NASA Tweetup Group Shot
Space journalist Elizabeth Howell was among the 100 attendees at the first NASA launch tweetup at the Kennedy Space Center, Nov. 16, 2009.
With a golden flash, space shuttle Atlantis punched through the first cloud hanging between the pad and her destination in Earth orbit.
"Climb that hill, baby!" shouted Gene Mikulka (@genejm29), a technical writer from New Jersey, as he watched the plume of steam spread underneath Atlantis' engines.
Surrounding Mikulka was a group of people who normally would not be allowed on the press site to watch the launch of a space shuttle. For STS-129, though, NASA decided to hold its first shuttle launch tweetup to extend its social media reach to the general public.
Given the success of the November 15-16 event, some tweetup attendees say NASA officials have told them to stand by for a new mission: to help the agency drum up good publicity and formulate a social media strategy.
It's a move the agency hungers for after several months of scathing coverage about NASA's future, particularly with respect to the Augustine commission.
Tweetup attendee Christopher Marron (@justmarron) said NASA's challenge is to generate coverage of other activities besides events like launches.
"It's a lot easier for someone to get excited about this (liftoff)," he said. "You don't need to know why it goes - just that it goes."
The recession is making it all the more important to NASA to justify the tax dollars it spends, so words like 'return on investment' were common phrases used by officials during the tweetup.
Attendees received an e-mail after the launch asking them to send NASA any information about media coverage of the event. How many interviews conducted, how many articles written and what was written will be included in a report sent to top brass about the metrics of this event.
Fighting Over Social Media
The genesis of this tweetup happened in the spring, when NASA realized shrinking news outlet staff meant they would have to turn to more direct means of public communication to get the message out, said NASA communications official Beth Beck (@bethbeck).
By coincidence, NASA public affairs had spent two years convincing an astronaut to tweet during a mission. "There's a culture in the astronaut office. It's their own little universe," said Beck of the time it took. "They have a lot of competing pressures, and it's important to them to be technical and to do their job right so there's no mistake on orbit. Anything that could distract them... There's a fear. What if they tweeted something when they should have been learning something about their mission? Or if they're supposed to be pushing a button on the shuttle?"
The one who agreed to do so first was Mike Massimino, who did several spacewalks during the April Hubble repair mission.
His pithy observations from orbit as @Astro_Mike quickly reached an audience of a nearly a million viewers, comparable to a medium-sized news outlet.
That's when NASA realized that tweetups that gather space geeks would be an effective way to reach hundreds of thousands of people through each Twitter users followers. The agency has held three tweetups before this one, but given the security requirements surrounding this launch, Beck said this has been the most complicated tweetup to date.
NASA designated six employees full-time to the effort. They began by inviting 15 people with significant followings (I was one of them) and opened the rest of the approximately 100 spots through public registration.
"We've had almost weekly telecons," said Stephanie Schierholz, the public affairs official handling the day-to-day details. "We haven't calculated man-hours; we're too busy trying to get the pieces in place. That might be a post-event evaluation."
For the most part, the people attending the tweetup are ordinary space enthusiasts who have not been trained in professional investigative skills, like journalists.
Former CNN and current SpaceflightNow.com reporter Miles O'Brien (@milesobrien) says history shows there are NASA enthusiasts who are even more critical than most people in his profession. During the Phoenix lander mission, NASA official Veronica McGregor set up and used the first agency Twitter account and has told O'Brien she was surprised by the response she received.
"She said the minute she would put something out there that was slightly off or inaccurate, or didn't pass the sniff test, she would hear from people right away. Truthfully, it's collectively a tougher and more envaged crowd than the mainstream media."
A Personal Journey
As I took part in the activities during the tweetup - I was only able to attend launch day due to prior work obligations - it struck me that most of NASA's efforts went towards education.
The day before launch, attendees heard about shuttle launch procedures, took part in a tour of the Cape and spoke with NASA scientists and engineers about the work they do. It's a prudent move on NASA's part given these tweeters will collectively reach 150,000 people with their 140-character messages. The agency wants accurate information disseminated.
But I can't help but wonder what would happen if NASA took the same pains to show every journalist around who comes to the Cape for a mission. Imagine how much better the reports would be if mainstream journalists understood even basic facts like what a flame trench does or how a shuttle mission proceeds during the launch sequence. And for their part, NASA acknowledges not all parts of the agency are sold on social media. Contractor United Space Alliance introduced new guidelines limiting tweeting in Mission Control earlier this year.
Also, NASA public affairs wanted to post some of the shuttle astronauts' favourite tunes from orbit into iTunes; that idea died when lawyers told the agency that is considered a commercial endorsement.
"We have pockets of innovation and we have pockets of bureaucracy," said Beck. "It just depends on where you go. I try not to look at what's wrong. I try to look at what's right and celebrate."
Elizabeth Howell is a space, science and business journalist with credits in publications like the Globe and Mail, Air and Space Smithsonian, the Space Review, the Ottawa Business Journal and a contributor to SpaceRef.