Wednesday, July 13, 2005

PR for the Shuttle Launch - It Is Rocket Science!

From CHEN PR account director Becky Ayers, who resides in Florida...

This week, more than 2,200 reporters from around the world are expected at Kennedy Space Center to cover the launch/landing of the shuttle on its 114th mission -- and obviously the first return to flight since the tragic loss of Columbia in 1993. I'm part of a small group of Florida Public Relations Association members invited to volunteer in the NASA Press Site and assist with reporter processing for Wednesday's launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery.

Around the clock, official personnel from NASA and affiliate organizations plus a few volunteers, take inbound calls with questions and interview requests. We're regularly updated on the status of the launch activities and schedule of events, and relay this along in real time. NASA has experienced several technical challenges in the last few days, which delayed certain activities but didn't stop the countdown. As you'd expect, the STS-114 Press Kit, press releases and supplemental material are quite comprehensive and chock full of important things to know (but secretly, I'm glad I wasn't volunteered to collate those - yikes!).

On the overnight shifts, we're joined in the Press Site by a very unassuming Hugh Harris. For those of you who may recall the name, Hugh has been in the program for more than 40 years and was the "voice of NASA" leading the countdown on more than 100 launches. Though he retired as the Director of the Public Affairs Office in 1998, he still volunteers for the launches and is a joy to work with.

I also boarded a bus for media/photographers that took us to the end of the crawler path. We battled the heat and relentless mosquitos for several hours, until they started retracting the Rotating Service Structure (RSS) from around the Shuttle. When STS-114 was finally unveiled, it was absolutely breathtaking in the ready position!

The phones at the Press Office rang off the hook on launch day with questions and inquiries from news outlets around the world. Rather than hold press briefings, everyone is continually updated on the status of the launch and crew activities via updates on NASA TV (major press have access to this too), which is also broadcast on loudspeakers throughout the complex. In addition to staffing the phones, press office staff/volunteers are also called upon to accompany outdoor media interviews with various NASA personnel and former astronauts.

Since the time I wrote this, the launch of STS-114 was scrubbed. Notwithstanding, this week will certainly be one of the most memorable in my PR career. As the launch director halted the countdown, the press office immediately sprung into action by quieting the hundreds of press huddled in corners and hallways to deliver the news in a single statement -- and then brace for the onslaught of questions and phone calls. My heart goes out to every press officer, manager, engineer, astronaut and employee in the space program, as well as the sleep-deprived reporters and photographers, knowing that many will have a long night ahead of them...

And, knowing they'll all reconvene in a few days to make history by sending the Space Shuttle Discovery and her crew safely into orbit once again.

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