The universe doesn't often give us occasion to think about Charlie Sheen and NASA at the same time, but consider this: After landing its Curiosity rover on Mars early Monday, the space agency is not just in the midst of an impressive Hollywood-style rehabilitation, it's also tearing up Twitter. And if it's not quite on pace to match Sheen's early record-setting accumulation of followers, the @MarsCuriosity feed, written in a lively first-person, has zoomed from fewer than 140,000 to more than 800,000 over the past four days.
Born in 1958 at the height of the Cold War, NASA is in the midst of transforming itself into the very model of a 21st-century media company that creates and distributes its own content, in large part by allowing its employees to express themselves at will. When some viewers of the Mars landing noticed a hot guy with a red and blue mohawk in Mission Control named Bobak Ferdowsi, he blew up on Twitter and Tumblr. The next day, with his own Twitter feed rocketing past 30,000 followers, NASA freed him up to do interviews.
And just like Sheen and other celebrities, the agency is using social media to circumvent established news outlets in order to take its stories straight to an eager audience. That's especially important at a moment when the general perception is that U.S. budget troubles, friendly relations with former space-race foes, and the Space Shuttle's retirement have left the agency struggling for a new raison d'être.
NASA was one of the early adopters of social media, using it from the beginning to break news directly to the public. Its announcement on June 19, 2008, that it had found ice on Mars came through the Twitter feed for its Phoenix rover, which occasionally lapses into a comically informal vernacular: "Are you ready to celebrate?" it asked that day."Well, get ready: We have ICE!!!! Yes, ICE, *WATER ICE* on Mars! woot!!! Best day ever!!"
Only later did the agency issue a press release with the dry, scientific details of its find.
Of course, NASA has had the means to produce news for decades, equipping its missions with cameras that established news outlets tapped into. But it used to leave the actual news production to the professionals. Then, a few years ago, it decided it didn't need to depend on intermediaries. "People could pull our feed from the satellite and tell our story," explained John Yembrick, NASA's social media manager in an interview this week. "Now we're telling our own story more directly in a much more efficient way."
The differences were on stark display during the landing. On CNN, talking heads yammered throughout the broadcast, talking over the one NASA engineer on loan for the night, offering occasional bits of information. Meanwhile, NASA's own online broadcast on the video site UStream.com brought viewers right into the mission control room, where we could practically feel the scientists' heartbeats. And there were plenty of idiosyncratic moments there, from the traditional munching of peanuts to the ceremonial transfer of marbles from one team to another.
NASA said it had upward of four million streams between late Sunday and midday Monday. And shortly after the landing, joyful photos of the mission control crew popped up on NASA's Facebook page, which now boasts a growing collection of pictures beamed down from Mars.
"After the shuttle retired, a lot of news stories you saw were 'the death of NASA,' " noted Yembrick. In February, when the agency marked the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's landmark 1962 orbital flight, the news coverage "was all about how we can no longer send Americans into orbit on our own spacecraft." Meanwhile, "if you read the things that were happening on social media, it was celebrating the historic flight. The conversation was much different."
"We have spacecraft finding new planets or orbiting distant stars, we have space weather, we're flying spacecraft out to Pluto, we're landing rovers on Mars, we're doing all of these things – and the news media really wasn't telling that story well."
Curiosity is a creature of social media: Its name was chosen after a contest initially announced on Twitter. The @MarsCuriosity feed is written by three women who operate "as a hivemind," according to an interview the team leader Veronica McGregor gave to TechNewsDaily. Their tweets are personable and knowing, with pop culture references that run the gamut from Radiohead to Sesame Street.
But just because it's working for NASA doesn't mean every organization should embrace the approach. "Government agencies are constantly coming to us and asking, 'What have you done to be so succcessful?' " notes Yembrick. "The thing that helps us is that NASA is such a powerful brand that can connect with so many people. I mean, if you go to any part of the world, people recognize the NASA logo, probably more than Coca-Cola or McDonald's in some places."
"I'm not sure it would work for Housing and Urban Development."