Report: NASA needs new tools to garner mission support among young people

NASA should use social networking applications to cultivate support among younger Americans, the people who will carry the tax burden of funding the new long-term program for space exploration, according to a report from George Mason University researchers.

MySpace and YouTube are prime examples of "2.0 tools," new uses of the Web that have caught on with 18- to 24-year-olds--the group the researchers studied -- in a significant way, according to the report.

The advice grew out of a GMU workshop, held July 31-Aug. 3, which brought together young and old from the fields of space and strategic communications. Their objective was to figure out a way to build support for future space exploration.

The participants reviewed market research data showing that young people are generally uninterested in – or even opposed to – space travel activity. Young adults are more concerned about jobs and war than space exploration, according to the research.

A Dittmar Associates study of nearly 500 Americans aged 18 to 24 found that young people are strongly opposed to sending humans to Mars by a ratio of 3-1. The young people cited costs and their inability to see a point in such a mission as reasons for opposing it.

Close to half of the respondents were unaware that the U.S. has new plans to explore space. Many of those in the 55 percent majority who knew of such plans had only a vague understanding of exactly what NASA is trying to do.

Most of the young adults – 72 percent – think NASA money would be better spent solving problems on Earth, according to the Dittmar study.

The younger participants at the GMU workshop came up with numerous ideas for using Web 2.0 tools to convert the cynics. Each strategy involved “putting space where it is not expected, but where it cannot be ignored by the younger generation."

The report recommends that NASA seize on viral marketing opportunities, including podcasts, ringtones, MySpace pages and YouTube videos. The communications should be irreverent enough that young people will want to share them with friends, it states.

Another suggestion is to promote space with guerilla marketing tactics, such as an “Oregon Trail”-type video game or a moon-Mars plot inside the online alternate universe called Second Life.

“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 GMU report states. “Where is the excitement for youth today in redoing what their fathers or grandfathers did almost four decades ago?”

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