Anchor on the Road: NASA Social @ APL

NASA Social Events are a Brilliant Peek Behind the Curtain 

Do we ever stop dreaming of the stars?

Looking up on a clear night at the distant celestial bodies, it’s hard not to be filled with such awe and wonder as when we were children. There’s still so much to learn, so much we don’t know, and so much we have to explore out there, beyond Earth and beyond our own solar system.

This past weekend, I was brought back to a perpetual state of childhood wonder after attending a NASA Social event for Anchor Social. I left inspired, amazed, and jealous of the good humored scientists, engineers, and social media organizers that get to experience the incredible mystery of the universe on a daily basis. 

What is perhaps so inspiring about the way NASA operates is that they don’t keep the excitement of space to themselves. They openly share it on all of their social media pages and encourage interaction and discussion. They understand knowledge and education is, perhaps above all else, what should be shared across the internet. As far as content marketing goes, NASA consistently provides content that is not only relevant, but has great value to each and every once of us willing to learn.

 

As part of their efforts, NASA hosts events where they bring in public social media users to cover the event via their social media platforms. These NASA Socials range from tours of labs, watching a launch, seeing new exhibits early, and meeting the great men and women behind the scenes. It’s a brilliant way for them to engage in public interest and reach a brand new audience, all while providing an exciting opportunity for anyone who wants to have a peek behind the curtain.

Speaking now from experience, a NASA Social is an incredible opportunity for social media influencers to engage with such a well respected, historic organization.

Last Friday, participants of the event we were accepted to were granted early access to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. to see a new exhibit and listen to speakers involved in the New Horizons Mission. This mission, which utilizes the fastest spacecraft ever built, is the final part in a saga to study our solar system that began in the 1970s with the Voyager missions. New Horizons was launched in 2006 and will now be conducting a flyby of Pluto, the last planet in our solar system (and yes, many at NASA still refer to it as a planet) that has yet to be properly photographed and examined. 

The probe is about to reach its first major destination next month, but data is already coming in.  NASA and the Smithsonian are hard at work updating the Exploring the Planets Exhibit, and we got to see some of the newer installations. While standing under life-size replicas of New Horizons and its older sibling Voyager, we listened to experts such as Dr. Jim Green describe the mission and its purpose. Others, like Kevin Hussey, demoed NASA’s software Eyes on the Solar System (which is open to the public) that provides real time models of objects in our solar system and beyond, including the numerous probes and satellites surrounding them.

 

dr jim green new horizonsDr. Jim Green explains the New Horizons mission at the National Aeronautics and Space Museum 

The following day was the main event: a tour of the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins University where New Horizons was partially constructed. Unfortunately, due to certain clearance restrictions, we weren’t allowed to take photographs ourselves, but trust me when I say it was exactly like your childhood mind imagined a laboratory that builds space probes would be. There were large corridors with thick pipes running along the top, high ceiling laboratories with humming filtration systems, engineers and scientists wearing white coats and hairnets, timelines of previous missions adorning the walls, and of course current works in progress in various stages of construction, including a solar probe that is set to launch in the very near future.

Next, we were allowed to check out the Mission Operation Center for New Horizons, run by the first woman Mission Operations Manager (MOM), Alice Bowman. We listened to her explain the mission further and answer our (many) questions.

After a brief lunch (that included a meet and greet with New Horizon’s principal investigator, Alan Stern), we were brought back into a meeting room to set up for the live broadcast to NASA TV, which is their 24 hour stream available online. We were presented with a panel of speakers, many of whom we met the day before, and got a great overview of the project, from conception to its most recent stages, as well as some more technical information. Each speaker followed with a Q&A from our audience, calls from a simultaneous NASA Social in Arizona, and Twitter users who marked their questions with the hashtag #askNASA. (If visiting Pluto sounds cool to you, feel free to check out the full panel here.)

nasa social aplPreparing for the live broadcast 

 

One thing was made clear over and over again: everyone at NASA loves what they do. It’s great seeing engineers and operation managers crack a smile whenever they were asked a question, and it was even better to hear the excitement in the voice when they answered. They love what they do, and they want to share that excitement with others.

This reach is achieved by bringing in public social media users like ourselves to get a more intimate look into what goes on behind the scenes. We were encouraged to take photos (where we were allowed) and live Tweet the entire time, including during presentations, which is an undoing of many years of school lecture behavior. By framing the event with relevant hashtags #NASASocial and #PlutoFlyBy, we helped create a large pool of information that is instantly searchable and consumable. It’s of interest to the public, engaging, and educational – not to mention exciting. The hope is that the public will come back and follow New Horizons as it conducts its flyby next month.

NASA has much to teach us, both in terms of exploring beyond our own planet and as professionals in the advertising world. You want the definition of “meaningful” content? Look no further than NASA’s social pages and see for yourself. Their work speaks for itself, and their eagerness in sharing the content they’ve created leaps off our screens and into our own imagination.

The NASA Social event I attended was an incredible experience that brought back the wonder of childhood knowledge and expression. To be on the boundary of our own solar system isn’t something every company (or any other company, really) can leverage to create content, but being excited about the work you conduct and wanting to share that with the public is absolutely a model that can and should be followed by marketers and businesses. It goes beyond transparency. It’s the poster child for an incredible content marketing campaign specifically because it creates something of value that is educational, interesting, and will naturally be shared with others.

nasa social pluto anchorThe awesome NASA Social gang, which despite the sign, still had no idea which way Pluto was

For more resources and examples of how NASA is creating an engaging platform, make sure to check out their NASA Eyes models as well as their future work in the augmented reality field that let me take a picture with a virtual Curiosity rover.

I encourage anyone with an interest in space that has a reach NASA could use to apply for the next NASA Social event. I met everyone from teachers, to hobbyists with a space-related blog, to video game enthusiasts. It’s a great window into everything you only hear and see about on TV and science fiction stories.

We may never fulfill our dreams of reaching the stars ourselves, not in our lifetime, but NASA is doing everything in their power to take us along for the ride. As long as they keep creating content and opening their doors to the public, we’ll be right there with them.

Thank you to the entire NASA Social team, including NASA’s deputy social media manager Jason Townsend and everyone at APL who were generous enough to show us around. We hope to see you again real soon.

– Steve Dixon