Twitter, New Director May Help Launch NASA into Next Era

May 15, 2009 06:00 PM
by Liz Colville
As the president prepares to name a new NASA head, the agency is using Twitter to shape its reputation with contributions from astronauts and others.

Tweeting the Life of an Astronaut

Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon was an unprecedented milestone for the United States. But on May 12, NASA once again gave a nod to the future when it used the micro-blogging site Twitter to send the first tweet from space. The first question that may come to mind: They have the Internet in space?

Technically, Mike Massimino, aboard the space shuttle Atlantis on a mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, wasn’t tweeting from space. Instead, he sent the message to Mission Control in Houston, Texas, which then transcribed the message to Twitter, reported SPACE.

But Massimino has been using Twitter for several months, helping to promote NASA’s work under the moniker Astro_Mike. Massimino is a “veteran spacewalker and Hubble repairman,” according to SPACE, which reported on both his debut on Twitter and his first tweet from space.
Massimino has nearly 300,000 Twitter users following his updates, and many of these have been tracking him since his spring training and preparation for the mission.

In his first update from space, Massimino wrote, “Launch was awesome! I am feeling great, working hard, & enjoying the magnificent views, the adventure of a lifetime has begun!”

NASA’s Public Affairs Office came up with the idea of using Twitter, according to SPACE. Creating hype and publicity around the Hubble trip, a “risky 11-day mission,” Massimino’s tweets also occasionally direct followers to NASA’s Web site and its video site NASA TV, where people can watch the Hubble repair mission in action.

NASA has actually been tweeting from multiple accounts for some time. The Brazen Careerist’s Alexandra Rampy listed all the known government entities and individuals who were on Twitter as of last October. She listed more than two dozen NASA accounts, including the Astrobiology Institute, the Hubble and the Earth Observatory.

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Background: NASA looking for a reputation boost

Twitter could help NASA create a more positive PR image for the American public and those who aspire to a career with the agency. The agency has, as one Orlando Sentinel article put it in 2008, not been a source of inspiration for Americans in the last three decades, “since the end of the moon program.”

Though it has ambitious plans in the works, NASA "is hobbled by a lack of resources and a public that is only mildly interested in its mission," the Sentinel's Mark K. Matthews and Robert Block write. The agency has a much smaller budget than it did in the Apollo era.

President Obama is preparing to name a new head of the agency this month, with the top candidate appearing to be retired Marine Corps General Charles Bolden, The Wall Street Journal reported this week.

Related Topic: Twitter as a promotional tool for causes and businesses

Twitter is home to many individuals, organizations and corporations who are looking to the popular site for ways to draw attention to a cause or product. The Twitchhiker, for example, is a British man who traveled the globe to raise money for an organization called charity: water, tweeting as he did it. Twitter enabled him to make connections with dozens of people in many different countries.

Twitter megastar Ashton Kutcher, with help from his wife Demi Moore, has used his clout to raise money for the charity Malaria No More. His race to beat CNN to one million followers on Twitter was essentially an all-in-good-fun marketing campaign to promote World Malaria Day, MSNBC’s Technotica reported. Kutcher promoted the race on Twitter, the Malaria No More blog and in the mainstream media and ended up beating CNN to the mark.

For all Twitter’s inadvertent work in enabling marketing campaigns, the site also received a bump in traffic thanks to Oprah Winfrey, one of the most powerful tastemakers in the U.S. Featuring Twitter on her show in April, Winfrey got lessons on how to tweet from two of the site’s founders, Technotica wrote, and the site consequently saw an enormous traffic leap.

But while Nielsen Online recorded that traffic surge in a recent report, it also found that “more than 60 percent of U.S. Twitter users fail to return the following month.” This could be due to the fact that such users don’t see Twitter’s “clear-cut benefit to their lives,” as Nielsen Online CEO John Burbank recently put it.

But astronaut Mike Massimino and others are showing that there are tangible results to be had from publicity-making efforts on the site.

Reference: The Hubble Telescope


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