With its impeccable production values, suspenseful music, and impassioned scientists, NASA’s YouTube video "Challenges of Getting to Mars: Curiosity’s Seven Minutes of Terror" almost feels like a documentary-style outtake from the latest Hollywood space epic. But this video—which explains in riveting detail how the Curiosity Mars rover managed to land on the red planet without crashing—is just one of many creations to emerge from NASA’s multifarious social media machine.
Jason Townsend, NASA’s deputy social media manager, explains that the organization’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory produced the "Seven Minutes of Terror" video. However, the JPL page is just one of over 20 YouTube channels sponsored by NASA, and each of the videos on these channels is produced in a different way. Some of them are created for NASA TV and repurposed; others, like the breathtaking videos of glaciers in Antarctica, are shot out in the field by scientists and video bloggers; yet others, like this one putting the gamma rays from a Fermi telescope to music through a data visualization, come directly from NASA’s program managers.
It’s the decentralization of the social media process—ideas and follow-through from every nook of the NASA universe—that allows NASA to produce so much fascinating content. According to Townsend, there are over 460 social media accounts across eight different networks—an impressive reminder that NASA’s not just about the now defunct space shuttle program, it’s about all kinds of scientific breakthroughs from robotics to meteorology. Townsend works out of NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., with social media manager John Yembrick.
Yembrick and Townsend oversee the organization’s overall strategy. But the individual accounts—from Twitter to Flickr to Facebook—are managed at the various field stations, often by members of scientific teams. Take the Hubble Space Station Telescope Twitter feed, which is run by a team member. "Because it’s run at the local level," Townsend says, "When people ask questions, they get responses directly from scientists."
The level of direct engagement with the public is also what makes NASA’s Internet presence so remarkable. Just last week, NASA’s website hosted a chat with scientists about the Orionid meteor shower, and invited shower watchers to add their photos to NASA’s Flickr account.
Often, though, the engagement with the public comes at the behest of the public. For example, Dr. David Morrison was the scientist answering questions that came through NASA’s Ask an Astrobiologist web feature.
A few years ago, he started to get questions about the apocalypse, specifically about the Nibiru cataclysm, which is the notion that a rogue planet is going to crash into the earth in December 2012. Morrison was so troubled by these questions, many of which were from school-age kids, that he worked with the web team to put together a video and an FAQ about doomsday (The website the Awl has a wonderful interview with Morrison here).
Social media manager Yembrick says what happened with Dr. Morrison is a natural course for NASA, and truly encapsulates their particular organizational mission. "We want to calm people based on facts and reason," Yembrick says. "We’re going to continue to do more of that into December…Putting experts forward, it is part of our responsibility to quell rumors."
Educating and connecting with young people, and not just about the apocalypse, is a large part of what drives NASA to continue innovating with social media. One of their current big projects is working with Foursquare to create a badge that users can get for checking into planetariums and science centers. Townsend is especially proud of these missions, which he hopes will get kids engaged in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines. "If we can get parents taking their kids out to places like that, to spark that curiosity in students that eventually inspires them going into (STEM) careers," Townsend says, that’s when he’ll really feel accomplished.
[Image: Flickr user Jeremy Stanley]