It was dark and chilly in Austin on Sunday, March 10th, the night that NASA planned to break the Guinness World Record for "largest outdoor astronomy lesson." The cold front had cleared the clouds, leaving the stars bright and stark in the sky, and the 526 space geeks in NASA ball caps and T-shirts didn’t mind the temperature – they were happy to participate, even though the talk was just a basic demonstration on light and color. Some even lugged their own telescopes.
At 8:35PM, Dr. Frank Summers, the master of ceremonies and a Hubble astrophysicist, stopped abruptly to make an announcement. "Those of you with smartphones," he said, with a triumphant pause, "You can tweet that we have just finished the world’s largest outdoor astronomy lesson!"
The world record attempt was just one hour out of NASA’s multi-day programming at South by Southwest Interactive, the infamous digital conference. Twitter hit its tipping point here, the legend goes, and so many big brands have started to make the trek. This is NASA’s first year among them, part of a larger effort to cultivate a "hipper, more accessible" image and reach new audiences. But it may be missing the mark on both counts. NASA’s social strategy draws some people in, but there are signs that things need to change — much like NASA itself.
NASA has been using social media since 2008, more than a year before Mike Massimino became the first astronaut to tweet from space. NASA has 487 social media accounts, including 161 Twitter accounts and 36 YouTube channels. The rest are spread across eight other platforms including Facebook, Ustream, and Google+. The agency has also hosted more than 50 "tweetups," or "space socials," for which online fans have traveled from as far as Spain to watch a launch or spend a few hours with NASA engineers.
But nobody outside the space community really noticed NASA’s social media presence until August, when the Mars Curiosity landing became a case study for the art of viral marketing.
I’m safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!! #MSL— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) August 6, 2012
Historically, NASA has carefully curated its image. "NASA in the Apollo era was completely buttoned down," said Dr. Phil Plait, who writes the "Bad Astronomy" column at Slate. "NASA maniacally controlled the astronauts, trained them on how to talk to the public, how to do press conferences, how to dress, how to act, how to speak. Clearly, things are different now."
The Curiosity rover takes selfies, makes GIFs, and uses the hashtag #PewPew
These days, NASA’s communiques are more Bill Nye the Science Guy than "giant leap for mankind," a shift that accelerated after the success of @MarsCuriosity. The Curiosity rover is chatty and irreverent, the cool high school science teacher kind of nerd. It takes selfies, makes GIFs, and uses the hashtag #PewPew when it tweets about its laser.
@MarsCuriosity’s fresh voice, backed by a dramatic animation, "Seven Minutes of Terror," surprised and delighted the public out of its usual apathy toward unmanned space missions. Today, the rover has 1.3 million Twitter followers, making it about three percent as popular as Lady Gaga, about half as popular as an NBA star, and roughly on par with Newark mayor and super-tweeter Cory Booker. Its unofficial parody alter-ego, @SarcasticRover, has 108,254 followers.
Curiosity’s Twitter presence is controlled by three people: social media manager Veronica McGregor and social media specialists Stephanie Smith and Courtney O’Connor. Curiosity is the biggest rover NASA has ever sent to Mars, hence its brash personality. Its sense of humor comes from the three intelligent, funny, and outgoing women who write its tweets and call themselves "the hive mind." "We’ll try to bounce them off each other," O’Connor said. "If one of us laughs, then we know we’ve got a good tweet on our hands."
Levity plays well on social media, but critics say it undermines NASA’s reputation. When the co-anchor of NASA’s in-house TV show started using slang in his blog posts in 2009, fans took offense. "If the younger generation isn’t interested in NASA, I doubt a presenter saying ‘hai’ all the time is going to change that," wrote science blogger Ian O’Neill.
But after the success of @MarsCuriosity, NASA seems to be sidelining its hard-earned reputation as a bastion of science and innovation. Instead, it’s catering to the Twitter demographic with glibness and gimmicks.
Science writer Graham Templeton recently reflected on @MarsCuriosity’s decision to tweet its first blurry picture, a test shot of its own wheel, instead of waiting a day so it could capture an inspiring sunset. "NASA used to be in the business of awe," he said. "Every step away from that has been a mistake."
@britneyspears Hey Brit Brit. Mars is still looking good. Maybe someday an astronaut will bring me a gift, too. Drill bits crossed ;)— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) August 15, 2012
The medium is the message
NASA’s shift in tone coincides with the overall rise of social media, but it also happened around the same time budget cuts ended plans for human space flight in the near future. Hardcore science fans can get excited about probes and rovers, but it’s difficult to keep the general public interested unless you’re talking about aliens or astronauts – and that’s what NASA is trying to do with social media.
