In southeastern Houston, TX, amidst a sea of highways, cars, and strip malls, is a space research complex that includes over 100 buildings: the NASA Johnson Space Center. The facility’s main entrance is located on Saturn Lane, across from a Tutti Frutti Frozen Yogurt and Bullritos.
On the morning of May 22, 2013, I drove into the sprawling facility in search of Rocket Park. My reason for being there? I was fortunate enough to participate in a NASA Social event, one of NASA’s many creative ways of amassing a loyal online following.
I grew up a space nerd, with glowing stars and planets decorating my ceiling and a beloved blue-and-white star-patterned comforter and matching sheets. Living near Washington D.C., I could satiate my moon, Mars, and astronaut appetite with visits to the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. But voyaging to the Johnson Space Center, home of the famous Mission Control room, was always a nagging dream–and the NASA Social presented the perfect opportunity to fulfill it.
This particular social involved a one-day behind-the-scenes tour of the Johnson Space Center, along with twenty-plus other lucky folks, with varied backgrounds, from around the country. All participants had to pay their way there. Among the mix, there were teachers, a meteorologist, science graduate students, an artist, a car magazine editor, and a founder of a digital marketing company. There were also a few science writers, including myself.
The social’s theme was the International Space Station (ISS), and the day’s itinerary was packed. We walked through life-size replica pieces of the ISS in the “mock-up facility,” met with ISS astronaut Mike Fossum, talked with leading ISS scientists, including Dr. Tara Ruttley, attended a live ISS press conference, and visited many astronaut training labs. It was awesome.
Below are some pictures of the May 22, 2013 NASA Social:
Ever since August 2012, NASA’s social media success has been indisputable, and NASA Socials are a contributing factor. The first social was held on August 3, 2012, generating thousands of tweets and engaging millions of viewers. Three days later, the Mars Curiosity rover safely landed on the red planet, despite a turbulent, heart-racing decent. Overjoyed, NASA researchers shared videos, tweets, and images of their celebration across the web.
Adding to the online conversation, the @Marscuriosity Twitter account, controlled by a trio of NASA press office divas, tweeted the vaguely sexual message: “I’m safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!#MSL.” Then @Marscuriosity tweeted a “selfie,” a panorama photo of the rover on Mars taken by the machine’s built-in camera.
In the days after the landing, @MarsCuriosity twitter followers jumped from 150,000 to over 700,000. The mainstream media was drooling. Besides running stories about the Mars landing, there were also articles trying deconstructing how NASA had so handily wooed the Internet (for example, see coverage from USA Today, BuzzFeed, Space.com, and LATimes.)
The secret? For over five years, NASA employees, across job titles, have fully embraced social media, from interns, who are supported to make Gangnam Style video spinoffs, to astronauts, who are encouraged to tweet photos on the job.
And to demonstrate how integrated social media is in the NASA research lifestyle, here is an anecdote from my Texas trip. During Dr. Tara Ruttley’s morning presentation overviewing recent and future ISS research projects, there were 140-character summaries of the main take-away messages written tweet-style at the bottom of each powerpoint slide. #Genius
So besides practicing walking and tweeting at the same time, did I learn anything else at the NASA Social, you might ask? Yes(!), I heard about the science behind shaping the perfect astronaut diet to the many ways microgravity is terrible for the human body to hilarious stories of astronauts pranking ground control. Stayed tuned the inside scoop in my next few posts!