Inside NASA's communications plan for the SpaceX launch

From Twitter Q&As to live TV coverage, a look at how NASA's communications team prepares for a big space mission.

NASA has been busy communicating about what could be a historic mission by SpaceX, the space flight company founded by Elon Musk.

SpaceX is scheduled to launch its Falcon 9 rocket on Saturday morning, carrying more than 5,000 pounds of food, supplies, and science experiments to the International Space Station. In an unprecedented effort to test reusable rocket technology, the company will also attempt to land the spacecraft’s engine on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean.  

This is SpaceX's fifth of 12 missions planned under a $1.6 billion NASA resupply contract.

PRWeek spoke to NASA about how the agency’s communications team is preparing for the big launch.

Briefing the press on experiments
NASA has issued several media advisories about the mission, such as a pre-launch press briefing, a release about the science headed to the space station, and a post about a specific experiment by the agency.

Content creation
NASA has published a number of features on its blog about the science used for the mission. The agency scheduled the posts at key points leading up to the launch and will also publish some at launch time, while the spacecraft is docked to the station, and after it has returned to Earth.

"These features are pegged to what we believe are newsworthy hooks," explained Joshua Buck, public affairs officer for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA.

Social media ambassadors
On the day before a launch, the agency typically invites about 50 social media followers to come to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a NASA Social, Buck said. The attendees wear media badges and are welcome at all press briefings. They are also able to hear from speakers and take tours of the center.

"The goal is to have them share their experience on social media with their followers, who may not necessarily follow NASA," Buck said.

The agency has already held a NASA Social for the SpaceX mission, which was originally scheduled for January 6, but participants' media credentials are valid until launch, Buck noted.

During its pre-launch briefings, NASA invited the public to ask questions on social media using the hashtag #AskNASA. Panelists answered several of the questions during televised briefings.

NASA’s social media team regularly monitors and answers questions through those channels, and the agency also has a phone number and email address for the public to submit inquiries, Buck said.

Crisis preparedness
NASA’s communications team aims to be as prepared as possible for mishaps during missions.

"Recent events, such as the Virgin Galactic [SpaceShipTwo] crash, underscore that space exploration is a difficult endeavor," said Rachel Kraft, public affairs specialist for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA. "What we do and what commercial companies who are exploring space are doing is challenging stuff."

Live launch coverage
NASA TV will broadcast live coverage of the launch on Saturday. The broadcast will start about an hour before the launch and feature a commentator and interviews explaining details of the mission. Afterwards, NASA will issue a press release and host a post-launch news conference.

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