The power of the spoken word

Last Friday, Miles was Master of Ceremonies at the RNASA Foundation's 31st annual National Space Trophy Banquet, a mainstay of the aerospace community. This year, the Space Communicator Award was bestowed upon Rob Navias, who "covered every shuttle mission from the maiden launch of Columbia in April 1981 to Atlantis’ final voyage in July 2011, either as a member of the news media or as a NASA employee." Previous winners include Miles, Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and others. Rob was kind enough to share his wonderful acceptance speech with us, and it is reproduced in full below.

Members of the RNASA Foundation, the Rotary Club, distinguished guests, colleagues and friends.

56 years ago, a kid growing up in the Bronx in New York went shopping with his father to a Radio Shack store. That kid received a gift of a small Toshiba transistor radio, no bigger than the holster that holds your smartphone today.

That kid was me, a month after John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as President. Three months later, on the night of April 12, 1961, my dad, my mother and I sat around the kitchen table in our small apartment in the Bronx, listening to that radio over dinner, as the legendary Lowell Thomas announced on the CBS Radio Network Evening News that Yuri Gagarin had launched as the first human in space. Even at the age of 12, I recognized the power and the impact of that moment... partly through my instincts and love for current events. Primarily, through the wonder of radio. Through the wonder of the spoken word.

Three weeks later, I took that transistor radio to class at P.S. 86 in the Bronx on a Friday morning, and sat in the back of the room with a little earpiece to listen to CBS Radio’s coverage of Alan Shepard’s ride aboard “Freedom 7” to become the first American to fly in space. It was only a month into a baseball season like no other in which Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle began their pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record. Maris and Mantle. That was nirvana for a sports nut like myself. But the derring-do of Gagarin and Shepard--that was something else. I was hooked on space as if it was some exotic narcotic. 

I was jealous that I had to wait for Walter Cronkite to report the news every night, and that he knew what was happening in the world before I did. That was the exotic narcotic of news, journalism and broadcasting that lured me into a career that I could have never imagined to be possible.

Covering the Patty Hearst kidnapping... the People’s Temple mass suicides, the San Francisco City Hall assassinations, four presidential campaigns, Super Bowls, the Summer Olympics in 1984, natural disasters... and space. Those were the punctuation marks of my career in broadcasting. And, to ultimately be involved in coverage of the space program for NASA? From the Bronx to Baikonur... from KSC to Kazakhstan. Well, sometimes it is better to be lucky than it is to be good. 

Incredibly, my career has spanned the heights of human triumph, and the depths of human failure. The cheers and the tears of human endeavor. The sublime symmetry of history. But, whether triumph or tragedy, it all came down to communicating the news. Relaying the information to the media and to the public, in very clear, unambiguous words. 

Coming from a wire service radio network background initially, you learned very quickly that you, no one else but you, were the singular authority for the dissemination of information. You had to be correct. ALL the time. You had to report the facts, and let the public decide for itself how to interpret that information. You could never, ever be wrong. NEVER.

Even today, almost a half century after I began my career at a small radio station in Bridgeport, Connecticut, that fundamental responsibility to report accurately--every single time--follows me as my Bible of broadcasting.

In an era where communications has become impersonal, the art of broadcasting and the tablets of journalism are threatened like never before. Reading a book is passé. The skills required to hold a conversation with another person are becoming extinct. Writing is fast becoming a lost art.

Space Communicator Award Trophy. RNASA

Space Communicator Award Trophy. RNASA

Yet, we have so many more adventures to tell in humankind’s endless journey to the stars. Today, no more and no less than the solemn responsibility I had more than half century ago to tell other stories of conquest, triumph and tragedy, we are still the stewards of the same responsibility to ensure that we communicate clearly and unambiguously, armed with an arsenal of information with which to provide context and meaning to a whole new world-wide audience out there, who, by the way, has the same thirst for the passion of space exploration as I did so many decades ago. 

When Atlantis landed at the Kennedy Space Center almost six years ago to close out the iconic Space Shuttle Program, I was privileged to have had the honor to report to the world that the space shuttle had ”fired the imagination of a generation.” 

Dear friends and colleagues. It is time to light that fire again... through words that matter. 

Through clear, unambiguous communications, we can not only light that fire, but stoke it into a wildfire of wonderment. John F. Kennedy told us in his inaugural speech in 1961 that “the torch has been passed to a new generation.” Well, it is time to use that torch to re-ignite that fire for yet another new generation, as we punch through the veil of low Earth orbit. And, in doing so, we will tell the world of our new journey to the stars.

But, we must do so--with words that matter--clearly and unambiguously. That is the touchstone of my career. The touchstone of so many journalists who preceded me, and who laid the groundwork for our ability to use the First Amendment to inform and educate the world.

For all of the miles I have traveled in the pursuit of reporting, there are many, many more miles to go. 

Never forget that the power of the spoken word that moved me so much on that night of April 12, 1961, remains the lifeblood, the epicenter of communications, which is so very, very crucial in all of our lives. It moved me, and can move all of us in the days and the decades to come, to venture forth and explore new worlds that we once only read about in the history books. Now we can write new history books, and once again... pass the torch. 

Thank you again for this incredible honor. I will always cherish it. Thank you.


Rob Navias is the Johnson Space Center Public Affairs Office (PAO) Mission Commentator and lead for the Program and Television Operations. Colonel Chris Hadfield, former Canadian Space Agency Astronaut, who nominated Navias said, "Rob IS the voice of NASA - authoritative, prepared, distinctive, calm and stylish. He has brought space flight to the world for over 25 years." In addition to coverage of the space shuttle, Navias has been the lead for Public Affairs operations involving Russian launch and landing operations of U.S. astronauts and international partner crewmembers for the past two decades. Credit: RNASA.