Tag Archives: Curiosity

The memetization of NASA (or, why the most important space writer working now is Juli Weiner)

juli_weiner_twitter

Who is Juli Weiner?

A former Wonkette editor, she currently blogs at VF Daily, Vanity Fair’s all-purpose culture and politics blog. Her bio says she looks for “irreverent and unexpected ways to dissect the news.” So she’s a New York blogger, with that trademark signature of pithy snark, whose recent posts include “Hot, Formerly Naked Guy Scott Brown Declines a Run for Senate Seat of Clothed, O.K.-Looking Guy John Kerry” (February 1) and “Whoever Signs Up to Birth a Neanderthal Clone Must Contribute to The New York Times’ Parenting Blog” (January 22). And she’s been applying that New York blogger voice to science—with fantastic, hilarious results. Since Curiosity’s landing on Mars last summer, she has written a string of posts starring anthropomorphic versions of NASA spacecraft. Some recent posts include:

2012 Dec 14: Emo NASA Is Taking Its Feelings Out on the Moon

2013 Jan 3: Curiosity Rover’s Nerdy Cousin Kepler Telescope Discovers 100 Billion Planets, Is Still Single

2013 Jan 17: Separated at Birth: The Inflatable Space Station and the John Belushi “I’m a Zit” Scene in Animal House

2013 Jan 18: Moon-Orbiting Satellite Thinks the Mona Lisa Beamed by NASA Lasers Is Trite, Vacuous

Here’s an excerpt from a January 11 post titled “Asteroid and Earth Are Going to Be Close—But Nowhere Near as Close As Asteroid and Brian”:

The closest Apophis will come to Earth will be, at maximum, 19,400 miles. By way of comparison, the closest Apophis has come to Brian, another asteroid, was the kind of friendship wherein Apophis felt comfortable giving his Citibank pin number to Brian if they were at a cash-only restaurant without cash and Brian was going to run out to the ATM anyway. [. . .] And how close are Apophis and Brian now? At minimum, 19,400 miles or so, emotionally speaking.

Which prompted one commenter to post, “Good god this is a vapid article.”

Why are her pithy, irreverent, and perhaps even vapid posts so important? Because they epitomize the most important shift for NASA’s media relations since the end of the shuttle era: NASA has gone from being a content provider to memetic material.

Let me explain a bit what I mean. NASA has long had an online presence at NASA.gov since the early days of the internet. But it never quite evolved beyond simply being a place for content—an archive of press releases, images, and low-production videos. Even when NASA, as an institution, waded into social media, its efforts have focused more on generating fresh content than page views. This isn’t an inherently bad thing—NASA pioneered its concept of Tweetups, in which journalists, bloggers, and enthusiasts were recruited via Twitter to meetup in person at NASA centers around the country to get limited-access tours. This generated new streams of content and community, but not necessarily vast new numbers of eyeballs. The longest arms of NASA’s reach remained the mainstream media—newspapers, magazines, TV evening news reports.

And as the number of science reporters working at mainstream media outlets plummeted, NASA.gov soldiered on, continuing to be a reliable home for NASA’s content, waiting to be picked up by the next Google searches.

There’s just one problem now: People don’t search for content anymore.

They used to. Here’s the volume for the search term “NASA” on Google, dating back to 2004.

google_trends_nasa

The peak search volume happens to occur at the very beginning of the time series, Jan 2004, when the rovers Spirit and Opportunity successfully landed on Mars. Now compare that to the search volume for August 2012’s landing of the Curiosity rover—the spike marked “B”—which clocks in at only 23% of the search volume of the 2004 rovers.

This is—well, curious. After all, Curiosity’s landing was the very epitome of a netizen Big Internet Event. It was dramatic, featuring a Rube Goldbergian sequence of rockets and winches that seemed increasingly inconceivable the more you learned about it. It was heart-warming— filled with scenes of overjoyed people cheering, crying, and provoking the kind of feel-good pathos usually reserved on the internet for pictures of cats looking at ceilings.

And it was live. Not only was it live-streamed, it was live-tweeted and live-memed. Like all Big Internet Events, it came complete with a viral video campaign (the famous “Seven Minutes of Terror” YouTube video that played like a trailer to a Hollywood action pic) and the requisite Unexpected Internet Celebrity (dreamy Flight Director Bobak Ferdowsi, better known as “NASA Mohawk Guy”).

bobak guides a robot through space

And yet, this Big Internet Event generated less than a quarter of the “NASA” search volume of the relatively pedestrian landings of Spirit and Opportunity eight years earlier, consistent with the overall downward trend in between. What gives?

