NASA Web site readies for next Mars landing

NASA

Since moving to the online scene in the 1990s, NASA has evolved its Web site into a powerful outreach tool, aimed at both children and adults. The site first captured the general public's imagination with its coverage of the Mars Pathfinder's landing in 1997. Now, with another rover heading toward Mars, that transformation could really pay off.

The rover Spirit will land on Mars Jan. 3, 2004, beginning five months of mission operations. NASA expects the event to generate levels of interest equivalent to those generated by the Olympics.

That could require the agency to distribute hundreds of high-resolution photographs in real-time to hundreds of thousands of users simultaneously, with Web traffic amounting to 12 gigabits/sec.

The Web provides an easy channel for showcasing that work, particularly because NASA's site is so popular, as demonstrated by its prizes and pull. In June, the agency snagged two Webby Awards, the Internet's Oscars. And last month, it logged 10.4 million hits and 766,000 page views per day.

"We do cool stuff that nobody else does, like sending a satellite to Jupiter," said Brian Dunbar, the agency's Internet services manager. "The U.S. public is paying for it, and we have an obligation to tell them how we're spending [their money] and why it's important."

"They're certainly one of the better sites for public outreach," said Ray Bjorklund, vice president of Federal Sources Inc., a market research firm in McLean, Va.

That was not always the case. Today's incarnation had humble beginnings.

"NASA has had Web pages up pretty much since HTML," Dunbar said. But those pages were little more than lists of links. They were "done by people on their own who were interested in it," he said. There was "no cohesive effort."

The Office of Public Affairs got involved in July 1994, unveiling its home page — an official online face — after officials realized "it was going to be an effective way of reaching people with our coolest stuff," he said.

The agency timed the launch with the 25th anniversary of the Apollo II landing and the collision of Comet Shoemaker-Levy with Jupiter, an event that promised to produce Web-worthy pictures.

And did they ever. "People were banging on the servers...'Where are the pictures?' " Dunbar said. In the past, site visitors had to write and ask for photos or clip them from newspapers and magazines.

The next major milestone, one that most associate with the birth of NASA's site, happened three years later and set the agency on course to improve its site.

The Mars Pathfinder's landing merited "48 million hits in a day, traffic we'd never seen before," Dunbar said. "It brought home the fact that our page didn't work that well." The site was not intuitive and "someone coming to find Mars couldn't. [There was] no real obvious link."

Agency officials decided to redesign the page to be more user-friendly by choosing a newspaper format with links on the left-hand side. The most recent revamping went online at midnight Feb. 1 — just nine hours before the high-altitude disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia.

That day, the site received more than 75 million hits, a significant spike. "That's really where [it] proved its worth — [by] being able to communicate with the public any time we had information," Dunbar said. "This is our way of reaching [them] directly and getting things in people's hands."

As part of the redesign, AT&T began hosting the site, which had been running on one server housed in the basement of NASA's headquarters. The agency also shifted the focus to its audience, creating tabs for children, students, educators and the media.

"The goal was to provide content...in the way they expected to see it, not the way the agency perceived it," said David Valliere, federal program manager for eTouch Systems Corp., a contractor that supports the site.

The overhaul had been in the works since the summer of 2002 as part of NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe's goal to inspire the next generation of space explorers by making the agency's images and stories more accessible.

The emphasis on attracting younger visitors is reflected in the site's introduction, which seems more MTV than NASA — featuring hip music and flash animation.

But the agency has more mature audiences in mind, too. Officials are "really trying to reach the older folks who have stopped paying attention and the younger [ones] who take it for granted," Dunbar said.

Connecting with the adult crowd — the taxpayers — is essential, experts said. After Columbia, "it's really important that [NASA officials are] very open about what they're going to do to make things better," because they have "lost their edge," Bjorklund said.

Cutting-edge research aside, "generally, news events drive people to the site," Dunbar said.

NASA expects traffic 40 times what it sees for normal missions following next January's landing of rover Spirit on Mars.

To prepare, the agency announced plans last month to continue its collaboration with eTouch by awarding the company a one-year contract.

"We want it to be more engaging and [to] come as close as we can to making a visit to NASA's Web site as interesting as the work we do," Dunbar said.

With critics calling on NASA to refocus and to revive the space program, the site seems likely to maintain its status in the public relations game, even as the agency changes.

Lisagor is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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