How Virtual Reality and Social Media Are Helping Buzz Aldrin and NASA Educate the Masses

Tech is breathing life into space travel at SXSW

The legendary astronaut has a helpful friend in VR. 8i/Time Inc.
Headshot of Christopher Heine

Space travel may have been at its buzziest in the late 1960s, when Buzz Aldrin—right behind colleague Neil Armstrong—became the second person to walk on the moon. Yet intergalactic topics seem to be making a notable comeback thanks in part to a few tech-minded developments, specifically NASA’s social media game and Aldrin’s leveraging of virtual reality.

In terms of the latter, Aldrin is set to take stage today at South by Southwest, where the 87-year-old will showcase his devotion to humans colonizing the universe. He’s expected to explain, among other subjects, that there’s enough ice on the moon that it can be mined and turned into the amount of rocket fuel needed to send humans someday on a six-month journey to Mars. And he’ll be armed with virtual-reality content to illustrate his potentially revolutionary master plan. Starting at 11 a.m. local time, showgoers at the Austin Convention Center will be able to put on VR goggles and be immersed in a 10-minute, 3-D video called “Buzz Aldrin: Cycling Pathways to Mars.”

This is Aldrin in the VR film, detailing how much resourceful ice exists on the moon.

“I’ve always been interested in the future, and virtual reality let’s me bring my vision to life in a way that can inspire future generations,” Aldrin said via email. Indeed, he aims to create a historical document that students of space travel can interact with 50 or 100 years ahead, giving them a virtual connection to one of the key figures of the Mars movement.

Adweek got a sneak-peek demonstration of the VR film Aldrin created with experiential agency 8i, a New Zealand-based outfit that’s drawn $41 million in funding from the likes of Time Warner, Verizon and Chinese digital giant Baidu. The video “puts” its viewers into outer space with planets zooming by, drops them on the surface of the moon and descends them onto a butte-like Mars. On Mars, viewers can see depictions of pod-looking homes—think 22nd century sod houses made of metals instead of mud—that Aldrin and other astrophysicists imagine the first “New Martian” settlers will live in. Aldrin himself appears as a hologram while professorially narrating the action around him (and you).

“One of the benefits of a full-scale VR experience is learning and seeing something in a new way,” said Linc Gasking, co-founder of 8i, which also works with brands like L’Oreal. “Three-dimensional information is helpful to customers.”

The VR film represents a partnership between Aldrin’s camp with 8i and Time Inc., which will spearhead distribution of the content via its many digital outlets. The trio plans to do additional VR chapters in the story down the road. Gasking has a vision for how the futuristic pieces can be seen more widely, suggesting that VR is “at the Internet cafe point.”

“It’s a medium like email was at one time that’s obviously helpful but has yet to hit the mainstream,” he said. “But people are doing it in a way where they have to go to a location to do it. It’s great for retail. Consider that malls are essentially turning into experience centers.”

That’s not the only untapped potential distribution channel Gasking brought up. “We’d love to see [VR headsets and content] at the Smithsonian, the Natural History Museum, all the observatories in the world,” he said.

NASA is also at SXSW, riding a new wave of relevance that’s got a tech flavor. (To be clear, NASA and Aldrin are not officially partnered and operate separately.) The space agency has built up its social media presence to the tune of roughly 20 million followers on each of the world’s most popular social platforms including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. It employs four full-time social media staffers.

“Science and engineering are technical fields that can seem unrelatable to a lot of people,” explained John Yembrick, NASA’s social media manager. “We want to really explain clearly what is going on, and we do that by composing our posts in a way that a fifth-grader should understand.”

NASA has become a South By regular in recent years. But building off attention from the Oscar-nominated, NASA-based movie Hidden Figures as well as the administration’s recent discovery of seven Earth-like planets, the organization is going bigger than ever with its SXSW exhibit. The activation dovetails nicely with Aldrin’s speech, as it includes an experience called “Journey to Mars” that will convey deep-space exploration through “VR chairs” for willing participants.

“The goal for NASA at SXSW is to provide an educational presence that helps inform attendees and their communities about the groundbreaking work of the agency,” Yembrick said. “Along with our robust science portfolio, with missions exploring our solar system, observing the Earth from space, finding new planets around distant stars and unlocking the mysteries of the universe, our human spaceflight program is focused on advancing commercial spaceflight in low-Earth orbit and developing the technologies to take astronauts deeper into space than ever before.”

Unsurprisingly, his team is not acting like an aloof space cadet on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter during an event that’s known to take on layers due to online sharing.

“We [are promoting] our presence in Austin on our social media channels and encourage the sharing of NASA-related content using the #NASASXSW hashtag during the event,” remarked Jason Townsend NASA‘s deputy social media manager.

Aldrin, an octogenarian, has a pretty sweet social media game himself. He’s got more than 1 million followers on Twitter, a platform he uses regularly to engage fans.

“Sharing my updates on social media lets people see how I’m actively working on the future of human space exploration every day,” Aldrin said.

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.