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To boldly go where no social media fan has gone before (and then post selfies about it)

Antares Rocket Launches
Antares takes off, sending cargo craft Cygnus to deliver goods to the International Space Station. Image used with permission by copyright holder

To the untrained eye, the press members who fill the auditorium at NASA’s flight facility in Wallops Island, Virginia, all seem more or less the same. And we do have some things in common. For example, we’re all here for the same reason: to watch the Antares rocket deliver the Cygnus space craft to orbit, where it will go on to resupply the International Space Station. There are probably a few more similarities, but as the press conference featuring executives from Cygnus manufacturer Orbital and NASA engineers progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious that we’re not the same.

Half this group are employed by places like Reuters, The Washington Post, and These reporters focus on space travel and technology; they publish spec-filled news pieces and thorough, politically-inclined editorials about the increasingly commercialized space industry for major news media and other traditional outlets.

This is a big time operation maintaining a bigger social footprint than plenty of major brands

The other half of us… don’t. At least not professionally. Rather, we’re Twitter-obsessed, Facebook-checking, Instagram-dependent slaves to social media, here at the behest of NASA Social, the space agency’s social media division. We’re all properly credentialed and “official,” but then the questions start.

“Can you go through how long Cygnus can stay in orbit on battery power?”

“What does NASA consider mission success for this? I understand this is a 2.5 million dollar partnership and in the scheme of things that’s not a lot but is that money contingent on a certain outcome of the mission?”

“What are your weather rules for low level clouds in terms of ceiling thickness?”

“If there’s a problem with this flight would NASA be OK with going ahead with the resupply?”

Needless to say, none of these came from the social media side of the room. But finally, one of us bravely vibrates her vocal chords.

“As the space program moves forward, my question is what is your message to young people?”

The question comes from JoAnn Delaney, a sixth grade teacher from Hershey, Pennsylvania. It’s not a bad question or a dumb one, but the way it differs so clearly from the ones that came before draws a few polite snickers from the crowd and some mild amusement on the panel members’ faces. For the past 45 minutes, they’ve fielded questions about cargo supplies, grappling techniques, and the financial intricacies of the multi-billion dollar private space exploration business. Delaney’s question feels completely out of left field.

“My message to young people is that I hope it’s as inspiring to you now as it was to me when I was younger,” says Alan Lindenmoyer, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Manager. “Watching these amazing achievements certainly captured my interest and I hope what you’re seeing today is something that will stick with you and encourage you to keep studying and working on your math and science and all the skills that are necessary to keep the space program in motion.”

A good, honest, simple answer: Straight, to the point, and easy to understand. It’s exactly the kind of message NASA Social hopes my fellow reporters and I will deliver to our audiences.

NASA first pushed into social media in 2008 with the @marsphoenix account. Social media manager for NASA Veronica McGregor was the “voice” behind the robotic account, tweeting faux messages from the exploratory unit roving the planet. The account quickly accumulated tens of thousands of followers, and went on to win a Shorty Award. It was the first time NASA had connected with the social Internet, and to say it went well is a vast understatement.

In 2009, NASA started hosting “tweetups,” where people were invited to come out and get behind the scenes access to what NASA was doing – and in turn, they would tweet out all of the exclusive things they were seeing. To date, there have been more than 60 tweetups held at places like the National Air and Space Museum and the Jet Propulsion Labatory. At the Juno tweetup, NASA found participants sent out nearly 11,000 tweets.

Antares Rocket Launch Jason Townsend
NASA Social Media Manager Jason Townsend. Image used with permission by copyright holder

These tweetups eventually evolved into what we now know as NASA Social, and NASA started targeting new platforms along the way: Facebook of course, a gorgeous Flickr page, significant Google+ outreach, and most recently Instagram. This past year, NASA held its first Social event at SXSW.

Today, NASA Social consists of 467 social media accounts across various platforms, two full time social media managers, 10 NASA centers that each have their own heads of social, and more than 100 account managers contributing to social media efforts. The main Twitter account has over five million followers, the primary Facebook page boasts 2.2 million fans, and even the Google+ page – host to many extremely popular hangouts – is one million strong.

It’s a group comprised of students, writers, NASA fanboys, aerial photographers, teachers, and armchair space experts.

These aren’t some just-out-of-college tweeters in their first media jobs; this is a massive operation maintaining a bigger social footprint than plenty of major brands. But, beyond the actual social channels, the events remain central to everything NASA Social is about. There two types of events; the first is a lottery open to anyone who follows NASA and the second requires a more formal process of accreditation that allows NASA to target more specific audiences. The Antares launch is the latter.

“We read through everything and we look to create a group that is picked based on our criteria,” says NASA Social’s Jason Townsend. “And that criteria basically is that you’re bringing a unique angle to the table, you have a large following … you know, we really want to make it a diverse group. At the end of the day, we want to reach out to non-traditional audiences, audiences we’re not going to reach on our own.”

