Can Twitter save NASA?

twitter nasa mars curiosity roverJudgment Day, as foretold by the Terminator series, must be near. We sent a robot to Mars earlier this week and it started tweeting back to us with facts about the mission. It also engaged in some banter with Sesame Street and dropped the popular “I’m in you!” Internet meme. It’s like a titanium version of Kevin Smith.

And it’s also the best thing NASA could have done.

What was probably started as a joke in one of the JPL’s meetings (probably by the guy with the mohawk) has turned into one of the biggest PR coups NASA has had in years. People love the tweeting rover, even if it’s not precisely the rover that’s tweeting. You can tell them that the Curiosity rover cost $2.5 billion and they will say, to a man, that the money was well-spent because they are now emotionally involved.

The American people haven’t been emotionally involved in a space mission since the Hubble Space Telescope, and that’s the fundamental reason why we barely have a space program today.

kennedy space center shuttle nasa liftoffLet me give you some background. I grew up in the shadow of Kennedy Space Center, yet had only been on the property a handful of times, even though plenty of my friends’ parents worked out there and could arrange passes. Why go out there and deal with the people and security if you could simply walk out your front door, as I could, and watch the most complicated machine ever built shake your neighbors’ windows?

The current malaise of America’s space program offered a rare opportunity for my family to take another trip to Kennedy Space Center recently. We strode past gates that few people went beyond when I was a kid. “Shoot first, ask questions later” kinds of places. All for the price of a tour ticket. No background check. No perusal of identification. Children received a discount, so we took my 3-year-old daughter.

The Vehicle Assembly Building was the largest building in the world by volume when it was completed. I have actually visited one of the buildings that surpassed it, the Boeing assembly building near Seattle, and I met it with a “meh?” I knew what impressive buildings looked like (I passed the VAB on the way to the beach or the mall as a kid), and Boeing’s overgrown warehouse wasn’t impressive. An open cube 52 stories high was impressive.

Our tour guide made it a point of telling us that NASA still considers the VAB the world’s largest one-story building. Like that will ever be a question on “Jeopardy!”

What saddened me wasn’t the fact that a man with a speaker attached to him was leading us around this iconic structure (again, a place stray tourists would have been shot 10 years ago), his voice echoing around one completely vacant hangar bay, but that the adjacent hangar bay wasn’t vacant at all.

Parked at an angle, as if someone had left the engine running and was just jumping out for a quick second to pick up something at 7-11, was the Space Shuttle Discovery (of course, the engines weren’t actually left running; we would have been incinerated).

It wasn’t hanging from the massive cranes attached to the roof, as it had been while being fitted to its fuel tank and rockets for each of its 39 missions. It was simply cast aside, waiting for its ride to the Smithsonian. It might as well have had a handicapped parking tag on the rear-view mirror.

vehicle assembly building nasaWe were able to spend about 10 minutes in the VAB. If it weren’t for Discovery, that would have been about 5 minutes more than needed. Not because it wasn’t awe-inspiring, but because there are only so many pictures of an empty cube your friends will tolerate on Facebook. To be there when things were actually happening, that would have taken days.

The plans for KSC are fluid. One private company wants to lease a certain building. Two or three want to sublet the VAB. In other words, the Center is slowly being auctioned off.

Notice how I didn’t say anything about NASA? If we can stop paying for wars, maybe they’ll use it to go to Mars. But space exploration is not for countries that are bankrupt, either of money or imagination. You would be hard-pressed to find a NASA employee out there (if you can find one in general) who wouldn’t say this country has run out of both.

Curiosity isn’t the solution itself. Its mission is designed to last for more than a year and a half. People will have forgotten about it long before then. But the lesson of involving the American citizen in the space program again is a lesson that can be reused over and over again.

NASA needs to start selling itself once more. Show us benefits. Show us excitement. Show us leading the world and we’ll be willing to bankroll anything, but we have to be invested in the process. Involve us, and not just when it comes time to name a spaceship.

Believe it or not, the politicians still listen to us occasionally. If we want something, like a person on Mars instead of a personable robot, they will find the trillion dollars it takes.

But if you let us forget that NASA exists, we will.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

Mobile

Smartphone makers are vomiting a torrent of new phones, and we’re sick of it

Smartphone manufacturers like Huawei, LG, Sony, and Motorola are releasing far too many similar phones. The update cycle has accelerated, but more choice is not always a good thing.
Home Theater

These awesome A/V receivers will swarm you with surround sound at any budget

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to shopping for a receiver, so we assembled our favorites for 2018, at multiple price points and all loaded with features, from Dolby Atmos to 4K HDR, and much more.
Emerging Tech

We’re going to the Red Planet! All the past, present, and future missions to Mars

SpaceX isn't the only organization pining to visit the Red Planet. Here's a detailed list of all operational and planned missions to Mars, along with explanations of their objectives, spacecraft details, and mission proposals.
Emerging Tech

Prepare for liftoff: Here are all the important upcoming SpaceX rocket launches

From ISS resupply missions to a host of communication and scientific satellite launches, SpaceX has a busy year ahead. Here's a rundown of some of the company's most important missions slated for the next year.
Deals

Miss Black Friday but still need an Xbox? Walmart has you covered

Black Friday and Cyber Monday have both come and gone, but you can still save some cash on a new Xbox One bundle at Walmart. Both the Xbox One S and the Xbox One X are on sale now.
Opinion

Do we even need 5G at all?

Faster phones, easier access to on-demand video, simpler networking -- on the surface, 5G sounds like a dream. So why is it more of a nightmare?
Home Theater

The Apple AirPods 2 needed to come out today. Here are four reasons why

Apple announced numerous new products at its October 30 event, a lineup that included a new iPad Pro, a MacBook Air, as well as a new Mac Mini. Here are four reasons we wish a new set of AirPods were on that list.
Computing

Razer’s most basic Blade 15 is the one most gamers should buy

Razer's Blade 15 is an awesome laptop for both gamers, streamers, professionals, and anyone else needing serious go in a slim profile, but its price is out of reach for many games. The new Blade 15 Base solves that problem with few…
Gaming

Going to hell, again. The Switch makes 'Diablo 3' feel brand-new

I've played every version of Diablo 3 released since 2012, racking up hundreds of hours in the process. Six years later, I'm playing it yet again on Nintendo Switch. Somehow, it still feels fresh.
Gaming

‘Fallout 76’ may have online multiplayer but it’s still a desolate wasteland

"Is Fallout 76 an MMO?" That depends on who you ask. Critics and players often cite its online multiplayer capabilities as a reason it qualifies. Yet calling the game an MMO only confuses matters, and takes away from what could make…
Digital Trends Live

Microsoft has #*!@ed up to-do lists on an epic scale

Microsoft has mucked up to-do lists on a scale you simply can’t imagine, a failure that spans multiple products and teams, like a lil’ bit of salmonella that contaminates the entire output from a factory.
Opinion

As Amazon turns up the volume on streaming, Spotify should shudder

Multiple players are all looking to capitalize on the popularity of streaming, but it has thus far proved nearly impossible to make a profit. Could major tech companies like Amazon be primed for a streaming take-over?
Gaming

Throw out the sandbox. ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’ is a fully realized western world

Despite featuring around 100 story missions, the real destination in Red Dead Redemption 2 is the journey you make for yourself in the Rockstar's open world, and the game is better for it.
Gaming

‘Diablo Immortal’ is just the beginning. Mobile games are the future

Diablo fans were furious about Diablo Immortal, but in truth, mobile games are the future. From Apple and Samsung to Bethesda and Blizzard, we’re seeing a new incentive for games that fit on your phone.