The agency celebrated its 55th anniversary with a government shutdown. As our partners at ReadWrite discovered, it's Twitter to the rescue!
By Selena Larson
NASA turned 55 on October 1, and to celebrate, the government is shutting it down. Because the United States Congress has failed to authorize continued spending, the federal government stops providing all but "essential" services. Unfortunately, unlike the postal service, air traffic management and armed forces, NASA and a number of other government science endeavors aren't considered essential.
But a growing number of people who follow NASA on social media, read science blogs, and share scientific articles with friends might disagree.
5 Million Space Fans
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration—NASA to most of us—took to Twitter to announce its closure, and apologized to its nearly five million followers.
NASA is one of the most popular science accounts on Twitter—and it's now becoming recognized as one of the largest targets of the shutdown. According to the Washington Post, only 549 of NASA's 18,250 employees will be expected to report to work.
But this might be a great time for NASA's huge social media following to turn their tweets into action and let Washington know: science is essential to them.
The ease of passing around links and articles on social networks is driving a wave of renewed attention around science, technology, engineering, and math—or STEM, as it's known in the education business. The dramatic NASA shutdown could be a test: Does interaction about these subjects on social media really translate into action offline?
The answer is far from clear, but practitioners are hopeful.
NASA’s Social Community
Some of us probably remember sitting in awe as NASA scientists or astronauts came to our classrooms and wowed us with stories of space exploration. Now that wonder is making an impact on an even larger audience through social media.
NASA's long been known for planting flags on unexplored turf. It's been quick to colonize social networks, including the launch of an Instagram account two weeks ago, where it quickly amassed almost 200,000 followers. The space agency’s long-established Twitter account has a following of almost five million. NASA also uses video platforms like Google+ Hangouts and YouTube to bring scientists and astronauts into classrooms and living rooms around the world.
“We’ve never had this citizen science experience prior to social media,” said Jason Townsend, NASA’s deputy social media manager. “This is going to change how we perceive science and discovery and research in ways we just don’t know yet.”
One big push for NASA is to find ways to reach more young people to encourage an interest in science and technology. Twitter has been a successful platform for engaging a younger audience, including megastar Justin Bieber and his almost 45 million followers. After tweeting an invitation to help the young musician take his act into space, NASA saw a huge uptick in its follower count, including many female fans whom it might have struggled to reach through traditional means.
"If we can reach just one or two girls and get them interested because of him, then we’ve been successful," said John Yembrick, a NASA social media manager.
Turning Followers Into Funding
Following NASA on Twitter is not an end in itself. The space agency hosts NASA Social meetups, events that allow followers to take part in behind-the-scenes events surrounding NASA’s milestones or important historical moments.
NASA Social allows online followers to become more active members of the NASA community. In fact, these events are compelling attendees to become more involved in the community by organizing campaigns and lobbying the U.S. Congress for more funding—or, in the wake of the shutdown, any funding at all.
One campaign, Penny 4 NASA, is a push to increase federal funding to one percent of the U.S. annual budget. As it stands, the space agency receives less than half a penny of every federal dollar spent—about 0.48 percent.
And yesterday, Penny 4 NASA called for action on Twitter:
Participants in the NASA Social events created the campaign on their own. But the people who run the agency are savvy enough to know that popular support for space programs is the only way to preserve their funding.
How NASA's telling the public it's OK to be smart through social media, when you read on.