“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” – President John F. Kennedy, Rice University, 1962
In the 53 years since Kennedy’s legendary speech, NASA did indeed send men to the moon and completed various other missions, from Hubble to the ISS. However, public engagement with NASA has waxed and waned since the glory days of 60s space exploration, what with the agency’s Congressional budgeting debates, occasional but detrimental disappointments, and even questions of its fundamental merit and benefit to the nation.
NASA took a great leap in 2007, however, and forayed into another kind of dark unknown: social media. It joined Twitter that year as @NASA and Instagram somewhat later in 2013 with the same handle. The photos on all accounts are so stunning and the captions so detailed, that there is something for people with all levels of space enthusiasm, from scientist, to enthusiast, to photography fan.
Yesterday, July 14, 2015, at 7:49 AM, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft successfully executed a Flyby of Pluto. This is, by all accounts, a milestone for the U.S., NASA, humanity, and is certainly an “other thing” that President Kennedy mentioned: New Horizons flew more than 3 billion miles and 9 years with the mission of snapping photos of dwarf-planet Pluto.
NASA stepped up their social media involvement in accordance with the event, sharing various photos, stats, videos, and quotes: the spacecraft has its own Twitter account, @NASANewHorizons, and the event has its own trending hashtag, #PlutoFlyby. Instagram and NASA even partnered up to ensure that the first publicly-viewed photo from the Flyby was shared on NASA’s account an hour before it was released on the agency website.
This mission, more than any other, exemplifies NASA as a public fascination once again—complete with a refreshing and conversational personality, far removed from any stuffy impression it gave off in the past.
Some highlights of @NASA’s #PlutoFlyby social media strategy:
- Created chats and Q&As on Twitter linked with @Reddit_AMA
- Now counts themselves one of the lucky few to be mentioned in a tweet by @POTUS
- Garnered engagement and congratulations from pop-culture figures such as the band @Bastille, popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Steven Hawking, and Twitter itself
- Joked around, saying New Horizons “phoned home”
- Photographed the New Horizon team’s reaction upon hearing the mission was successful—an emotional look inside NASA
With #PlutoFlyby, NASA took a monumental and highly technical event, and molded it into something interesting, entertaining, and enjoyable for the entire world. In a time when celebrities and tabloid obsessions draw the public into their phones, NASA took digital and managed to not only engage us, but make us look out and back up towards the stars, just as we did in 1962.
That’s what I’d call social media savvy.
More images just arrived yesterday from New Horizons; stay tuned to all NASA accounts for updates.