two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, Phoenix stays in one place near Mars’ northern pole and digs up materials to analyze. Scientists have said they believe this location is where Mars might have had water and where Phoenix can make discoveries about whether conditions for life existed on the planet.

We’ll be watching.


#2: Relax. Breathe.
Now that Lurita Doan is gone from the General Services Administration, officials are trying to smooth over some of the tensions that escalated during her tenure as administrator. In particular, said David Bibb, GSA’s acting administrator, GSA’s leaders want to ease relations between the agency and its inspector general, Brian Miller, who had been the target of Doan’s ire.

To accomplish that, Bibb and Miller have informal, relaxed meetings to clear the air, Bibb said. No word on whether Bibb picks up the check for dinner, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea.

#3: Another one gone
Add Bob Suda to the long list of retiring feds. The GSA veteran, who has been acting director of the Transportation Department's Volpe Center since January, plans to retire from federal service Aug. 1. Now, Suda said, it’s “time for me to focus on my personal life.” Well, all right. But the federal government can't stand to lose many more talented professionals, so how about the rest of you stay put for a while?  

#4:Use it or lose it
Word comes that the Defense Department has had temporary authority to conduct A-76 competitions on a best-value basis for four years but has not bothered to use it. Congress granted the authority in the 2004 authorization bill. That authority expires this September. 

Why no takers? The Air Force said it didn't know it was allowed to use the authority. The Office of the Secretary of Defense said no one in the Air Force or any other DOD componen ever asked to use it.
Maybe DOD should outsource the positions that are responsible for intra-agency communication.

#5: IRS reports more taxpayers e-filing
More than 60 percent of taxpayers filed electronically this year, an increase — albeit small — compared with last year’s 58 percent.

The Internal Revenue Service also reported a record number of hits on its Web sites, mostly because of taxpayers checking to see when they can expect their economic stimulus checks. If you bribe them, they will come.


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