Although our nation's space program faces an uncertain future, NASA's fierce embrace of Twitter and other social media to connect with the public may prove to be the space agency's saving grace.
Left to my own devices, I might never have seen a space launch in person despite a lifelong interest in astronomy and space science. But thanks to NASA's aggressive public outreach through social media, I was a Twitter correspondent at two launch tweetups (for the Solar Dynamics Observatory and the penultimate flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis in May 2010). Not only did I get to see world-class technology in action and meet some incredible people, I was awestruck by the immense work the space agency puts into making its missions safe and successful.
As the last flight of Atlantis wraps up the Shuttle program's 30-year run, with no replacement in the works, NASA faces an uncertain future and tumultuous present. The space agency is caught between the conflicting priorities of the White House and Congress, in the midst of a hostile budget climate.
NASA Tweetup Power
But even with its manned program in limbo and unmanned missions under increasing budget pressure, NASA has been building up "social media capital" through its tweetups, giving Twitter users the ability to interact with astronauts, engineers, and other key personnel, and pass along their experiences to their followers and friends online.
Last year I asked NASA Outreach Program Manager, Beth Beck, what benefits NASA hoped to see from its tweetups. Her reply: "The biggest benefit of social media, in general, is that it cracks open the castle door. People really want access. Social media allows us to share and others to share with us. But it's more than two-way. It's a multiplier effect. People share with people who share with people. The coolest thing for me is seeing how the astronauts are embracing social media tools to reach out to the public in new ways—without filters. Tweetups are the next step from digital access. We can actually meet in person after developing tweetships online."
After the Last Shuttle
When introduced in 1980, the Shuttle was innovative as a reusable space plane, but it proved more expensive than anticipated, and NASA never achieved anything close to the 50 missions per year it had aimed for, and safety was always a concern. The decision to scrap the Shuttle came in 2005, in the wake of the Columbia tragedy. The aging fleet was growing difficult to maintain, with the Shuttles cobbled together out of technologies spanning three decades. The end of the program was inevitable and necessary; it's what comes next that's fraught with uncertainty and controversy.
In 2004, President George W. Bush proposed the Ares and Constellation programs, to take astronauts back to the Moon as well as on more routine Earth-orbit missions. But these initiatives, never fully funded, fell behind schedule and over budget, and financing them became trickier after the economy tanked in late 2007.
The Obama administration moved to scrap Ares and Constellation in favor of a "flexible path" solution: the eventual development of a versatile heavy-lift vehicle for deep-space missions based on new technologies, while outsourcing the "routine" job of ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and other destinations in low-Earth orbit to private space firms once their craft are deemed safe and ready. Until then, the U.S. will buy seats (for about $56 million each) aboard Russian Soyuz rockets to fly to the ISS.
Reliance on the private sector to transport astronauts seems more viable now than when it was first proposed, thanks to successful unmanned orbital flights by SpaceX rockets, though they're still a long way away from crewed flights. A lot of the current struggle over NASA involves the heavy-lift vehicle. The White House has wanted to postpone building it for several years pending the development of new technologies, with an eye to eventual manned missions to asteroids, Mars's moons, and eventually the Red Planet itself, while Congress has mandated the near-term development of this so-called Space Launch System (SLS) using components from the Ares and Constellation programs (such as the Orion capsule) as well as Shuttle- and Apollo-era systems. Because of the lack of specific timetables and milestones in Obama's plan, some critics worry that the heavy-lift vehicles will never fly (and claim that Obama has run the manned space program into the ground). Others have derided Congress's rush to build what the Planetary Society has deemed a "rocket to nowhere," built largely from legacy technologies with no clear mission. Meanwhile, NASA goes about its job, trying to perform miracles with limited resources in the face of conflicting and ever-shifting demands. It's said to have decided on a heavy-lift vehicle design and is vetting it before presenting it to Congress.
The Webb Space Telescope: Hubble Trouble Redux
NASA's unmanned missions also face uncertainty. Last week, a House subcommittee recommended striking all funding for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)—the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope—which is behind schedule and over budget, though most of the systems have already been developed or assembled. On Wednesday, the full House Science, Space and Technology Committee approved the recommendation to kill JWST, whose final fate lies with the full House and Senate.
Criticisms of the JWST are similar to ones raised about Hubble in decades-old budget battles, but Hubble has just made its millionth observation and has revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos. A repair mission early in Hubble's lifespan fixed a mirror problem that was blurring the telescope's vision; a campaign by space advocates—many of them NASA tweetup alumni—using both traditional (phoning representatives) and new media tools (blog posts, tweets, Facebook petitions)—seeks to cure Congress of its myopia. (I doubt many Congressmen are kicking themselves for not killing Hubble 20 years ago when they had the chance.)
Even as the Webb faces the chopping block, NASA's adventure continues, as 150 lucky Twitter users will soon head to Florida for a tweetup to accompany the scheduled August launch of the Juno mission to Jupiter.
After I returned from my Shuttle launch tweetup last year, I gave a talk on my experiences to an astronomy club. Someone asked me to describe what NASA's future in manned spaceflight would be. My crystal ball is as cloudy today as it was then, but my response would be the same: Whatever our future in space may be, you can be sure that NASA will be giving space enthusiasts the opportunity to get a close-up look at it, and to pass along their experiences through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media. And that can't help but strengthen the space agency, raise public awareness of its mission, and produce advocates who are both informed and passionate.
Copyright © 2010 Ziff Davis Publishing Holdings Inc.