Stephanie Schierholz, who now works for Raytheon, was one of the first people to take charge of @NASA. "I was a public affairs specialist, and all 15 of us were instructed by our boss that we had to figure out this social media thing," she told The Verge, referring to NASA Deputy Associate Administrator Bob Jacobs. "We definitely couldn’t have done it without his support. There were plenty of naysayers, plenty of people who thought we shouldn’t be wasting our time on Twitter."’
Schierholz scheduled calendar appointments three times a day to remind herself to check Twitter. There were only a couple thousand followers, so it was relatively low-risk. When she noticed that people were asking NASA a lot of questions, she started replying. Seeing the thrilled reactions was "where it actually got interesting," she said.
NASA hasn’t quite figured out how to talk about rocket science to the average person
"People have an overall fondness for NASA in general. The majority of people think NASA’s cool, it has cachet," she said. "But if you ask them any in-depth level question about what NASA is doing, they don’t know how long the space shuttle has been operating, they don’t know when the last moon mission was. Social media connects the public to the cool people doing cool things at NASA."
However, NASA hasn’t quite figured out the right way to talk about rocket science to the average person.
NASA rightly points out that its social media communiques, while cute, are still dense with facts. But esoteric science jargon wrapped in pop culture references really only appeals to the kind of people who already love NASA. To the drive-by Twitter follower, most of @MarsCuriosity’s tweets are gibberish.
Dear @neiltyson, epic game of "I Spy,"lots of Bowie. Well, that and science. I took radiation readings with my RAD instrument— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) August 4, 2012
To bridge that gap, NASA would have to do something much tougher than cracking jokes or even explaining what a RAD instrument is in 140 characters. Most Twitter users don’t understand why NASA is taking radiation readings on Mars in the first place, or why anyone would care. @MarsCuriosity, for all its entertainment value, doesn’t answer those questions.
It’s also unclear how much the agency’s new fans are worth. When Justin Bieber retweeted @NASA, the account gained 17,000 followers, mostly teenaged girls. That would be a nice new demographic for the space agency – if it weren’t for the more likely explanation that thousands of girls clicked on something Justin Bieber implied he liked.
The space program has always been a target of budget hawks who say it’s a waste of taxpayer money to play around in space when there are more tangible problems on earth. As NASA cedes human space flight to private companies like SpaceX, it could become even harder to justify the roughly half of one percent of the US budget it receives.
Meanwhile, goofy hijinks like this "Gangnam Style" parody music video, produced by summer interns at NASA's Johnson Center and released on a NASA YouTube Channel, seem destined to end up on the Congressional floor as part of some politician’s rant.
NASA’s findings do benefit average Americans, seeding countless technologies that improve our lives: real-time GPS, more accurate weather data, invisible braces, scratch-resistant lenses, and so on. NASA could use its Twitter accounts to remind people where their satellite communications and memory foam mattresses came from – or at least point out how its current projects will eventually trickle down to earthlings.
A report by the National Research Council released in December concluded that NASA is underfunded and a bit lost, stretching its limited resources over too many projects because it lacks "a national consensus on strategic goals and objectives."
NASA's goofy hijinks seem destined to end up as part of some politician's rant
Perhaps that’s why NASA’s social media strategy, largely propelled by the medium’s instant feedback mechanism and a few savvy individuals, seems to lack an end game. Still, NASA’s charter includes a mandate to widely publicize its findings, and its audience wants it to be on social media. Keri Bean was a freshman at Texas A&M and a major space geek when she created a Facebook profile for Mars Exploration Rovers and designated it as her spouse. "My roommate was like, ‘if you love the Mars rover so much, why don’t you marry it?’ So I did." The profile quickly hit the 5,000-friend limit and was converted to an official fan page. Bean, now a meteorologist on the Curiosity mission, handed it over to NASA.
"Back when NASA was first starting up, a kid could write a letter and NASA would send them materials and send them information," said Laura Burns, a space geek who follows the agency on social media and also happens to work as a NASA contractor. "But I mean, how many ways can you reach more than a million people in one fell swoop? I think it’s pretty cool. But I’m kind of biased."
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Stephanie Schierholz was the first person to take charge of @NASA; in fact it was her boss, Bob Jacobs. "While Stephanie was a terrific initial social media manager, she was not the first to manage @NASA. That was (and continues to be) me," he wrote in a message.