The Potential Power of NASA Mission Trailers

How humanizing and diversifying NASA’s storytelling can help get people excited about space again

This Independence Day, we’re not being invaded by aliens — Jupiter is.

NASA’s Juno probe will travel closer to our largest neighboring planet than any prior spacecraft, and in doing so take a ton of sweet photos and sound recordings and measurements and stuff. Apparently this mission is pretty gnarly. Jupiter has a ton of dangerous radiation, and they don’t really know what’ll happen to Juno.

To get us all hyped, they made a cinematic mission trailer. Check it out:

This is cool for two reasons:

  • It’s got respectable production quality.
  • It briefly (though too vaguely) explains why we’re doing it.
  • It rekindles interest in the mission after the long gap of time since Juno launched from Earth.
  • It drums up intrigue by pointing out how dangerous Jupiter is to Juno, and how uncertain the outcome is.
  • Because I love space. Space is awesome. Space exploration is a unifying, challenging, exciting thing for humanity. Spacey space space.

Ok, so that’s not two reasons, but you see my point: The idea of a “mission trailer” is good. It’s gotten people’s attention. And they’ve come a long way: here’s an older mission trailer. Big quality difference.

But this trailer is only interesting to space nerds, like me. Nerds with a high tolerance for exaggerated animations and moderately-okay dramatic narration.

“Mission poster” for Space Station Delivery Mission ULF6, riffing off of the Star Trek (2009) movie poster

NASA needs to add a genuine human element to their mission trailers, and make them as narrative as possible.

One great role model? Guardians of the Galaxy:

That trailer was a hit for a number of reasons, all unrelated to space travel:

  • It had classic, fun music (some of which came out during NASA’s heyday).
  • Instead of one hero, it showed us an ensemble of heroes (like NASA scientists).
  • It used character dialogue to introduce the plot naturally (think about Harry Potter’s friends explaining magic to him, or George Clooney explaining a casino heist plan to his accomplices).
  • It’s lighthearted (which was refreshing after so many dramatic comic book movies).

Another, more direct role model: The Martian. An optimistic, scientifically realistic space movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

These are totally doable by a contracted video production team, if not NASA’s own media teams. They can humanize and explain concepts that are (in the truest spatial sense) foreign to everyday people, and get them emotionally involved. With all that in mind…

4 steps to a top-notch NASA mission trailer:

  1. Hire a writer. And a movie trailer editor (yes, that’s now its own profession). Or at least the writer. Someone who’s good at comedic timing.
  2. Be purposeful with your visual effects. They should be either completely photorealistic or low-fidelity simulations that the cast themselves interact with. Nothing in between.
  3. Cast and shoot appropriately. Get real NASA scientists and staff to deliver summarized or dramatized inter-character dialogue about their own work, in blocked and lit scenes, that lets the audience understand the mission’s purpose, risks, complications, or stakes as they matter to the human characters.
  4. License exciting, appropriate pop music. Can’t you just call up the Library of Congress or something?

But this is just the start.

Not all NASA missions have the same feel. Some are more serious, some are smaller, some are closer to home. There are at least a dozen modern movie trailer styles and film genres to make use of.

NASA already has stellar social media teams that can pick up the conversation when the trailer ends. These trailers are one way to get people excited to begin with.

Space exploration isn’t just a fun thing for science fans.

It’s got major societal benefits, ranging all the way from the dream of colonizing another planet, to military and medical research, to everyday conveniences like GPS. It also has some of the greatest potential to unite humanity, help stop our bickering, and get us all on the same team.

If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got an Independence Day swim and 10 PM (central time) Jupiter invasion to prepare for.