It's space Jim, but not as we know it

The idea of galaxies, black holes and planets orbiting the Earth was once a giant step into the unknown, something that was only read about in national newspapers or gawped at in disbelief by those who watched the 1960s Star Trek television series.

And then Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon. The live broadcast of his progress down the ladder of Apollo 11 was watched by more than 500 million people. They were rewarded with blurred, black and white imagery. The moon, it seemed, really could be made of cheese.

But today millions of people have seen space in all its multi-coloured glory. Just 12 men may have walked on the moon but, through the wonders of technology, millions of people can now view the sights that they enjoyed.

And it is all down to NASA. From its inception in 1958, the space agency’s mandate has been to communicate as much as possible about its experiments, missions and launches. But the arrival of social media provided the next step in its ‘communication evolution’.

Jason Townsend, deputy social media manager at NASA, says: ‘At NASA it is all about telling a story. We are always looking for new ways of communicating our messages.

‘Social media is key for us as we can go after our own audience, see where they are and find those that are also looking for us.’

NASA took its first step into the world of social media in May 2008 when the Phoenix was named as the new Lander for its mission to Mars.

Townsend recalls: ‘NASA had just landed the space craft on Mars and we knew that a bunch of stuff would be happening outside of business hours. We wanted to find a way to communicate what was happening straight away to the public.’

Veronica McGregor, the news and social media manager for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, decided to launch a Twitter account and use it as a platform to tell the world what was happening, as it happened.

Less than a month after the Phoenix landed, water ice was found on Mars. It was found after the team had gone home, so McGregor announced the news in a tweet that read: Are you ready to celebrate? Well, get ready: We have ICE!!!!! Yes, ICE, *WATER ICE* on Mars! w00t!!! Best day ever!!

Since then, 480 accounts have been created across ten social platforms, including Facebook, Google+ and Foursquare.

Townsend explains: ‘It operates as a decentralised model. There are two social media managers who oversee the whole landscape of the social media accounts.’

There is a social media lead at each of NASA’s ten field centres, such as the John F Kennedy Space Center and the Armstrong Flight Research Center, and each account is controlled by a manager. Today, there are around 200 account managers.

Townsend explains: ‘Accounts dedicated to missions are usually embedded in with the mission teams as well. They provide a very authentic and credible voice in real time and in the moment.’

Townsend, along with social media manager John Yembrick, controls the main flagship accounts on various platforms such as Twitter’s @NASA profile, which has more than 6.4 million followers.

On a typical day, Townsend and Yembrick will start putting content together from early morning. ‘It is definitely not a nine till five job. People will continue to talk on social media whether you are asleep, at home or at work,’ admits Townsend.

The duo will interact with each of the account managers and coordinate content for each of the accounts. They check that everyone is using the same hashtags and talking about similar topics.

Townsend adds: ‘We will usually sit down and coordinate what is going to be posted and also think about turning the volume off on certain things.

‘We also listen to what people are talking about on social media and respond to questions from followers. A lot of the time we are helping students with their homework. They will often ask how to calculate a maths problem about the solar system or ask for research information for their essays – we answer a lot of these questions.’

How do I become an astronaut? is also one of the most frequently asked questions. Nearly every child (and adult) has wondered at some point what it would be like to visit space. Today, with 40 astronauts on Twitter they can hear first-hand.

Townsend says: ‘I think it is important for followers to hear from astronauts as it is a humanising part of the experience. We can talk all we want but hearing from someone who is just like you, but is having these experiences in space and then interpreting them on social media is something people definitely latch on to. It is a different way of storytelling.’

Astronauts receive basic training on social media, but they are then free to post their own content online, be it a selfie of themselves in a space suit with an image of Earth reflected in their visor, or a tweet claiming that Sleeping in weightlessness is the best. It is like floating in water without the wet.

Astronauts Rick Mastracchio, @AstroRM, and Koichi Wakata, @Astro_Wakata, are currently tweeting 250 miles above Earth at the International Space Station (ISS). Their fellow astronaut, Steve Swason, has taken over NASA’s ISS Instagram account to share images of what they are experiencing.

