Sara Blask on Bringing Comms to Space and Back

Mixing Board Member Sara Blask is currently a Senior Manager, Public Relations at Blue Origin where she leads launch communications for the New Shepard and New Glenn rockets, and serves as the day-to-day media lead. Before that, she was the VP of Media Strategy at Outcast and Director of Communications at Premise. She also had interesting gigs in interesting times at The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press and Outside Magazine.

We recorded this Studio Session between Sara and Mixing Board founder Sean Garrett as Sara recently called us from an Airstream on Blue Origin’s launch site in West Texas a few days before their sixth human flight. She talked to us about the importance of outside perspectives, how to look for threads that form great stories, and what it’s like to have a desk at mission control.

SG: It must be pretty weird to have your job. I know the days must be vastly different, but give me just one a day-in-the-life of Sara Blask.

SB: No two days are the same. My core responsibilities are focused on launch comms for New Shepard, our suborbital rocket flying humans today, and New Glenn, our orbital rocket, which is being built as we speak at our huge facility in Cape Canaveral and hasn’t flown yet. I’m also the day-to-day media lead on most corporate things that come Blue’s way — there are always an assortment of jump balls every day in the media@blueorigin.com inbox.

In general, a day in-the-life depends on where we are in a New Shepard launch cycle. Last year we flew six flights, three of which had humans onboard. This year, we’ve flown three human flights and have more flights ahead. Each flight has its own rhythm and feel depending on the composition of the astronaut crew. For our first human flight we hosted more than 130 reporters on site, including eight broadcast networks. It’s not every day you get to cross paths with Anderson Cooper, Gayle King, Michael Strahan, and Stephanie Ruhle all reporting alongside one another. That scene is seared into my brain. Career highlight.

That flight was unique and we had plenty of support to pull that off. In general, though, I’m a team of one dedicated to launch comms. My job is to architect the entire external communication strategy tied to every launch, including managing all press movements on site, all proactive and reactive media, ensuring tight coordination with our mission operations team, and supporting all astronaut PR. Our capsule has six seats. So that’s the equivalent of having six clients at an agency. Each person requires their own bespoke PR support.

I also lead the storytelling tied to our launch webcasts, including the webcast script, as well as oversee much of the owned content tied to our launches.

Today, we’re on L-2, which means the second day before the launch. We just completed our final flight readiness review and I’ve briefed the mission team on our final media plan regarding our camera assets in the air and on the ground, the various interactive elements we’ll be pulling into our webcast, and the intricate press movements we’ll have on site.

This flight is unique because one of the founders of Dude Perfect, one of the most subscribed YouTube channels in history (57 million followers), is onboard. I’m escorting a film crew from their team on site. They’re a hilarious bunch, which I guess comes with the territory when your day job is mastering trick shots and creating comedy videos.

When Michael Strahan flew on our third human flight I managed all of Good Morning America’s access and movements on site. The mornings started at 3:30 AM and ended late at night fact checking with the GMA team to ensure everything was accurate for the following morning’s show. We were on Good Morning America for 12 days straight — from the time Strahan announced on GMA he was flying until two days after the flight when the press finally died down.

William Shatner was on our second human flight. I escorted him and his fellow crewmates to the five morning show interviews I’d set up the morning before Captain Kirk flew to space. We allotted five minutes to each of the big networks, which sounds easy but there are technical challenges inherent to a live interview via a satellite uplink from a remote location in the high desert two hours from El Paso.

Like I said, no two days are the same. I also never expected my job would be so much larger than comms.

SG: Give me a couple examples of that.

SB: The X-factor in all of this is ensuring I’m tightly integrated with New Shepard’s mission operations team. I have a desk in the mission control building. I make sure the Flight Director and the mission team are acutely aware of every media-related movement and detail tied to a launch.

In this case, media is defined as press, our live webcast, astronaut PR, our photography and film teams on the ground, our production team running all of our camera assets in the air, on the launch tower, and on the ground, and much more. I view my job as making sure I never get an email from the Flight Director or the head of the New Shepard program asking why they weren’t made aware of something in my world that’s germane to theirs. I also have that much respect for them.

I’m also in the weeds on the smallest, tiniest details. It’s my job to know, at any given moment, what is happening within my media operation that could impact the mission itself. It’s essential for the team to know which aerial, ground and tower assets we’re using for each launch webcast (examples might include helicopters, drones, long-range cameras, or cameras placed in protective housing near the launch tower). A drone flying too close to the launch tower could put the entire mission at risk. I have failed at my job if I have miscommunicated the number of assets we intend to fly at any given time during a launch.

Nothing is more important than safety on our active launch site. There’s zero margin for mistakes. Safety is our highest value at Blue and it’s embedded in everything we do. Every second of a mission is choreographed to ensure safety is at the center. Our photographer literally cannot spend one extra second trying to capture a better frame of an astronaut on the gantry.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in this job is how to think visuals-first. Rocket launches are inherently visual. There’s nothing cooler than seeing a booster autonomously landing on the pad two miles from where it took off. Same goes for the graceful descent of a crew capsule under three giant parachutes. I’m constantly thinking about what the defining hero image should be for each launch. That one image that will run with every story and on every network. It’d be a miss for me to not think ahead about those details.

