The other day, I followed a bit of history. The
space craft landing on Mars was a smashing success. I know this because someone, presumably at
mission control, pretended to be the space craft and updated me every few
minutes on the progress of the mission… via Twitter.
This is not the first time that we have landed on Mars, nor
will it be the last, to be sure.
However, it is the first time I was able to follow the proceedings
without being perched in front of my TV or a radio. I went about my day and received regular
updates on my phone (via Twitter) and didn’t miss a beat. The mission came to me, and as such, I was
able to enjoy it without rearranging my life.
For those who were interested in coverage more detailed than
a series of text messages can provide, NASA broadcast its control center
footage as streaming video via the web.
The video also had chat enabled so you could see comments from people
around the world as the event took place.
The viewer saw what was happening at the exact same time that the NASA
engineers did. Even better, if you are
into Second Life, NASA has a presence there, enabling one to watch the whole
thing from within Second Life. As a
footnote to all of this, if you really wanted to you could also watch on TV, provided
you had the Discovery Science channel.
Because of Twitter, I was hooked for a couple of days before
the landing. Someone on twitter casually
mentioned they were following @marsphoenix (http://www.twitter.com/marsphoenix)
and I checked it out. There are as of
now, more than 9100 people following @marsPhoenix (at least 3000 of these started
following after the landing) and far more talking about it. What really jumps
out though, is that @marsPhoenix is taking questions. Whether the question was about the mission
specifically (i.e. why certain aspects taking so long) or the educational
information provided about the mission (i.e. clarification of a typo on the web
site FAQ), @MarsPhoenix is responding.
In an era of rapidly dwindling interest in space
exploration, NASA is taking the initiative. Rather than broadcasting in a
traditional way and waiting (hoping?) for the traffic to come to them, NASA is
taking the show to their audience. They are marketing to engineers, techies,
and, well, geeks. This, if you think about it, is NASA’s core demographic. And
they are doing so where this audience “lives”… online. At the same time that NASA is searching our
solar system for signs of potential life, they are, via the internet and text
messaging, exploring technology for innovative ways of reaching their audience.
It appears to be working.
While 9100, in and of itself, is not an overwhelming number of people to
be following a major media event, it is enough to place @MarsPhoenix in the top
30 accounts on Twitter, only two weeks after its creation. Further the fact that a third of its
followers have come since the landing indicates that a residual interest in the
mission continues to grow.
This was a largely viral effort, I was unable to find
anything other than a simple press release from early May even mentioning the Twitter account. The same press release talks about a facebook
profile that was established to allow people to follow along there if they
I am not the only person who wishes there had been a more
concerted effort to cover this, one of the comments on the NASA Phoenix site’s
My only gripe has to do with the
American news media. I live in Austin Texas. Do you know how I found out about
the landing today? From the BBC via a link on Drudge! There wasn’t ONE WORD
about this in my local newspaper.
NASA cannot be held responsible for what the media covers;
however, it would have been nice if a person was able to easily find this
“alternative” coverage from the web site.
The Mars Phoenix mission is (literally and figuratively) breaking
new ground both on Mars and in participatory event broadcasting. I know this, because while I was outside leisurely
walking on a fine spring day, a string of text messages allowed me to closely
follow the progress of a spaceship landing on a planet some 36 million miles
Jacobsen writes and speaks on new and emerging media applications for both government
organizations and travel agencies. Soren gained invaluable business
experience through co-founding, building and .eventually exiting two successful
start-up companies. He also maintains a personal blog at http://www.puntiglio.com/bookshelf