NASA’s New Mission: Conquering Social Space

With millions of followers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the next target is Mars

Space, the final frontier … for marketers? 

Illustration: Lincoln Agnew

Mass media and space travel have always been entwined, the former promoting and propelling the latter since America’s epic push five decades ago to land on the moon before Communist cosmonauts planted the hammer and sickle on its cratered surface.

In the late 1950s and ’60s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s publicity machine piloted the first space age into every conceivable cranny of the nation’s collective consciousness. NASA’s out-of-this-world sales job helped make space a national obsession. Its language and imagery pervaded television, movies, advertising, magazines, architecture, clothing, product design and more. Some cars even resembled rockets, with outsized tail fins seemingly capable of blasting the vehicles into orbit.

Today, astronauts, spacecraft and interplanetary themes are appearing in media and advertising more often than we’ve seen since the heyday of the Apollo lunar missions more than 40 years ago. The second space age has cleared the launch pad, and this renewed interest in off-world exploration is once again reflected and amplified by popular culture.

NASA is helping to drive the return flight with its robust outreach on social channels. And, unlike the ’60s, when corporations developed technology for the space agency but had no means to launch flights of their own, several commercial ventures are also, literally, reaching for the sky. These include Mars One, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, which are generating impressive amounts of news coverage—and could deliver a hefty payload of advertising, entertainment and social content in the near future. 

Armstrong’s historic moon landing

Against that backdrop, it’s perhaps no surprise that Fox’s reboot of Cosmos debuted this year to wide acclaim (even if its ratings have reentered Earth’s atmosphere), while Gravity was a box-office smash, and Interstellar ranks among the most anticipated movie releases of 2014. Could the current space reboot match the thrill and immersion of the ’60s race to the moon? It’s possible, analysts say, but we still have a ways to go.

The first space age played out almost like a Hollywood movie. With the United States cast as hero and Russia playing the villain (in domestic media, at any rate), our nation believed that reaching the moon first was a moral obligation. As Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft rode tails of flame into the unknown, NASA engaged mass media—technologically crude by today’s standards but more powerful in its ability to mold public opinion—to sell that sense of wonder. 

Virgin Galactic’s ship

“We made a special effort to inform the press about what we were doing,” says Ed Buckbee, a NASA public affairs officer from 1961-70, by “training science writers and editors to do our job for us. We brought them into the family. They were basically our salespeople.” NASA gave the press broad access to astronauts, project engineers and mission controllers. It shared huge amounts of information and disseminated assets like photographs and videos made during spaceflights. Those images appeared not just on nightly newscasts, but also in space-themed ads for every imaginable product, ranging from Tang orange drink to Omega wristwatches and various automobile brands. Through the media’s prism, space came to symbolize a shining future pioneered by American know-how, courage and technology.

It was fitting that the first age reached its zenith on July 20, 1969, with a live media spectacle that played out like a way-ahead-of-its-time reality show. A staggering 125 million viewers, representing 93 percent of all sets in the nation, tuned in for Neil Armstrong’s giant leap. (That moment in time powered the narrative behind the final episode of the most recent arc of Mad Men.) Like any self-respecting TV star, the first human being to walk on another world had his pithy catchphrase at the ready. 

SpaceX’s Dragon transport

 

Back to the Future
Of course, both that mission (a lunar landing and safe return) and its geopolitical underpinning (the Cold War) were events of gigantic proportions. That space would become an all-consuming preoccupation was probably inevitable in an era with just three broadcast networks and a more homogenous, less distracted society than the short-attention-span theater we live in today.

In lieu of a broader narrative to spark widespread interest, keeping a fickle public engaged is paramount. NASA and the private space companies are acutely aware of that dynamic and design their media tactics accordingly. “We have clearly entered a new era of space exploration and also a new era of communications,” says David Weaver, NASA’s communications director. “We see that changing landscape as a great challenge—but also as an opportunity.” In the ’60s, folks had to be content with watching space launches on TV. Today, thanks to social media and real-time communications, “they can go along for the ride … fully engage in the experience,” says Weaver.

For Apollo, NASA worked through the established media, and it still does to a large extent. But, taking its cue from commercial marketing, the agency has also become a digital content creator and publisher in a big way.