It’s an ambitious program, and one that’s proving effective – but it’s not without the occasional awkwardness that comes with the social meetup territory. If there’s one thing that social media and its pervasiveness into “real life” has proven, it’s that sometimes, those of us who are good at Internet are better behind a keyboard.

The first morning of the two-day event, the Social group mills around the visitor center, mostly avoiding eye-contact with each other until we’re herded into a small conference to play a round of “introduce yourself to the group.” We go around the room, telling everyone our names, our jobs, and naturally, our Twitter handles.

The Antares launch group is nothing if not diverse. Along with Delaney, there’s a young adult sci-fi and fantasy writer named Beth Revis; David Weiner, who is Digg’s editorial director, as well as Digg’s social media director, Veronica DeSouza, Emiko Shinozaki, who works for a company called Lone Signal that’s attempting to establish communication with extraterrestrials (yes really, and yes it does sound awesome), and Jameson Brown, who’s with Social Media Today.

Cygnus Warehouse
Wallops Island Flight Facility’s Horizontal Integration Unit; this warehouse is Cygnus’ pre-launch home. Image used with permission by copyright holder

You get the idea: It’s a group comprised of students, writers, NASA fanboys, aerial photographers, teachers, and armchair space experts. We run the gamut, as does our knowledge of space exploration.

Eventually, little cliques end up forming, and then I start hearing a few whispers that let me know despite our very different backgrounds, there’s a reason we were all chosen.

“I was like, ‘I think I have more followers than you anyway, soooo…”

“I just queued up all my tweets for like, the next four days.”

“Are you Verified? How’d that happened? They’ve been giving me the run-around.”

“Probably mostly Instagram and Twitter; I don’t want to annoy my Facebook friends.”

The usual. While I definitely don’t know as much about aeronautics as many of them, I have a (relatively) healthy Twitter following, so I must not be completely out of my element.

As we finish up the early morning meet and greet, we briefly come into contact with the Media group. It’s definitely a little strange – picture your high school clique encountering one from a rival school unexpectedly; the passing acknowledgement of similarities with laser focus on the differences – but then they’re shuffled into the visitors center and we’re ushered out to the buses. We’re off to see the rocket.

Even before Antares comes into view, we see the giant, white warehouse that is home to Cygnus. An unmanned resupply spacecraft developed by Orbital, Cygnus is the latest commercial offering in the International Space Station supply business, after SpaceX’s Dragon. Needless to say, when Cygnus isn’t ferrying food, tools, science experiments, and other sundry goods to the ISS (which, as the Antares launch is its maiden voyage, means for its whole life up to this point), it requires pretty roomy environs.

I want to say the warehouse would fill most of a city block, but that’s the thing: we’re surrounded on all sides by pastoral nothingness, so it’s difficult to tell. Hard against the southern tip of the Chincoteague Bay, near the Maryland border, Wallops Island is all beach, scrub, dirt, and grass, with a huge white cube in the middle. Then we turn around the cube’s corner and there she is: Antares, standing 133-feet tall and so ramrod straight that, even dormant, it looks like it’s lifting off.

We’re on the Horizontal Integration Pad (NASA-speak for “the launch pad and stuff”), and executives and engineers from NASA and Orbital tell us more about their partnership as well as the construction of what we’re looking at. We’re also introduced to astronaut Carl Walz, who lived on the International Space Station for six months. Then we’re asked if we have any questions. That horrible silence follows – you know, the one where you’re very aware that the fact that you have no questions says more about you than any question could? How could we not have questions for an astronaut?

Finally a few of us venture questions, mostly focused on the construction of Antares, and later someone asks Walz more personal details about living on the ISS (he once tried on a Russian astronaut’s uniform to see what it was like; they loved it when people sent up candy). But of course, eventually, we end up doing what we do best: Take selfies with the rocket. There’s the Leaning Tower of Pisa Antares selfie; the thumbs-up selfie; and just the simple here-I-am-with-a-rocket selfie, all of which roll simultaneously onto Twitter and Instagram.

I say this, by the way, with no shame. A rocket is no simple thing, and the Cygnus mission is a technically (and economically) complicated one. But communicating the gist of the whole thing – we’re sending stuff to space, people! Because people are up there, living on a real life space station! – doesn’t have to be.

The Social Web is the media of the masses, and no federal agency is doing a better job of leveraging it than NASA. This makes sense, considering that NASA, until our recent government-loathing era, was the federal agency with the most citizen appeal.

“Back in the Apollo era, none of this [social media] existed; you had to rely on newspapers, radio, and television,” says a NASA TV exec I briefly spoke with after one of the press conferences. “And the social aspect was that people would actually get in their family station wagon and drive down there, park out there on the beach … so it was a very family-centric type of thing.”

“Now, we’re bringing it back into the modern living room, because a lot of people’s TVs are Wi-Fi enabled, hooked into YouTube and Google, and people are relying on that now as their social aspect. It’s a way to reach out to this generation.”

