NASA considers leap into social networking space

Experts say YouTube and other Web 2.0 tools could build support for future missions

NASA may tap into social networking technology, such as YouTube video-sharing and MySpace Web pages, to explain the value of space exploration to the newest generation of taxpayers.

A recent Dittmar Associates study of nearly 500 Americans from ages 18 to 24 found that 72 percent think NASA money would be better spent solving problems on Earth.

Aerospace and public relations experts say NASA, which has costly missions to the moon and Mars on its agenda, needs to do a better job of explaining its vision to this segment of the population, which will bear much of the fiscal responsibility for those missions.

MySpace and YouTube are prime examples of “Web 2.0” tools, new uses of the Web that have caught on with 18- to 24-year-olds, according to those experts. Podcasts and ring tones provide other viral marketing opportunities.

NASA has already dabbled in this field.

YouTube user TVspace is actually NASA multimedia director Bob Jacobs. To gauge the public’s interest in social networking applications, he has posted NASA footage and tracked the page’s visitors for two months. Jacobs said the number of views is significant but not outrageously high.

Sample posts include video from the past two launches, President Bush’s 2004 announcement of the Vision for Space Exploration Program and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. However, Web surfers who look up “NASA” on the video-sharing site will come up empty-handed, he said.

“You’re hesitant to post something in the name of NASA because you have to be sensitive to some of the other content that is on the site,” Jacobs said. “We’re not a commercial entity. We’re not promoting Paris Hilton’s latest TV series. We face our own federal guidelines and regulations about how we communicate our messages.”

MySpace is a case in point.

“We stayed away from MySpace because some of the content in MySpace might be inappropriate for NASA to be associated with,” Jacobs said. “You have to be careful with how far you go in using some of these outside media outlets to communicate your efforts.”

But people searching through Apple Computer’s iTunes podcast directory will find legitimate NASA podcasts. There are 15,000 to 20,000 NASA podcast downloads per week, Jacobs said.

Last summer, Jacobs participated in a four-day George Mason University workshop on aerospace outreach, which brought together young and old from the fields of space science and public relations. The objective was to figure out a way to garner support among youths for the new long-term space exploration program.

The participants reviewed market research data showing that youths are generally uninterested in — or even opposed to — space activity. Young adults are more concerned about jobs and war than space exploration, according to the Dittmar study, which the company conducted from October 2005 to February.

George Mason researchers wrote a report based on the workshop. It recommends that NASA use Web 2.0 tools to create communications that are interesting enough that young people will want to share them with friends.

“There was an overwhelming sense among the workshop participants that NASA needs to promote its lunar plans in ways that distinguish them from the old Apollo program,” the report states. “Where is the excitement for youth today in redoing what their fathers or grandfathers did almost four decades ago?”

Survey: Young adults not interested in space explorationA recent Dittmar Associates study of nearly 500 Americans from ages 18 to 24 found that young people were strongly opposed to sending humans to Mars by a ratio of 3-to-1. The reasons included:
  • “Don’t know why we’re going there when we’re so messed up here.”

  • “Don’t see the point.”

Close to half of the respondents were not aware that the United States had new plans to explore space. The 55 percent who were aware described the plans as “something about the moon.”

NASA multimedia director Bob Jacobs said people should bear in mind the timing of the poll. The survey was taken a few months after NASA decided to postpone future shuttle flights because of hardware problems in July 2005 and before this year’s two successful shuttle missions.

“Opinion of what the public sees and what the public wants to see may have changed,” he said.

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