NASA soars on social media with Orion spacecraft

NASA, which launched the Orion spacecraft earlier this month, is engaging people more than ever on social media and through events to highlight the importance of the agency's missions.

Orion being moved from the crew recovery cradle
Orion being moved from the crew recovery cradle

WASHINGTON: NASA is using social media and influencer events to bust myths about its demise and interact with more people than ever before.

The agency "didn’t shut down when the last space shuttle landed," said Bob Jacobs, NASA deputy associate administrator for communications. "What we did was turn our attention to the next generation. That’s what Orion is part of and we’ll continue to try and build on it."

The Orion spacecraft, which launched on December 5, was retrieved last week after its "successful flight test and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean," according to a blog on NASA’s website.

On the day of the launch, Jacobs told PRWeek that "this was the first test site of Orion [and] we wanted to put everything we had into it so people know how important it is."

According to NASA’s website, the Orion test flight "is the first flight test for NASA’s new deep space capsule and is a critical step on NASA’s journey to Mars."

Jacobs said the outreach effort around Orion wasn’t – and has never been – about blatant promotion or selling something to the American people.

"We see our jobs as cleaning the windows. We want people to have a better view of their space program," he said. "We’re always challenging ourselves to look for some other way that they can have access to the mission."

Jacobs added that NASA continues to be on the forefront of space exploration by both shuttles and humans.

People got to see a live shot of the Orion crew, the splashdown, and views from the space shuttle from an astronaut’s point of view, a first "since the Apollo era," Jacobs noted. NASA’s efforts to educate and involve the public started when the Mars Curiosity landed. Jacobs said part of the agency’s focus is to "remind people that any one mission doesn’t stand alone."

NASA has more than 480 social media accounts spanning various topics and 12 platforms, said John Yembrick, NASA’s social media manager. "It’s not your father and grandfather’s space agency," he said.

Yembrick pointed out that before its social media capabilities, people might only have known about NASA’s ongoing work though the news or specifically looking for it online.

"You only knew when something went horribly wrong," explained Yembrick. "We also do a really good job of making ourselves relevant and being a part of pop culture."

As of Friday, Orion garnered more than one million social media posts in the week before, Yembrick told PRWeek. On December 5 alone, there were 320,723 tweets about Orion, and 502,844 tweets between December 1 and 5. 

Orion was a trending topic on Twitter on both December 4 and 5, and the @NASA_Orion account saw a 30,000 increase in followers over the same time span, according to Yembrick. NASA also reached 13.3 million people on Facebook on December 5.

"Orion is the biggest thing we did this year and it showed," said Yembrick, who noted that Orion even trended in other countries on the day of the launch.

To continue building buzz, the agency has been inviting social media influencers to various events to take tours and talk to scientists. In return, NASA asks – but doesn’t require – that the influencers share their experiences with their followers, whether on Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr, Yembrick said.

The popularity of those events has gotten to the point that program alumni "self-organize," said Yembrick, and turn out for activities on their own, such as the Orion launch. He added that as long as interest remains, NASA will continue to host social events.

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