End of an Era

April 28, 2011 9:00 am

NASA embraces social media and online content to mark the end of the space shuttle program

If you’re already experiencing Royal Wedding fatigue, there is an alternative that is literally out of this world. 29 April not only marks the marriage (to be broadcast on YouTube) between Wills and Kate, but it will also witness the final launch of the US space shuttle Endeavour.

After 30 years, 133 missions and two disasters, NASA’s space shuttle program is entering ‘mandatory retirement’ this year, with the June mission of the shuttle Atlantis marking the end of sometimes controversial era of space exploration. Tomorrow’s Endeavour launch is not only the penultimate shuttle mission, but also confirmation that NASA has – belatedly – discovered the value of online content, and particularly social media content, as a means of promoting and marketing its work.

For an organisation that is synonymous with pushing the boundaries of technological advancement, NASA has been slow to embrace the possibilities afforded by new media. Its website has rightly been held up as a prime example of attractive design, interactive features and engaging, constantly updated content in the form of articles, videos, images, interviews, blogs and more.

the value of online content

NASA embraces online and social media content

Until recently, though, NASA failed to leverage this quality content across social media platforms, which can prove critical in raising an organisation’s profile or, in the case of NASA, keeping people informed about its work and the reasons for it. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that NASA’s embracing of Twitter in particular has coincided with the downturn in the US’s economic fortunes in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Since 2009, NASA has actively engaged the Twitterati to provide real-time reports of its work, with shuttle launches being the highest-profile manifestation of that approach. In November 2009, NASA invited 100 bloggers to attend the launch of the shuttle Atlantis and comment accordingly. For tomorrow’s Endeavour launch from Cape Canaveral, 150 luck tweeters have been given behind-the-scenes passes to an historic event.

Those chosen will come from all over the world. Appropriately, given that Captain Cook’s ship was also called the Endeavour, a significant number will be from Australia and New Zealand.

And as the shuttle Endeavour takes to the skies (and beyond) for the final time, it’s tempting to reflect that at the time of the very first official shuttle launch in 1981, social media had never been heard of, mobile phones were in their infancy and even the Internet itself was little more than a gleam in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye.
Three decades later, it is the online universe that, in the eyes of many, offers the most exciting possibilities for exploration. It’s interesting that NASA’s own online and social media content is now accepting that fact.


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