Back in 2010, NASA Astronaut T.J. Creamer made history. He didn’t discover a new element, or find life on Mars. He sent the first tweet from space.
Hello Twitterverse! We r now LIVE tweeting from the International Space Station — the 1st live tweet from Space! :) More soon, send your ?s
— TJ Creamer (@Astro_TJ) January 22, 2010
It was simple, and it was elegant – and it was extremely calculated. According to NASA Social Media Manager John Yembrick, getting astronauts to tweet was a focus and a struggle for him. “It was new and no one understood what it was,” he says. “And the technical capabilities weren’t there.” In fact, that tweet from Creamer that you, me, and everyone you know favorited wasn’t technically the first sent from space. “Mike Massimino was going to fly the Hubble service mission, and he said, ‘Sure I’ll try.'”
“So he went up there, and he would actually write emails from the space shuttle and a public affairs officer on the ground would tweet them out from his account to his followers.”
As connectivity improved, the tweet that made the earth stand still (but not really) came to be – and many more have followed since. “Now we have 47 tweeting astronauts in the agency,” Yembrick says. “And we don’t really have to explain to them the value anymore. They get it.”
In addition to those 47 Twitter-happy astronauts, NASA is also the proud owner of some 487 social and Web accounts, which all run through Yembrick (who is the second person to hold the position). “For NASA, it’s certainly a job,” he says of social network management. “We have 3.7 million Twitter followers, a large presence on Google+, up to 430 folks in the circle, and 1.8 milion ‘likes’ on Facebook. We’re easily one of the most successful federal agencies on social media.”
SXSW 2013 marks NASA’s first showing at the social media expo of sorts, and it’s an appropriate time. Within the last few years, the agency has made the likes of Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms its homes and been posting tweets, pictures, and streaming video through these networks to connect the world with the frontier that lies just beyond it. These efforts began back in 2008, with one measly Twitter account: @marsphoenix. At the time, the handle had about 75,000 followers, making it the fifth most popular Twitter account. The impetus to join Twitter was to show the world more than the Space Shuttle take off or a moon landing. The moments between the big events, it turns out, are inspiring us just as much. “There is always news breaking [with NASA],” says Yembrick. “All the time, and we wanted to show people these cool developments.”
“When you’re seeing history being written, you don’t know it. But now it’s all being documented, so you can go back and see these groundbreaking developments that you were around for.” And possibly watching a live-tweet of.
So is there any platform preference? Yembrick insists they each have their own function, but admits that Twitter holds a special place in NASA’s heart (it remains the most active and popular federal agency on Twitter). “We started off in Twitter. It started a community for us.”
“We started out doing NASA tweetups [which started in 2009 at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab] where we would invite people to come and see behind the scenes what we were doing, and these people would communicate to their followers what we were doing.” The program has since been expanded into NASA Social, bringing users from Facebook and Google+ into the mix.
Yembrick says Google+, in fact, has become a beloved tool for NASA for two reasons: The community and Hangouts. “I like it because it’s a different community than we have on Twitter and Facebook. It seems like there are a lot of people who are educated about space, and the Hangout feature allows us to have face to face connections with people.” Indeed it does: Just last month, NASA held its first Hangout from space, video chatting with astronauts from the International Space Station. “It was the first time someone – anyone – could ask something on social media and watch it answered right there in real time.”
As far as what platform is next, Yembrick can’t say. The thing about a federal agency is that it can’t just sign up for an Instagram account like you and I can – there is some red tape to be dealt with. “It’s a process,” he explains. “You can’t just say ‘We want to be on Tumblr’ and we get one – it’s a process.” Yembrick says it took about a year to get NASA on Google+, but that there are other networks NASA thinks are a priority that it wants to be a part of. (Personally, I want some GIFs from space, so let’s get to those Cinemagrams, or even Vines, guys.)
Despite his obvious excitement over using social networks to connect people in this world to those exploring what lies just outside of it, Yembrick admits he was initially resistant. “Look, I’m a little old school,” he says. “And when I was told to go start tweeting, I was reluctant and rolled my eyes. There was always a wall before that you had to go through to reach people though – between us, there was the news media. But now we can directly connect with the public. Engineers, astronauts, administrators, we can engage with anyone who wants to talk.”
An exclusive NASA Social event is being held at SXSW this week, invitations being sent out to some 35 especially connected conference-goers who will be privileged enough to attend special NASA panels and events. It’s the agency’s first time at SXSW, but Yembrick says they’ll be making a return appearance. “We decided wherever there’s a media event happening, we want to be there and involve social media.”
While a considerable amount of NASA’s social success is thanks to Yembrick and the many people behind these efforts, the fact that what the organization is talking to us about – the universe – lends itself to digital discussions. “What we’re fundamentally communicating is understanding our place in the universe,” says Yembrick. “And I think that resonates with every child, adult – everyone.”
Yembrick’s amibitions for NASA’s social reach remain unsatisifed. “We have 3.7 million followers on Twitter – I think that’s lousy. Justin Bieber has 35 million followers. I feel like we should be connected with more people than that.” Godspeed, NASA. You have our blessing.