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Rebranding NASA For A New Space Age

On the eve of the first test launch of the Orion spacecraft that may one day take humans to Mars, NASA is re-thinking how it engages the public and disseminates information, by focusing on explaining each mission instead of a more generalized approach. In the process, it’s modeling how businesses can better interact with customers.

Rebranding NASA For A New Space Age

We’re going to Mars. Who’s aboard?

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Since the 2011 shuttering of the space shuttle program, NASA has been more aggressively revamping its image as both deep-space pioneer and partner to a burgeoning commercial space industry.

Integral to that process is a more strategic use of social media, astronaut outreach, external research and STEM support, pop culture tie-ins, and media production to better educate and more interactively engage the public and its imagination.

“Since the retirement of space shuttle, you’re beginning to see the needle move–and not just for Mars, but for our Earth science missions and the International Space Station (ISS),” says Bob Jacobs, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for communications. “It’s a more strategic turning up of the volume on a particular activity. A lot of industries are copying what we’re doing in terms of public engagement.”

Animated depiction of the Orion test flight

The revised approach builds upon what NASA has been doing for years–i.e. flying student experiments in space, deploying advisors to Hollywood, using sci-fi content as teaching moments, and tapping under-the-radar technological solutions through its Grand Challenge program—but trains them on specific missions and the people behind them.

This month, NASA is focused on the December 4 Orion Exploration Flight Test-1, which many regard as the first major step toward sending humans to Mars, and the December 15 SpaceX ISS resupply mission. But it’s also planning campaigns for New Horizons Pluto Mission this summer, OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sample return mission launch in 2016, the Space Launch System (SLS) deep-space rocket test flight in 2018, and the Mars 2020 rover mission, among others.

“It’s focusing and going deep,” says Jacobs. “The American public invests considerable resources into some pretty compelling Earth and space exploration and it deserves as good a view into the technologies as we can provide. Historically, we delivered information through reporters. Social media makes it easier to talk directly to the public. Astronauts, in particular, have really embraced it–from Chris Hadfield’s Space Oddity music video to Reid Wiseman, who posted the first Vine video from space–which has made them more relatable. It’s one thing to think of them as talented, smart people working in space. But it’s nice to know they also look outside the window in awe at our planet.”

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(L-R) Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner, shares the stage with NASA’s Bob Jacobs during a NASA event. NASA regularly enlists celebrities to help spread its message, like this Orion: I’m On Board! campaign video featuring Lou Ferrigno.

A social media push (NASA boasts nearly 18 million followers on Twitter and Facebook) has been essential to rallying public excitement for the Orion test and SpaceX mission, both of which launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (You’ll be at able to watch them live here.) The Orion spacecraft–designed to take humans into deep space, but uncrewed for this test–will soar to 3,600 miles, 15 times farther than the ISS, testing its systems, radiation levels, and heat shield before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean 4.5 hours later. SpaceX, contracted by NASA to shuttle supplies to the ISS, will use its launch to attempt a controlled landing of its Falcon 9 rocket booster on a floating platform in the ocean, a step toward cutting space costs with reusable rockets.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 first stage landing test earlier this year.

“Orion is not just a human space flight story,” says Jacobs. “It’s part of continuing the journey to Mars, enabling us to bring in other elements of the agency that contributed to it, and putting it in the broader context of other exploratory missions.”

Public Embrace

For the Orion launch, NASA instituted its first agency-wide NASA Social–expanding a program that allows social media users to apply for the same access to NASA specialists and centers as traditional journalists. Those selected will report on the launches from one of its 10 centers, connected by a multi-center NASA Television simulcast. A smaller group will attend the SpaceX launch. Earlier this fall, NASA also invited the public to submit names for inclusion on a microchip to fly aboard the Orion this trip and eventually to Mars. (Similarly, the OSIRIS-REx team recently called for contributions to a time capsule to be deposited on an asteroid and retrieved in 2023.)

One NASA Social participant covering both launches is Andrew Mayne, a magician and star of A&E’s Don’t Trust Andrew Mayne, whose podcast, Weirdthings.com, often covers space issues and targets some 15,000 of his more ardent fans.

“The folks at NASA really get social media,” says Mayne. “They aren’t just interested in the overall size of an audience, but how into the topic they are. That’s a mistake that’s often made [by others]—confusing hits with intensity. Our audience is super excited about where space is right now—so many cool things happening.”

Weirdthings.com’s live coverage of SpaceX’s first private resupply mission to the ISS in 2012. Andrew Mayne appears at 21:56.

NASA’s strategy is extending to its industry partners. Orion builder Lockheed Martin is using social media educate the public and policy makers about its contributions to space technology through its Engineering the Journey to Mars brand campaign, which borrows from its corporate slogan, Engineering a Better Tomorrow. Part of that includes profiles of Orion engineers on its website and a Mars Walk Challenge, calling for Mars Walk dance videos submissions.