There are many plausible reasons that may have been contributing factors, but I think this plot shows, quite dramatically, how in the eight years between Opportunity and Curiosity sinking their wheels into Martian soil, people stopped consuming their news and content via Google and started getting it from Twitter, Facebook, and the blogs we already read. The health of NASA’s public image, its visibility, and, by extension, the sustainability of the agency itself is tied, in part, to how well they deal with this shift. NASA’s web site can be filled with the most wonderfully informative and timely press releases (and it usually is), but none of it will make a whit of difference in convincing citizens that they are getting a return on their tax dollars if no one ever shares it over social media.

Weiner’s posts ought to warm the heart and soul of every NASA PR person, because this kind of memetic trivialization is exactly what NASA needs. Blogs like BoingBoing, Gizmodo, and io9 do a great job of serving up daily heaps of news for a self-selected audience that is already interested, but spillover from geeky sci/tech blogs into the arts and culture rags is a huge PR opportunity for NASA to embed itself into today’s cultural narrative. Here’s Weiner’s rationale for her recent spate of NASA posts, outlined in this December 2012 entry:

Taking a step back for a moment, we would like to admit that before the launch, temper tantrum, depressive spiral, and nascent online-shopping addiction of the Curiosity rover, we did not really pay attention to NASA. Like most journalists, we are essentially unable to perform even basic arithmetic, and like most recent ex-high-schoolers, any discussion of astronomy usually leads to remembrances of planetarium trips past, which inevitably generates an intense urge to smoke pot and nap. We will admit that. However, we will also admit that since beginning to keep up with NASA and its troupe of inexplicably yet sweetly personified space craft, we are completely unable to stop.

NASA. NASA. How are you doing?

This is NASA PR gold. Now, it’s true that Weiner is only one anecdote, and the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”. But Weiner’s posts, coming off the wildly successful memefest that was Curiosity’s landing, are at least anecdotal evidence that the ground is shifting, and that for the first time since the dawn of social media, NASA is becoming part of the online ebb and flow—not just a player, but part of the currency of the social web itself.

“Time to see where our Curiosity will take us.”

Imagine the view from the summit of Mt. Sharp on Mars early Monday morning. Atop a mountain taller than any in the continental United States, you look out in all directions at a vast, barren, red landscape, bathed in what seems like a perpetual twilight glow from an oddly distant sun. To the north, a dune field, crawling indeterminably across the surface in a wind 1/100th the density of Earth’s. Beyond it, the rim of Gale Crater, some 20 km away, surrounding you on all sides. Beyond that, the Martian horizon—strangely and unsettlingly near, a consequence of standing on a world barely half the size of Earth.

landscape
A desolate landscape, completely devoid of visible life.

And then, out of the corner of your eye, to the northwest, a small grey blob appears streaking over the horizon through the atmosphere. It erupts into a much larger white blob—a parachute. Dangling from it is what appears to be an enormous dinner plate with a cover. The plate falls away, crashing to the surface in a plume of red dust. The plate cover remains suspended from the chute. And then falling out from under it emerges a giant spindly robot—the size of a cargo van—free falling towards the Martian surface.

You hold your breath.

Then, with a weak roar (that reaches you far later than you expect, the sound carrying weakly in the thin atmosphere), retrorockets on the robot burst into action, arresting its fall. It maneuvers like a falling spider on a jetpack, veering off towards the northern side of the crater. As it flies toward your vantage point, you make out what seems to be a second, spidery, six-legged robot the size of a compact car attached to the bottom, like a baby carried by a stork.

powered flight
The entire apparatus makes a beeline for a spot just north of the dune field, well within the crater rim, some 30 miles away. It comes to a stop, a tiny dot against the horizon, halting its descent in a perfect hover 130 feet above the ground, its retrorockets kicking up a huge cloud of dust.

You squint. Through the dust, you think you can make out something incredible.

The second spidery robot is being lowered on a rope from the hovering mothership onto the surface of Mars.

skycrane
It disappears into the dust cloud. A few seconds later, the skycrane mothership suddenly launches itself towards the sky and off to the east. Its rockets are spent; its mission is complete. It carries itself on a ballistic trajectory across the crater plain, crashing into the surface over a kilometer away, dying in a giant, sideways cloud of ejected Martian dirt.

Gale Crater is silent again. But now, it’s a little less desolate.

It has a visitor—an interplanetary sojourner from another world sharing the same sun, spinning silently some 150 million miles away. After trekking across the system from one planet to the next, it sits on an alien plain, awaiting commands from the species that created it, a species seeking to know where it lives, ready to search for life, for signals that it is not alone.

Its name is Curiosity.

And we sent it there.

Mt. Sharp


Watch the entire landing sequence in NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System simulator: http://bit.ly/NCuFdi

You should click that link. Seriously, it’s super cool.