The space equivalent of client services is another part of my job. I work with each astronaut on the flight to ensure they have the PR support they need and that they understand our messaging around Blue’s long-term vision and mission. I’m the one defining the access to their media teams. I’m also the one reviewing their content before it goes out. All while making sure our photo and video teams are in the right place at the right time and that the reporters on site aren’t distracting astronauts from their training.

Space has captivated my imagination since I was a child. My dog is named Hubble. I have a to-scale diptych of Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit hanging in my living room. For me, this is a once-in-a-career job. It’s also the hardest job I may ever have. It comes with a unique sense of responsibility that I internalize and take seriously. Also, every day I’m doing something I’ve never done before. I don’t think the learning curve will ever top out for me here.

SG: The job of the comms person is to be a storyteller and to weave all these different pieces together. So you have to manage all these details, not just because you need the credibility, but it’s also just literally how things are run. The details are what runs the thing. At the same time you’re tasked with the thinking around — we have this YouTuber who has a huge following and we haven’t had a YouTube influencer in space before. That’s pretty weird and interesting. So what are we going to do with that? How are we going to do something interesting with that, make that useful, make that helpful? How do we interconnect these different personalities and create our own little mini-reality show of these folks who come together from all these different backgrounds and experiences, and create something interesting out of that. You can’t do that if you’re completely buried into details.

SB: That’s true. Both the micro and the macro matter. One astronaut on this flight will become the first Egyptian to fly to space; a second will become the first Portuguese astronaut. We have a huge opportunity to share their stories far and wide to the Portuguese and Arabic-speaking worlds. It was a proud moment to see our first announcement about this mission translated into both languages on our website. The translations were done by two native Portuguese and Arabic-speaking engineers at Blue. One of them told me they were so proud to work on the Arabic version because it allowed their family back home to finally understand what they do at work every day.

We’re always thinking about how we make our webcasts — and all of our content generally — more accessible. This includes closed captioning and subtitles. We’re chipping away at these things one by one, each one equally important.

I wish I had more time to invest in proactive storytelling around New Shepard. There are so many special stories that should be told but good storytelling requires time and time is the hardest currency to come by. I also spend a lot of time educating reporters about our environmental story. The BE-3 engine powering New Shepard is fueled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The byproduct of the engine in-flight is water vapor. That’s a unique differentiator for us and it’s important to get inaccurate reporting around that corrected quickly.

SG: It’s an interesting added nuance to the story. I mean, if your company does their job right, frankly, every single one of these launches should get more boring, right? In a few years it should be like, “Oh, another one? Great.”

SB: That’s the goal. The goal is that human spaceflight becomes so routine it’s not exciting anymore. That’s when we know we’ve made material progress towards our vision of moving people and heavy industry into space to preserve our home planet. In May 2019, our founder publicly delivered his vision for Blue Origin and why we must go to space to benefit Earth. In that speech he said he was able to start Amazon because the underlying infrastructure already existed — the postal service, mobile banking, modes of transportation — for him to build on top of.

That infrastructure does not currently exist for space and that’s what we’re trying to build over time. To achieve that, we have to radically reduce the cost of accessing space through reusable vehicles like New Shepard and New Glenn. We’d never dream of throwing out an airplane after flying it once from New York to LA. That’s what happens today with most space launch vehicles. They have to get mostly rebuilt from the ground up, which is costly, wasteful and extremely inefficient.

Once we can easily and cheaply access space, then we can start to leverage the limitless resources in space — solar energy, minerals from asteroids, water on the moon — so we use fewer resources on our fragile home planet. We take a view that’s many generations long. It’s a privilege to work on this stuff in its very nascent days.

SG: How many people do you think work in space comms right now?

SB: I have no idea but it can’t be that many? (Shout out to fellow Mixing Board member Christine Choi who used to run comms at Virgin Management, which includes our friends at Virgin Galactic!). That said, the cadre is growing because there are more and more commercial space companies popping up, which is a great thing. All ships in space rise when all companies working in space succeed.

NASA has a big communications team and they do many things very well. They build social media campaigns exceptionally well. The campaign around the James Webb telescope has been extraordinary. They create personalities for their rovers like Curiosity and Perseverance, and they have a sense of humor! Another NASA superpower is elegantly translating complex science topics into plain English while sparking awe and wonder.

I’m biased but at its core, space is the best story humanity has ever told. It’s a story about human ingenuity, a story about tenacity, innovation, imagination, curiosity, relentless persistence. Space is a multi-generational story. It’s a bi-partisan story. It’s a story that inspires hope during times of national tragedy. It’s also a story about the giants whose shoulders we stand. There are few stories that can ignite the human imagination more than space exploration.

SG: When I met you in New York, 10 or so years ago, you were working at The Wall Street Journal and thinking about moving to San Francisco. Could you imagine then that you’d be sitting in an Airstream right now looking out on a launch site?

