Photo courtesy NASA HQ Photo.
I've already written about how NASA is using social media platforms like Twitter to reach the public, but an event this weekend deftly proved my point. NASA held its fifth Tweetup at Kennedy Space Center, inviting the first 100 people following @NASA and @NASATweetup who registered down to Florida for a two-day tour and launch viewing (it filled up in less than five minutes). I was one of the lucky few and arrived at the KSC Visitor's Complex very early on Sunday for the kick-off event with a lineup of speakers (now on YouTube in three parts), including the extremely engaging Jon Cowart, Ares I-X Mission manager, Wayne Hale, NASA's Strategic Program Planning Manager, Astronaut Mike Massamino, Veronica McGregor from JPL, and science reporter Miles O'Brien. This was followed by a tour of the ISS Processing Facility, the Saturn V rocket and Apollo museum, and a visit just a few hundred feet from the launchpad where Atlantis sat patiently awaiting Monday's launch.
The next day, the Tweeters woke early for a bus ride down to the media viewing area, just 3.5 miles from the launchpad, where they were provided with a large tent and tables, free WiFi and electrical outlets, along with a continuous stream of speakers: members of the close-out crew who did live narration, United Space Alliance engineers who brought tiles and other shuttle parts to view, and even astronaut Scott Kelly. And finally, of course, the shuttle launch, with the blinding flames, chest-shaking shockwaves, and brilliant white trail -- for nearly everyone there, it was their first viewing.
The reason why this weekend was more than just a special couple of days for those 100 people, but a huge event for the space program is a demonstration in modern media outreach. Each visitor live-tweeted their experiences and excitment for two days to all their followers at home: a combined 150,000 people, and that's not including how many people began following the event once the hashtag "#nasatweetup" became so frequently used it was a top ten "trending topic" on Twitter's main page. Major tv media networks commented on the event on launch morning, and reporters from CNN, Univision, and many, many other media outlets came to interview the Tweeters in their tent on Monday. Documentaries were being filmed; frankly, I don't think anyone had seen that many video and film cameras in one room in their lives.
It other words, it wasn't just an event about watching the launch, it was an event about the space program's ability to interact and hold the interest of the public. The participants were mostly very knowledgable and supportive of the space program, but while one goal surely was to give the participants the experience of a lifetime, a bigger purpose was to use these 100 willing and eager communication tools; they were handed microphones and they used them to preach the benefits of space exploration to millions of people all over the world. (Not to mention, allowing 100 eager spacefans to meet each other in person formed a bond among many of them that will continue on whenever they find a message that needs repeating to the masses.)
Rumors abound that the White House may soon slash NASA's budget by ten percent. The shuttle program ends in a year and there's still little direction about the future of human space exploration. To paraphrase Jack Dailey, Director of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, in a press briefing today, we lack the immediate challenges that have pushed forth so many other space initiatives. So I've said it before and I'll say it again: NASA needs the public en masse actively behind them. Embracing modern media, social networking, and the kind of grassroots campaigning that helped get the current president elected will be the way they accomplish it.
It's perhaps interesting to note that not since the Apollo 11 mission had that many people cheered the Astrovan as it brought the astronaut crew to the launchpad. Though it's likely too much to ask to recreate the enthusiasm of that time, it's a poignant reminder of the potential.