‘These accounts show people what it is like to live and work in space and it rekindles that childlike wonderment,’ says Townsend.

As well as the ISS account, NASA launched its flagship Instagram account last September. Today, it has more than 930,000 followers. The account displays a range of images, from classic photographs of Earth taken in 1972 to snaps of space station astronauts focusing on preparations for a recent spacewalk.

Townsend says: ‘We launched on Instagram because it was a natural fit for us. It is amazing to see images of galaxies, solar flares and the Earth. We get some great visual images.’

The social media team understood what images resonated well with their followers based on visuals already used on Facebook and Twitter. They were able to fine-tune this on Instagram and began to see what did and didn’t work.

‘People are fascinated by astronauts, the space station and visuals of the planets. But people do not like to see images with a lot of text on them as they can get confused about what it means,’ admits Townsend.

The Instagram account aims to cater for both the ‘casual observers’ and the ‘hard-core space fans’ and produces content that inspires both groups. Each image comes with a paragraph of text that describes what it is showing and explains why NASA decided to conduct research in that particular field.

Townsend admits: ‘You can’t really include a link on an Instagram post but people still want to really understand what an image is showing them. People are curious about what they are looking at, so being able to answer their questions straightaway is important.’

A similar format is used on NASA’s Facebook and Google+ pages. Its Facebook page, NASA - National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which has more than four million ‘likes’, will often provide large amounts of information.

Unlike Twitter, where everything is written in a concise style, relying on an interesting headline to draw people’s attention to a link provided, NASA uses a longer format style on Facebook. ‘Here we will take lots of the little things posted on Twitter and combine them to create longer posts,’ explains Townsend. ‘People continuously ‘like’ what we do but we are constantly thinking about how we can better optimise our content.’

On flagship accounts, Townsend and Yembrick will post using what they describe as the ‘royal we’. Tweets such as Our radar imaging mission captures this pic of volcanoes in Guatemala and Curious re: the Earth? We are. In 2014, we’re launching 5 missions to study #EarthRightNow are frequently posted.

Account managers have the freedom to decide on the appropriate tone of voice for their feeds. ‘Each account has a different set of followers so the account managers will take different approaches. It just depends on what they think is appropriate and if what they are doing is working with their audience – not one size fits all,’ says Townsend.

For example, Townsend’s three Californian-based colleagues, who launched the Twitter account @MarsCuriosity, which has more than 1.54 million followers, have made the most of that freedom. @MarsCuriosity is an account dedicated to the Mars Rover, an automated motor vehicle which propels itself across the surface of the planet. The account is written from the point of view of the Mars Rover, with tweets posted such as Curiouser&Curiouser! Rolling up on my next science waypoint for a closer look at these odd rocks. and Reunited and it feels so good... My communication buddy MRO is back online after a computer swap.

Posts often include references to pop culture. Townsend claims: ‘It makes it much more interesting and it connects and really resonates with people. They can understand what is being spoken about a lot more easily.’

When it comes to monitoring these accounts, NASA’s social media team is once again as relaxed as it appears to be about everything else. Each account manager is free to use whatever monitoring tools best fit them and their accounts.

Townsend explains: ‘We like to use our native platforms as it is an easy way to share big images and upload posts directly to the site, but we have probably used every tool out there to monitor our social media accounts.

‘We have used TweetDeck to monitor conversations and Twitterfall to look at the different hashtags being used and what is trending at the time, but we don’t tend to stick to just one tool. It really just depends on the topic of content on the day.’

Social media has given NASA the ability to interact with the public in a way it has never been able to do before.

Townsend concludes: ‘It was a huge culture change as we can now directly communicate with the public. We really appreciate seeing our content shared in real time.

‘And we will definitely use new platforms in the future. We are always looking out for the next one and where it will come from. Followers often ask us Where are you on X platform so we just need to continue monitoring where they expect to see us.’