How NASA Used Social Media To Make Mars Curiosity And Endeavour Major Events
(Photo by Bay Area News Group staff photographer Ray Chavez)
I have had a deep, deep love for all things related to space since I was a little kid. Way back in the ’70s, I used to write letters to NASA asking them to send me information about the space program. A few weeks later, I’d get back a thick packet of photos of planets and astronauts, as well as white papers explaining various space phenomena.
So as the years passed, I was sad to see the public’s interest in space wane. Of course, NASA had its share of stumbles and tragedies along the way. But even when they did do things right — launch a satellite, launch a space shuttle, land a rover on Mars, build a space station — the general reaction seemed to be, “Ho-hum.”
And that’s why I’ve found the past couple of months so remarkable. Going back to the Mars Curiosity landing, I was stunned at how it became such a major event. It seemed like everyone I knew stopped what they were doing to tune in. The guys in the NASA control room became Internet celebrities. (Mohawk Guy!) And the enthusiasm spilled over the next day into calls for NASA crowdfunding campaigns for greater Congressional funding.
Today, I’ve watched again in awe as the Endeavour fly-over seemed to almost stop everything in the Bay Area for a couple of hours. The attention is well-deserved, but it’s also remarkable, given the almost total apathy toward space it seemed people felt just a few years ago.
So what’s changed? On Friday, I called John Yembrick, social media manager for NASA. I wanted to know if this was just some organic outpouring of interest, or whether there had been some grand social strategy by NASA.
His answer: A little of both.
“When we’re flyng space shhuttles four times a year, it doesn’t get much attention,” he said. “And we announced we were ending the program, it also didn’t get a big audience. But today’s event, getting to see the shuttle in the air one last time, really connects with so many people who have some connection to the space shuttle. This is a generational thing. It’s been part of our lives for the last 25 years. And this is a really memorable moment. It’s the last time we’ll see this thing in the air.”
Emotional content. That’s always a solid foundation for any viral success. But it didn’t become a social media sensation by chance.
Yembrick has been with NASA’s communications department for six years, but moved over to become social media manager a couple of years ago.
“Doing this was always challenging,” he said. “People weren’t connnecting with the Space Station. Or the shuttle flights. I don’t think it was resonating, the impact of what we were doing.”
Yembrick wanted to change that. And he saw social media as a huge opportunity to talk directly to the people who really cared about space, and to excite those who had tuned out.
“The world and the way we communicate, even just since the Mars landing in 2008, has changed so much,” he said.
Now, if you check out the NASA Connect page, you can see all the social outlets where you can get info about the agency. In addition, the pages list a host of ways the public can collaborate with NASA on research. (As an aside, NASA also has Open.NASA.gov, where the public has access to virtually all the data the agency collects. Re-using and re-mixing are officially encouraged.)
In the last couple of years, NASA has seen its Twitter following grow to almost 3 million. In addition, NASA has now held 50 social meetups that attempt to bring social media fans together to meet people at NASA.
The most recent meetup was this week at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base. NASA invited 40 of its social media fans to be on hand when the Endeavour landed. Yembrick said one of the folks was the first to capture and post a picture of the landing, a pic that was retweeted 400 times, he said.
The campaign leading up to the Mars Curiosity landing was also remarkable. And not just because the Mars Curiosity lander has its own Twitter account with 1.1 million followers. In the weeks before the landing, NASA released a video explaining the complexity of attempting this landing. What could have been a rather dull explainer, was instead titled, “Seven Minutes of Terror!”
That video went viral, with 476,718 views to date. Yembrick noted that the video got people talking about the landing weeks before it happened. If they had waited for news coverage, they would have been lucky to get a mention the day before the landing, he said.
On the actual day of the event, many folks tuned in to watch online and through the NASA TV app. This is a pretty good example of how the world has come around in favor of NASA.
NASA TV has existed for many years. It’s available as a cable channel in very limited markets. But it’s mainly been a satellite feeds that allows TV news stations to pick upbehind-the-scenes video to use in reports. There was very little chance for you and I to watch. The feed eventually moved online, but Yembrick said viewership really took off with the launch of their apps a couple of years ago.
Indeed, for many people, the highlight of the Mars landing was watching all those folks in Mission Control go crazy.
“You can connect to those people and their excitement,” Yembrick said. “Now, you can watch share the experience.”
Aside from the entertainment and educational value, there’s an important lesson here. In recent decades, I think government in general has done a poor job of explaining itself, really communicating the positive things it does (Yes, there are positive things!), and what it means for individuals and their communities. NASA, in particular, struggled to explain why it was necessary or relevant, and as such, regularly has faced calls for steep budget cuts or elimination.
Suddenly, after the Mars landing, people were calling for more funding, or crowdfunding. They cared, they understood why it mattered, and they were willing to act, and support the missions.
Of course, NASA has an advantage over other government agencies, as Yembrick points out, because many of the things it does have such a visual element, and excitement. Still, he believes there is a potential, through social media, to continue to enhance NASA’s image and rethink its relationship to the general public.
“Maybe the future of all exploration is through crowdfunding,” he said. “Maybe the public can tell us what they want us to be doing.”