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Langley's Mars Team Preps to Meet the Press
By: Denise Lineberry

As seven of the NASA Langley's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) team entered the newsroom of the Pearl Young Theatre, lenses and microphones turned in their direction.

Media training.
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Alicia Cianciolo, who works in flight mechanics for Langley's Mars Entry Descent and Landing (EDL) team, encounters an "ambush" interview during a media training class. Credit: NASA/Denise Lineberry

Some participants, such as Neal Cheatwood, Langley's principal investigator for the Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent, and Landing Instrument (MEDLI), were somewhat seasoned for the "ambush interviews" that kick-started a day of media training. Cheatwood, who came to Langley in 1984 as a graduate student, has been interviewed on the Discovery Channel and other media outlets.

Juan Cruz of the aerodynamics team hasn't owned a television since 1984, but he's still familiar with being in the spotlight from his work at Langley. When told that he's been spotted on television he responded: "On television? Really? I haven't seen it."

Dick Powell of the MSL team knows that, when on camera, topics can change quickly. When interviewing Powell about NASA's Mars Exploration Rover (MER), a reporter decided to ask about the possibility of aliens being at Area 51, a military base in New Mexico.

With the exception of one team member, all had been asked on-camera questions at some point during their Langley careers.

"The whole point of today is about making you feel comfortable," said Leonard Greenberger of Potomac Communications Group. "We want you to be prepared to answer questions so that when you go out into the real world, you will be ready."

With the Mars MSL launch just a month away, and in anticipation of even more attention when the spacecraft approaches the planet, Greenberger and Laura Hermann of Potomac prepped the team over two days. Hermann, who works mostly with the science community, recently trained a group from the Idaho Science Laboratory who will also be at the MSL launch.

Together, they have instructed thousands in media communications techniques. And they have found themselves invested into their clients' work.

Media training.
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Laura Hermann, a media training instructor from the Potomac Communications Group, talks to a portion of Langley's Mars Entry Descent and Landing (EDL) team about forming key messages for media. Credit: NASA/Denise Lineberry

"Suddenly, the MSL means more to me than I thought it would," Greenberger said. "I look forward to seeing the launch on television."

And, possibly, some of the team he helped to train.

On this day, the team was asked to avoid the technical terms they are so used to using with one another. Not a simple task, considering it's been a big part of their conversation for the past 10 to 12 years.

It was about changing their language to connect with the audience. It was also about changing their thoughts – as engineers they have zoned in on what could go wrong. But in the media world, they want to relay what will go right.

"What's the worst thing that could happen?"

"Why is the project over budget?"

"What could go wrong?"

Tough questions were asked. And then the interviews were watched on a newsroom screen. Team members found humor in their responses while learning how to make the questions work in their favor. After four more rounds of interviews, interrupted by critiques and messaging techniques, the team was put through the media ringer.

"The purpose of this training is to make this as real as possible," Greenburger said.

The situations the 13 employees faced during training were real. They learned that because of their Langley roles, they are uniquely qualified -- that their words would "speak loudly" to an audience which trusts them as experts in their field.

Participants learned that they would be competing for attention in a host of media that has evolved over the past 40 years from black and white to color television, from Presidents in the White House to the person on the street, from a production crew to eye witness footage. Media has become a 'round the clock, full-access show.

They watched a NASA press conference and a ABC interview that featured a NASA Langley employee. The "dos" and "don'ts" were pointed out before them in a familiar way.

They also watched an interview with Bill Nye, "the Science Guy," who talked about NASA's Curiosity launch.

"Who is Bill Nye the Science Guy?" Cruz asked.

"You need a TV," a team member replied.

According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., 99 percent of households possess at least one television. And so Langley's Mars MSL team needs to be prepared.