When not writing kids’ sci-fi, my day job is to help organisations use social media more effectively. I have to say, the way NASA and its international space agency partners use social media is teeth-chattering impressive – and I’m not just saying that because I got to participate in their most recent social media outreach to the public (my question was selected to ask the astronauts live in space; see video above).
What NASA is doing is simple: using social media to let the public, especially children, feel closer to missions and the scientists who carry them out. If, like me, you feel your spine turn to jelly when you see a rocket take off, or catch sight of the famous “big blue marble” picture of Earth taken during the Apollo missions, you will be delighted to discover the steady diet of thrilling content NASA and its partners are offering up on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus and other social platforms.
Reach out and touch space
Here’s just some of what I personally have been able to do over the past six months thanks to social media:
- Watch a rocket soar into space to deploy a new satellite, including live footage from a rocket cam (YouTube)
- Ask one of NASA’s mission artists what colours he uses when painting Mars (Twitter)
- Watch blobs of liquid behave strangely in the microgravity of the International Space Station (Twitter)
- Read the breathless live tweets revealing that Curiosity, the latest Mars rover, had landed safely on the planet (Twitter)
- Help my daughter send a drawing to congratulate the clever NASA scientists after Curiosity’s landing — and pass her their chuffed message of thanks (Twitter)
- Ask astronauts currently in orbit what book inspired them as kids to go into space (Facebook) and hear them answer me in a live broadcast (Google plus and YouTube)
Not just NASA
One of the brightest stars in all this activity is of course not a NASA astronaut but Cmdr. Chris Hadfield from the Canadian Space Agency, who is on board the ISS currently and has gathered a huge following due to his regular tweets, including pictures, sharing what he sees out the window and inside the station. Hadfield’s tweets and pictures regularly make the front page of national newspapers and he also, quite wonderfully, answers children’s questions whenever possible, like this beautiful exchange about spacewalking.
The guitar-playing commander also participates in Reddit AMAs (“Ask me anything”), where he gives insights into everything, from how to shave in space to what space smells like — he’s even done live music collaborations with the Barenaked Ladies and the Chieftains, singing “Moondance.”
Incidentally after my question about kids books, Commander Hadfield contacted me on Twitter to say he’d actually reread his most inspiring childhood space book, Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire, just weeks ago while he was in quarantine prior to launch. (You can imagine my deep thrill at being contacted by the Commander – I think I spoke only in exclamation marks for the following two hours.)
Going direct, and spreading the word exponentially, with social media
I’m old enough to remember the later Apollo launches, and the fact that broadcast television had lost some interest in what was becoming rote: rockets go into space; astronauts do missions and come home. Social media has given international space programs the chance to be their own broadcasters, conveying live images on platforms like YouTube without relying on mainstream media.
But their use of social goes beyond self-broadcast. NASA brilliantly exploits the viral, tell-your-friends power of social media, most effectively in last Friday’s Google Plus long-distance hangout with the International Space Station. The hangout was the first of its kind for NASA, and allowed us earthlings to post questions directly to in-orbit astronauts. The event, directed by NASA’s tireless social media manager John Yembrick, was publicised across all social platforms, with the help of a dedicated hashtag (#askstro) that NASA promoted for some weeks before, gathering questions, including video questions recorded and uploaded to YouTube.
For a social media geek like me, what was probably most interesting to witness was the morning of the event, when the NASA social media team put up a new Facebook post where anyone could comment, suggesting a question for the astronauts. Refreshing the page every few seconds, I watched as thousands of new “likes” accumulated on that Facebook post: each of those likes spread the message about this live event across thousands more Facebook friends, replicating the message instantly and exponentially.
NASA knows exactly what it’s doing on social media — it even has a fascinating program that allows influential social media users to apply for full press accreditation to visit NASA (at their own expense) during launches, and tweet and share what they experience under the dedicated #NASAsocial hashtag. That’s like the equivalent of the White House press corps suddenly opening itself up to any really great tweeters who can prove they should be there. That’s what I call enlightened.
What does all this mean?
I hope it means that the space program is starting to inspire kids again, thanks to the marvellous accessibility now possible over social media. Twenty years ago, who’d have thought it would be so easy for kids to chat with in-orbit astronauts, and hear those astronauts describe the childhood experiences — the eye-opening books, the inspirational physics teachers — that set them on their path to space? The space program really is alive and well, and it’s all good.