This week I'm attending the NASA Social event #NASAMarsDay in New Orleans. I'll be at the Michoud Assembly Facility and NASA's Stennis Space Center to see a test firing of the RS-25 engine, which will help launch humans into deep space! Today, we had our orientation to the event and we talked a lot about... social media.
“Nowadays you can ask a question on social media to someone living off the planet, [going] 17,500 miles per hour, 250 miles above the planet – you can ask them a question and they can answer it for you,” John Yembrick said during the welcome session of this week’s NASA Social event in New Orleans. Yembrick is NASA's social media manager
“You can do an interactive video event, ask them a question and get an answer in real-time. As long you have connectivity you can be anywhere in the world. Technology has made space accessible to people. We’ve done so much to try to change and bring down the walls at NASA. We are disruptive.”
Yembrick also nodded to the changing landscape of science journalism.
“Before, you had to be an accredited journalist [to get into NASA media events],” Yembrick said. “And then all of a sudden, we debated, are bloggers journalists? We decided, OK, we’ll let bloggers in. But then when social media became a thing, we decided that we’re not going to debate it, we’re just going to let them in. And that’s how NASA Tweetups and then NASA socials [came to be]. This is a special thing. I like to think of it like Willa Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. You get these tickets and this behind-the-scenes experience that nobody else gets.”
I'm glad they aren't debating whether bloggers are journalists anymore!
The NASA Social participants come from all walks of life. One participant manages a racetrack in Baton Rouge. Another manages social media for the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team. One participant is a radio show host, one participant is a theatre director, one participant is a science fiction author, and others are students and digital media specialists for a variety of different organizations.
“NASA is a perfect fit for social media,” said NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio. Mastracchio has flown three space shuttle missions, including Atlantis, Endeavour and Discovery, and was a flight engineer for the Russian Soyuz mission on the International Space Station. (He has also had his run-in with misinformation on social media.) “NASA has this great story to tell. We’ve got these great pictures and videos from all over the place, all over the solar system. But we didn’t know how to show them very well. So we started using social media, like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and people love it. Folks love what NASA does on social media, and I think it’s a great fit for NASA to reach out and encourage and motivate the young folks to get excited about math and science.”
My only problem with what NASA was sharing with us regarding their social media efforts was that they seem to be making what is often a false assumption in science communication. That assumption is that “to know science is to love it,” or that simply sharing what NASA is doing on social media will turn into support for their space program and missions, or will result in more people going into STEM careers. This is a common understanding of the goal of science communication that many studies show is an inadequate understanding.
I personally think NASA is going beyond this, through storytelling, encouraging public dialogue with NASA and highlighting women and minorities as role models for space exploration and research. Just the fact that the NASA Social organizers strategically pull in people that aren’t normally tweeting, Instagramming and snapchatting about astronomy and space exploration indicates they’re aware of the need to reach beyond their online echo chambers and filter bubbles of people who are already “super space geeks.” But I hope they are operating beyond the deficit model of science communication if they are looking for NASA support from people who don’t normally prioritize space exploration and research.
More important than showing people amazing photographs and displaying the “cool things” that NASA is doing may be telling stories about human struggles and human triumphs within NASA space projects and why this matters. How does NASA, through its space exploration programs and projects, help us learn more about our environment, more about ourselves, more about our own capabilities and more about our place in the universe and how we should think about that? Those, ultimately, and the kinds of stories I want to see more of from NASA social media.
What about you? Do you follow a NASA social media account? What do you think about what they are sharing and how they are promoting STEM and space exploration.