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Space took over the internet this year

NASA and space companies have figured out how to make rocket launches and new discoveries major events

This year, in lieu of the traditional Best Of Lists, we thought it would be fun to throw editors and writers into a draft together and have a conversation. It was an exciting and eventful year for space news even before SpaceX landed its first Falcon 9 rocket. NASA found subsurface oceans on a bunch of different worlds and returned breathtaking pictures from ones we’ve never seen before (like Pluto and Ceres). SpaceX grew increasingly popular before suffering its most major setback in June, when one of its rockets exploded. And the United Launch Alliance — the private space industry incumbent, and SpaceX’s biggest rival — celebrated making it to 100 launches with zero failures. Many of these milestones became major events online, where people watched rockets take off and celebrated new findings. This year we also watched these companies and agencies sharpen their public images and court a growing group of space fans. Loren Grush and Sean O’Kane break it down.

Loren Grush: Spaceflight got a lot of mainstream attention this year — whether it was hype over a Pluto flyby or a SpaceX launch and landing. And many private companies, as well as NASA, are figuring out how to capitalize on that interest through social media, each in different ways.

One trend I noticed within the space community this year was the need for a very controlled image. Many of the major commercial players, like SpaceX and Blue Origin, have learned that the way they present themselves to the public is almost as important as the rockets they launch. SpaceX’s imagery is very sleek and sexy, and the company has always kept a tight leash on information. This helps to create an air of mystery, a coolness factor that makes people thirsty for more and makes missions major events online.

The way they present themselves to the public is almost as important as the rockets they launch

SpaceX’s rival company Blue Origin, which is run by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, is even more intent on withholding information between major updates. The company stayed silent for most of the year, but then dropped substantial news, like when it landed its New Shepard rocket over Thanksgiving week. Afterward, the internet went wild.

Blue Origin New Shepard

Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket

Sean O'Kane: I see two reasons for all of this. One is that all of these companies are facing increased attention and scrutiny thanks to the rise of social media. The other is that — especially with the private space companies — we’re looking at a future that might include trips to Mars, or space tourism, all things that involve human spaceflight. You have to be much more careful about how you present yourself when lives are on the line as opposed to when you’re just risking robots and money. So these companies spent 2015 honing that image.

You have to be careful with you image when lives are on the line

But for the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between stalwart military-industrial companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin, this year was somewhat of a coming out party. The company formed in 2006 and has just dominated the satellite and military launch industry, winning big contracts from NASA along the way. But this was the year SpaceX, which outpaced ULA on both cost and branding, really forced the ULA to change.

The company brought on a new CEO (Tory Bruno) late in 2014, and he spent most of 2015 becoming a lot like the company’s own version of Elon Musk. He has a blustery personality and is somewhat prolific on Twitter, where he often pokes at Musk. The company even held a contest to let the public name its forthcoming rocket. While ULA has been around since 2006, SpaceX has taken a bite out of the incumbent’s business, and it’s clear that this was the year the empire struck back.

Loren: Then you have NASA, which has started doing something really unique. Rather than create mystery, NASA needs to keep people’s attention during this really lengthy transition period when not a lot is going on at the space agency. This year NASA would tease the announcements of major scientific findings, up to a week before they were actually revealed. For instance, when the space agency announced it had solved a "major Mars mystery," the internet went crazy wondering what it could be. It turned out that NASA technology had confirmed that liquid water flows on Mars — a substantial finding, but also one we’ve speculated about for many years. Still, the hype flowed just like that Martian water. It’s a great way of keeping people interested in NASA, even though it’s not launching any rockets for the time being.

Sean: The culmination of this was, of course, the Pluto flyby. NASA held an event that was open to the press and the public, one that amounted to a big party in celebration of the feat. By the end of the year, NASA was fully on the gas when it came to self-promotion, co-opting big social media moments like the buildup to Star Wars.

Loren: And don’t even get me started on The Martian.

Sean: The public’s interest in space really rebounded when the Curiosity rover landed on Mars in 2012, and since then it’s hit a fever pitch. NASA helped fuel this by putting tons of attention on its subsequent missions and scientific announcements, and that, in turn, shed more light on companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and the ULA. It makes sense that this was the year they each locked down their public image, because they’re going to need to tread lightly in the years to come.