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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.

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