Currently, NASA is leveraging 500 social media accounts. It has nearly 6.6 million followers for its main @NASA Twitter handle and 4.8 million fans for its primary Facebook page. Updates are constant and can include live chats and presentations with astronauts on the International Space Station, as well as updates from the robotic Curiosity rover exploring the surface of Mars. Launching on Instagram less than a year ago, NASA’s principal account quickly amassed 1.2 million followers and has become a repository for dazzling astronomical images.

Other recent far-out efforts to push the message include: 

Rovio’s latest Angry Bird creation

NASA collaborated with Rovio to create Angry Birds Space. An updated game, Beak Impact, debuts this week. As players advance, they surface information about asteroids. Since the partnership began, players clicking NASA links in Angry Birds Space have driven about 25 percent of NASA.gov’s total traffic.

#GlobalSelfie celebrated Earth Day by asking people around the world to take a photo of themselves. NASA used each picture as a pixel in an interactive mosaic image. 36,422 photos posted to social media were combined to create the stirring image. (From a distance, it looks like planet Earth, but zooming in lets users explore each individual face.)

• The agency crowdsourced the design for prototypes of spacesuits intended for Mars exploration by the 2030s. Given NASA’s long-standing media ties, a Tron-like design won with nearly 235,000 votes. 

NASA’s #Globalselfie mosaic

Take it Up in Private
Speaking of Mars, analysts say the build-up for a mission to the Red Planet could put the new space age on par with the legendary Apollo effort that captivated the country. “When you talk about Mars, ears perk up,” says former NASA public affairs officer Buckbee, who later founded the U.S. Space Camp and Aviation Challenge programs. “The younger generation is pumped—they want to be part of it.”

NASA’s Weaver adds: “Sending humans to Mars and bringing them safely home is the next giant leap for us.” 

A crowdsourced Mars space suit

Given the expense—perhaps trillions of dollars—and countless technical and logistical challenges, several nations would probably have to join forces to undertake a human landing on Mars. It’s possible that private companies will lend a hand, though the nature of such a partnership remains unclear. (NASA has a $1.6 billion contract with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to devise a cargo transportation system between Earth and the ISS, so cooperation between the public and private sectors on space is under way.)

Mars One is planning a mission in 2024 to establish a four-person colony on the fourth planet from the sun. It will be a media extravaganza as much as a space mission, with a reality show in the mix. “The story of humans settling on Mars is one that every person on the Earth will like to see,” says Mars One founder Bas Lansdorp, who vows to use “all means available: broadcast media, social media, narrowcast and probably a lot of others that don’t even exist yet. I like to compare our mission to a combination of a blockbuster movie and the Olympic Games.” 

Mars One’s privately funded mission to Mars in 2024

Naturally, Lansdorp sees advertising in the mix. “We’re looking for brands that want to associate themselves with innovation, exploration and our can-do mentality,” he says. “A car company could be a partner for our rover mission. A food company could be our food partner, helping to develop the means to produce food on Mars. A pharmaceutical company could be our ‘Life on Mars’ partner and supply the technology to look for Martian microbes.”

Pie in the sky? Perhaps—but commercial space companies are gaining altitude all the time. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has already taken wing—at least via test flights. The venture is dedicated to promoting space tourism, initially for celebrities and others who can afford the $250,000 ticket price.

“We have more than 700 customers signed up to be future astronauts already, an exclusive partnership with NBC and, as we move closer to the first commercial launch, like-minded partners like Land Rover,” says Stephen Attenborough, commercial director, Virgin Galactic. 

Gravity’s stranded astronaut Sandra Bullock

All manner of media outreach is planned, but not everyone believes the effort will soar. “It’ll get some press. But will it sell tickets? I’m not so sure,” says sales and marketing analyst David Meerman Scott, who recently co-authored Marketing the Moon, which details NASA’s efforts in the ’60s to promote spaceflight. “What it will take is not so much putting Kim Kardashian up there, but taking writers, artists, poets, filmmakers … who can relate the experience” to everyday people.

For example, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who became an Internet sensation last year with his rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” performed live on the ISS. Hadfield proved to be a one-man meta-fusion of media and space travel. His “Space Oddity” clip got millions of views, his tweets with William Shatner and other Star Trek greats generated Hollywood crossover headlines, and the publication of his autobiography, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life, led to countless TV and online appearances. 

Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson

What’s most important, experts say, is that he put a face on the endeavor and gave a wide swath of people a taste of space to which they could instantly relate.

Moving forward, a big mission with a relatable human element could be the right stuff to take the new space age to dizzying heights.