SB: Never! I was so proud to work at The Wall Street Journal. And I could not have gotten to where I am today without the years I spent at Outcast (OC). It was the best possible training and polishing ground. I never would’ve had the confidence to take this job at Blue if I hadn’t built up the skills or confidence during my time there. I owe a debt of gratitude to my mentors there (many of whom are also fellow Mixing Board members!) and also to the clients with whom I collaborated and from whom I learned so much. Somehow they thought some of the guidance I offered them had a modicum of wisdom in it. Blue was a client of mine when I was at OC, so it’s not an overstatement to say I’m where I am today because of OC.

SG: You have a journalism background in addition to helping places like AP the WSJ figure out social media and transition to the future a bit. And your LinkedIn deep cuts are pretty awesome, too. Like working in Iceland for an Icelandic publication, doing hotel reviews around the world for Oyster, freelancing in Hong Kong. You had some serious life experience before you even came out west.

SB: ​​The Journal was my first comms job. Ashley Huston was my first PR manager. I still thank my lucky stars she somehow took a leap of faith on hiring me. Before that, I was in journalism. My heart will always be in a newsroom.

My first job after journalism school was as a fact checker at Outside Magazine. I learned more about reporting and journalism in that one year than I did in j-school itself. I was told — and I quote — to “fact check until you can sleep at night.” That line still haunts me. It’s why I’m still so obsessive about accuracy and precision to this day. I’ve been told my fact checking notes were kept on file for several years after I left as good examples of how to fact check. That said, after my job at Outside I interviewed for a fact checking position at The New Yorker. Their first question was what the last book was that I’d read. The second was how many languages I speak. I did not get called back for a round two interview.

Great storytelling is in the color, nuance and texture of a story. I take pride in teasing out the little nuggets from people that somehow blossom into beautiful, human-centered stories. I love understanding what makes someone tick. There’s an engineer we profiled last year at Blue who designs new concepts using Legos first. I learned this after spotting some models in the background of her house over a Zoom call. Most of our job is just being inquisitive at the right time.

SG: What advice would you give to others who are trying to uncover those types of vignettes? Because, obviously, you can go up and introduce yourself and say, “Hey, I’d love to have lunch with you, or just talk randomly on a Zoom.” But in my experience, those tend to happen in the weirdest moments. Those things pop up, where you’re just like, “Oh, I’ve gotta follow up on that thing that you just said.”

I find this works best when it happens organically — when you’ve invested time in getting to know someone and shown you care about their story.

That said, I’ve also found the most valuable question to ask is often ‘why’? Why is this the path you chose? Why did you make this particular design decision or build this in this particular way? What led you to this choice?

I also read a lot. It helps me recognize patterns and break my tunnel vision about a particular topic or thing. Inherently curious people are often inherently curious about other people. There’s a balance between being nosy and being thoughtful. The former is insufferable; the latter is when you can suss out the good stuff.

But, sometimes the stories just magically fall into your lap. We have a video series in our launch webcast called Origin Stories. The goal of the series is to highlight employees at Blue with particularly unique and special stories. The person we’re highlighting next reached out to me shortly after he was awestruck to learn one of his fellow classmates, Katya Echazarreta, would soon be flying to space on New Shepard and would become the first Mexican-born woman and youngest American to fly to space.

Katya and this person are both alums of San Diego City College (SDCC). Katya eventually went on to graduate from UCLA and he from USC but both of them credit the same mentor and the same program for underserved students at SDCC for inspiring them to pursue engineering careers. He reached out to me to say he wished more people recognized, “community college isn’t a dead end. It’s the beginning of everything for so many of us.” I was so moved by his story and knew immediately he’d be the next person we’d profile for the series.

SG: You mentioned the OutCast experience. And comms agencies aren’t going anywhere, at the same time, they have become less of a “first choice” for job-seekers than when I was coming into the industry. Now there are so many startups that weren’t around before, and back then, they might not have even had a comms function. There’s a lot more opportunity to just go straight into an in-house role. As you enter or move up in your career, what is your take on the importance of working at an agency?

SB: They have an important role to play because there’s so much value in the outside perspective — real talk about how you can improve your strategy and make your story stronger. The second that I went in-house I felt like — and still feel like — I’m living in a black hole. The craft of communications is evolving around me and it’s so much harder to identify how it’s changing because I don’t have access to day-to-day learnings emerging from an agency like OutCast. A strong agency can help with everything from the organizational structure of building out a team to how we should be thinking about our DEI story publicly to providing creative, campaign-thinking horsepower that doesn’t exist in the same way when you’re living on the inside.

Agencies can also provide so much guidance on doing owned content well. It’s much easier to control a narrative when you get to tell it yourself. But what are new, interesting and creative ways to think about that storytelling? How can we make it feel more immersive and intimate? What are new platforms I should be thinking about for our executives? Do tech conferences still matter? Is anyone still reading Fast Company or have we all moved on to a post-post TikTok world where I just feel old and out of touch?

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Previous Mixing Board Studio Sessions are here.

Find Mixing Board at https://www.mixingboard.co/

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