Pieces of Cygnus, which will carry cargo to the International Space Station. Image used with permission by copyright holder

And this generation is hooked into more than Smart TVs and YouTube. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Google+; these apps are all our “living rooms,” where we go to kill time and consume entertainment and information.

Various studies in recent years have shown that, while the public has generally positive feelings about NASA (particularly compared to other federal agencies), we’re not particularly interested in what the agency is up to or learning more about it. And in 2012, studies showed support for reducing its budget. In March, 2013, NASA was forced to suspend its public and education programs as a result of across the board government cuts.

Clearly, NASA needs a way to convert the public’s positive feelings into stronger public support. In the face of massive federal cuts, this is a challenge.

But you know what are free? Tweets.

“We feel that NASA Socials, and social media in general, provide a low cost engagement with the public to share NASA’s story of exploration and discovery,” NASA Social Media Manager John Yembrick tells me. “Most NASA Social events require very little additional overhead, yet allow the public to speak directly with our scientists, engineers, and managers, go behind-the-scenes and take a peek inside their space program, and then communicate this experience to their friends and followers.”

Eventually, we end up doing what we do best: Take selfies with the rocket.

A significant turning point in NASA’s social media strategy was the Mars Rover launch – an iconic moment where an audience that otherwise may have seen a headline and skipped along tuned in. Really tuned in: Townsend said the night was “epic,” that NASA could barely keep up with the social engagement the launch created.

It was the first multi-center NASA Social event, with festivities happening at six different centers across the country. The Twitter handle created to send updates about the event, @MarsCuriosity – quickly accrued more than 100,000 followers. Various sites embedding NASA’s YouTube account streaming the launch, and the truest measure of internet success – a meme – was born.

“But not everything is Mars,” Townsend admits. Antares might not be going to Mars, but it is going to space, and that’s still a story worth telling.

And it’s a story that can be told in both long-form journalism and hashtags. To wit, the Reuters reporters here contributed a series of articles exploring the significance of the Antares launch (all totally worth reading); meanwhile, as we get closer to launch, Delaney, the school teacher, Skypes with her six grade classroom back in Pennsylvania and live tweets to her 6,000 or so followers.

The lead up to launch, by the way, feels endless. The social group has been reunited with the “real media,” and we all mill about the Wallops Island Visitor Center, where we originally met Day One, nervously wondering if the launch will be scotched by a weather or technical delay. Finally, we’re loaded into (again, separate – but equal!) buses and shipped out to the viewing area.

As we disembark, the traditional media folk swarm white tents that contain tables where a reporter might bang away on a laptop, free from the sun’s glare. The social group, meanwhile, makes a bee line for the bleachers that have been set up, undeterred by the already scorching sun directly overhead. We scramble to get to the highest, best spot.

And that, in a nutshell is all you need to know about how NASA’s two media groups covered the Antares launch. You have your professionals, who are here to work, to learn, to research, to gather data, analyze it, make it comprehensible, and then write interesting, informative articles. And you have your social media mavens, who are here to take in the whole spectacle and then produce Tumblr posts, snappy tweets, beautiful Instagrams, hashtagged Facebook photo galleries, and maybe the odd Vine video.

Their content makes the dauntingly complex accessible; ours makes the awe-inspiring sharable. They’re spreading vital knowledge; we’re shrinking the world. Also, we get more sunburns.

Finally, the countdown starts, and as we – everyone – shout the last five numbers in unison, I have to remind myself that light travels faster than sound. I see the plumes of thick smoke uncoiling before I hear anything. And then it sounds like the sky is ripping in half.

Antares, which just the other day seemed to be lifting off even while stuck to the launch pad, floats off the ground and soars for real, skyward like some fire-breathing angel. I stare up and into the sun for as long as I can.

Antares Rocket Launche september 2013 vertical infared
An image NASA posted to its Flickr account of the Antares take-off. Image used with permission by copyright holder

NASA told us that if this was our first launch, we should put the smartphones and cameras down, that photographers are there to capture it for us. Even still, I’d readied my camera and smartphone – I wanted that Instagram video of the launch, and I wanted it to be perfect. But once the moment actually comes, I forget entirely about my phone (I’ve got a great 15 seconds of the ground, if you’re interested).

After Antares disappears from site, and I stand on the bleachers and look at the reporters under the tent, many already back to work and fixated on their laptops. I’m still stunned by what I’ve just seen, and overwhelmed at how quickly it’s all over. Usually after (or more accurately, during) something like this, I have that irrepressible urge to get up something about it – a blog post, a slideshow, a tweet even. And some of us here are doing that, but this time I’ve decided to just take it all in. I’ll tweet or Instagram something from the bus later, when the awe has subsided a little.

In the end, I don’t feel too bad about my missed shot at an epic Instagram. That’s what the professionals are there for, anyway.

Molly McHugh
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Before coming to Digital Trends, Molly worked as a freelance writer, occasional photographer, and general technical lackey…
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