Issues Magazine

Launching Social Media in Space

By Remco Timmermans

After the space industry’s decline in popularity, the new face of space has been born via social media.

The space industry has always been a public industry. Government agencies like NASA and ESA developed and launched our space infrastructure: people in orbit and on the Moon, probes to the outer solar system, weather satellites, navigation satellites and the International Space Station circling the planet. The public elected these governments and supported these space projects. Society loved this pioneering endeavour: people like Yuri Gagarin, Neil Armstrong and Yang Liwei became instant heroes and examples to children all over the world.

Those pioneering days are over. The Apollo program was cut short and the Space Shuttle program was suspended. Many Americans even believed that the space program was over completely after the last Space Shuttle mission. Soviet space ambitions were cut short by the fall of communism. Today the NASA budget is half a penny to each government budget dollar. And with this budget the US is still by far the biggest spender.

With the end of the exciting space race we saw an end to public excitement about space, a waning of the public support so critical to the funding of space programs.

Space Is Cool! Or Is It?

Somehow the excitement about rockets and astronauts seems to disappear between the ages of 10 and 20. There is a global shortage of science and engineering students in the aerospace sector, so brilliant minds with a specialisation in this area will find a job in no time. But kids don’t want to become engineers. High school physics and maths are generally not considered the coolest topics. Apparently it is cooler to be an insurance manager than a rocket scientist. In the meantime governments decrease space budgets, answering public perception that the space era has ended and that the terribly expensive space projects have zero benefit to daily life.

Traditionally science communicators used mass communication channels like television, newspapers and magazines to keep the public informed. Some of you will remember the excitement of the live broadcasts of the Apollo missions, and the first Space Shuttle missions attracted millions of viewers worldwide.

But attention of viewers and readers went as quickly as it came. New milestones in space only get a few seconds on TV and a few lines in the back of a newspaper. Only the geekiest of geeks watch satellite launches from Cape Canaveral or Baikonur Cosmodrome through live webcasts that are available on the websites of the agencies. Space is no longer cool. Space has quickly become a commodity to society – as interesting as electricity and water.

This is the challenge for space and science communicators. The people that passionately work in the space industry know that we have never lived in more exciting times in space exploration. We are discovering exoplanets by the dozens; we are putting rovers on Mars, paving the way for the first humans there; we are unravelling the secrets (and dangers) of the universe; we are discovering truths about how Earth works; and we are deploying increasingly accurate communication, weather and navigation satellites. Space has become a critical element of society yet the public doesn’t know.

Informed and Involved

But the world of communication is changing. New channels to involve and inform audiences in space exploration are developing online. Social media provide an entirely new platform to disseminate the exciting stories of discoveries in space. And this time the audience can talk back!

The social media revolution adds the element of real-time interaction to the communication mix. This interactive nature allows the public to get very close to the people working in space.

How exciting is it to follow astronauts on Twitter, just like we can follow our heroes in music, movies and sports? How exciting is it when these people talk directly to you, sometimes even from space? And how cool is it to have a direct video link to the International Space Station, where kids can talk live to the astronauts floating in space?

Social media are a powerful addition to the space communicator toolkit. This channel requires new skills and methods to reach the public, but when it’s done right it allows an important transition in communication.

The space sector is only beginning to use the benefits that social media offer. All sectors of society are exploring these benefits, but the space industry has a few interesting and leading examples, such as #NASASocial and #WakeUpRosetta.

A few years ago NASA allowed a small group of their communication specialists to experiment with these new social media tools in an effort to extend the reach of their online presence. One of these experiments started a build-up of a very strong community of online space ambassadors. These are now known as “spacetweeps”.

Turning Space Fans into Space Ambassadors: #NASASocial

In January 2009 NASA decided to invite some of its Twitter followers to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. At this occasion the spacetweeps could see the projects being worked on with their own eyes, talk to the engineers and scientists all while tweeting live about their experience. Obviously these Twitter followers were thrilled to have first-hand access to projects like the Mars Curiosity rover (the real thing, which was then under construction) and Cassini Saturn, reaching a huge worldwide online audience with their excitement. The costs to NASA were a few hours that the engineers spent away from their desks and a few nervous security guards. The return in positive free publicity and outreach was priceless.

This event, which was later rebadged NASASocial, became the first of more than 80 of these events. This didn’t only bring NASA huge publicity value but also brought NASA followers closer together. When the tweetup model was adopted by ESA, CNES and DLR (the European, French and German space agencies), this community rapidly grew into a strong worldwide community of space ambassadors.

The exclusive behind-the-scenes space events continue to attract large numbers of influential social media followers, reaching millions of people on social media all over the world. NASA is now among the largest non-celebrity Twitter accounts, with 5.7 million followers – and counting! The events are easy to find: just search Twitter for hashtags like #NASASocial, #SpaceSocial or #CNESTweetup.

Let the Public Create Space Information: #WakeUpRosetta

The Rosetta spacecraft was launched without too much attention in 2004 and was soon forgotten by the general public. Its main mission was to rendezvous with a comet millions of kilometres away, take measurements and land a probe. Technically and scientifically this is one of the most exciting and challenging missions ever, to be undertaken 10 years after its launch in 2014 and 2015.

It is also a challenge from a public outreach point of view. How do you interest the public in a robot going to a dark rock in deep space, never to return? Funnily enough, even astronomers forgot about the spacecraft, mistaking it for a near-Earth asteroid during its second Earth flyby in 2007, giving it the designation 2007VN84.

To stir public interest, ESA started a social media campaign using tools that did not yet exist when it was launched. Accompanied by a lot of very attractive online multimedia material, the campaign challenged the public to help ESA “wake up” Rosetta in home-made videos. The best videos would be broadcast to “deep space” through powerful ESA antennae, with the winners invited to mission control. Runners-up would receive other exclusive prizes.

This online campaign became a huge success. When Rosetta came out of hibernation on 20 January 2014, ESA had received dozens of videos, sometimes involving entire school populations. Some of the videos were so funny or so well-made that they went viral on social media well before the contest was over – public involvement at its best. The #WakeUpRosetta hashtag became a trending topic and millions of people now know everything about “our” brave little spacecraft doing great research far away.

Social Media Power

Despite the fact that public attention dramatically decreased after the Apollo and Space Shuttle era, there is new and increasing interest. Social media is rallying global space enthusiasts, bringing them closer to the action. Social media allows a shift from informing to involving people, turning them into ambassadors for the space sector. So instead of a handful of communication specialists, agencies are working with thousands of widely distributed social media communicators, greatly extending the reach of the space message. The community not only distributes the information, they even generate their own multimedia content in the shape of tweets, blogposts, photo reports, infographics and videos.

This is the true power of social media, and where other sectors can learn from the space industry. Space is back!