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Denver Museum of Nature & Science Mars Walk video submission

“Cool technologies help us be innovative with our marketing,” says Lockheed Martin marketing specialist Dani Hauf. “We wanted to humanize Orion and remind people that it’s a crewed spacecraft, and that people will one day be on the Red Planet.”

Public Response

The public is responding in novel ways to share its own enthusiasm. There’s the annual Yuri’s Night space party April 12, celebrating Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s first flight into space April 12, 1961, and promoting space exploration. The Desert Wizards of Mars, a global group of scientists, designers, and builders, bring space education to Burning Man. The Facebook community Space Hipsters disseminate news about space issues, enthusiast meet-ups, and related personal anecdotes among its roughly 3000 members. (NASA’s Jacobs drops in on occasion to say hi “and show that we’re paying attention.”)

Space Hipsters’ Emily Carney

“We have a few members employed with NASA,” says Space Hipsters co-moderator Emily Carney, who writes for AmericaSpace.com. “While the agency hasn’t officially reached out to us, the people within it have been pretty enthusiastic and shared a bit about Orion. Our group is a pretty good mix of enthusiasts and industry. If people have a question, it’s easy to find an answer from an expert, which is really cool.”

A Little Showmanship

One of NASA’s branding leaders has been the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA, builder of the Mars rover Curiosity, whose proximity to Hollywood and Art Center College of Design has enabled it to tap those creative wells and sense of showmanship. In fact, many of its communications staffers come from TV news and documentaries.

“We know what reporters and television need, and it’s made a big difference,” says Blaine Baggett, JPL’s director of communications and education, and a former PBS documentary producer.

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The Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory team gathers for a group shot last summer, on the second anniversary of its Aug. 5, 2012 Mars landing, shouting, “Dare mighty things!” Their slogan is from a Theodore Roosevelt quote. A subsequent session had team leaders discussing mission findings and trepidations.Photo by Susan Karlin

“Mars is pre-sold. People already have this inherent interest, so it’s got an upper hand compared to our other missions,” says Baggett. “When the project was still being developed, we had a 24/7 live-cam, where people could see the rover actually being built, ask questions, and we could respond to them. So we had millions of people following this project following before it even launched.

“Then we communicated the risk involved and scientist concerns,” he adds. “That’s the big secret, to get scientists and engineers to explain what they’re feeling as human beings, rather than just numbers and equations. 7 Minutes of Terror (a video on the precarious Curiosity landing mechanisms) was the perfect example of this. By the actual landing, watching people jumping up and down, you were sharing that enthusiasm, that relief.”

Eruption in the JPL Mission Control after the successful 2012 Curiosity landing.Photo by Susan Karlin

Part of that image redesign involved a technical update and aesthetic make-over of the JPL Mission Control about 10 years ago, from a 1960s mid-century modern to a 21st-century sci-fi look.

“As we became more sophisticated, people started doing mission control from their laptops, so there was a desire, and also to save money, not to trot over to that particular building for those events,” says Baggett. “But we were missing the opportunity to share those missions with the public. So decided to refurbish our spaceflight operations facility and make it very dark and sci-fi as another production value to bring to our events.”

(L-R) JPL Mission Control in the 1960s and today.Images courtesy of NASA

“We’re constantly putting out a steady drumbeat of media releases and holding events so the public can go on the journey with us,” says Baggett. “Landing is the first step, but the real journey begins as you’re looking for the discoveries and encountering trevails. That’s part of the adventure—going into territory where we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Mining Audience Overlap

NASA is increasingly targeting unconventional arenas that share similar audiences. For years, NASA scientists and engineers had been making individual appearances on various panels at San Diego Comic-Con, often to explain the science behind science fiction films and TV shows. Although Comic-Con seems a natural fit, given that comics and sci-fi fans are often drawn to real-life space exploration, last summer marked the first time NASA commanded its own panel.

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During the packed session, NASA’s Next Giant Leap, actor Seth Green engaged astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Mike Fincke, NASA planetary scientist Jim Green, and Curiosity engineer “Mohawk Guy” Bobak Ferdowsi in a discussion on NASA’s future plans.

“I think we have a really compelling story to tell right now,” says NASA public affairs specialist Trent Perrotto. “You have articulate people able to explain how the agency is working together in a compelling way toward a path to Mars. We’re already on the surface and learning what we’re going to need to send humans there in the future. Comic-Con is a real intersection between science, art, and culture, where people are inspired by NASA, but may not fully understand that we’re on a path to Mars.”

(L-R) Mike Fincke, Bobak Ferdowsi, and Jim Green at San Diego Comic-Con.Photo by Susan Karlin

“I don’t know that we’d really been able to fully engage our audience before social media,” says Ferdowsi, who stumbled upon Internet stardom when thousands of Twitter followers honed in on his funky mohawk hairstyle during Curiosity landing night. “Events like this panel are absolutely amazing, but to be able to show our story on a daily basis is also a big part. All the Mars rovers have personalities online. I think we’ve been building that storytelling ability.”

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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