NASA Leverages Social Networking To Generate Public Enthusiasm

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WASHINGTON — NASA’s embrace of the microblogging service Twitter is giving the U.S. space agency a new way to connect with a Web-savvy general public hungry for nearly instantaneous access to information.

“Social media Internet technologies allow anyone to talk to everyone,” Mike Fabio, Google liaison for the Google Lunar X Prize competition, said Feb. 5 at the Commercial Space Transportation Conference’s “Wired for Space” panel here. “It’s about content, content, content. Give them something good to talk about and they’ll find you.”

Two of the most popular social networks, Twitter and Facebook, allow users to find out what friends or organizations are doing by checking a Web site or signing up for updates via text message or e-mail to which they can respond with their own posts. Both free services are popular among teens but also appeal to adults preferring short, frequent updates to traditional e-mail.

The next generation of scientists and engineers communicate this way, so the space industry should adapt to get their attention, Fabio said, adding that about half the population is too young to remember U.S. astronauts taking their first steps on the Moon in 1969.

“These newcomers didn’t grow up wanting to be astronauts, they grew up wanting to be software engineers and geneticists,” Fabio said “In order to reach the next generation of space enthusiasts, it’s imperative that we communicate using their preferred mechanism.”

NASA already has ventured into social networking. Last year during the Mars Phoenix Lander’s 152 days operating near the red planet’s north pole, the space agency posted 600 updates — written in the voice of the lander — on twitter.com, a free service that can send those Web postings as text messages to mobile phones.

Veronica McGregor, manager of the news office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in PasadenaCalif., came up with the idea of using Twitter to post frequent updates about the Phoenix mission. By the time the Phoenix mission ended in November, some 38,000 people had signed up to receive the updates, or ‘tweets’ in Twitter parlance. NASA’s embrace of the new medium was recognized Feb. 11 with a Shorty Award for postings in the science category. The awards, which honored the 26 “best producers of short content in 2008,” were sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

“The response was incredible. Very quickly it became a way not only to deliver news of the mission, but to interact with the public and respond to their questions about space exploration,” McGregor said in a written statement announcing the award.

NASA also posts Twitter updates on other missions including the Hubble Space Telescope, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, and various climate monitoring satellites. The posts include comments limited to 140 characters that generate dialogue and links to program Web sites and press releases.

In January, NASA’s public affairs office launched a Twitter site of its own, twitter.com/nasa, which includes links to all the individual NASA programs that use Twitter. The space agency started with an existing list of 5,100 people following a Johnson Space Center employee’s tweets. The list has since grown to more than 12,000 followers, said NASA spokesman David Steitz.

So far NASA has not set any ground rules for Twitter feeds, Steitz said. While the public affairs office at NASA headquarters oversees the feeds posted on the agency’s Twitter site, the individual programs are posting without any public affairs filters.

“It’s completely possible that a project person could tweet something long before it gets to public affairs. That’s something for the project to think about,” Steitz said. “We’re trying to reach as many people as we can, and the last thing we want to do is censor anyone.”

The free flow of information is aimed at inspiring more interest in space programs, but social networking is not just for amateur space enthusiasts. Engineers and scientists use social networking to share information about developing space hardware, said Scott Zeeb and Todd Squires, team leaders of Chicago-based TrueZer0, one of nine teams that competed in the 2008 Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.

In 10 months spent developing a spacecraft that would attempt to launch to 50 meters, hover for 90 seconds and land on a pad 50 meters away, Zeeb and Squires tapped into a social network that allowed them to join other teams’ discussions about their progress. While the rocket failed to meet the contest goals, it stayed aloft for 18.8 seconds, a success the team attributed to making connections with other teams.

“Everybody is kind of eager to share where they’re at and what they’re doing, and it’s fantastic, because without all the teams and [learning] what they had done, we could never have gotten from where we were, which was at zero, all the way to getting a hovering rocket going 10 months later,” Squires said at the conference.

Even companies that have not joined social networks can capitalize on their Web sites by adding blogs, video and frequent updates, Fabio said.

Space Exploration Technologies, which is developing the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 launch vehicles, created a music video of its first successful Falcon 1 launch in September. The company’s founder and chief executive, Elon Musk, records video messages for Web site visitors and leads a video tour of the
HawthorneCalif., facilities where the rockets are manufactured.

The key is to make it fun to visit a company or agency Web site or join a social network to get updates that are constantly refreshed, Fabio said.

“Space is serious business, it would be a shame not to enjoy it. This is about community, about bringing together people for the love of space, of exploration, about giving them something to cheer for, something to participate in, something to be excited about,” he said.