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Mars Rover Shows Social Media is Out of this World

Aug 9, 2012

By: Daniel Teigman, Business Writer and Analyst

This isn’t your grandfather’s NASA. Nor is it your father’s or mother’s. That’s right, folks, the pocket protector has given way to the Mohawk and there’s even an opinion piece on CNN suggesting that in one fell swoop, NASA has jettisoned its decades-long nerdy payload and replaced it with something akin to rock star status.

How is this possible? I mean not to throw Martian dust or buried frozen water on the matter, but aren’t we simply talking about a $2.5 billion picture-taking SUV-sized remote control car? And it’s mission, lofty as it is, boils down to the exact same search-for-life parameters of the first Earth-Mars spacecraft that either flew by, orbited or landed on its bone dry, rusty, frigid and nearly pressure-less surface starting in the 1960s.

For decades scientists and those in the pro-space exploration community have lamented the US and indeed the world’s seeming loss of interest in human space flight beyond low Earth orbit — essentially writing off the Moon, Mars, and nearby asteroids. Blame for this post-Apollo malaise was often threefold: slashed NASA budgets, lack of direction and focus (not to mention the failure of the space shuttle to become the affordable heavy lifting vehicle it was predicted to become) and lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the organization’s utterly disastrous PR campaigns.

If anyone could make space look dull, boring, devoid of life and devoid of character, just leave it up to NASA. The killers from outer space may have come from the stars, but they seemed to have resided in Houston and Cape Canaveral. The only hope was that some type of international competition, (hopefully peaceful) or massive private endeavor (far larger than what currently exists) could jolt us out of our collective complacency –a Cold War-like reboot with all the exploratory thrill with none of the military brinksmanship and threat of nuclear war.

But as of Monday morning Eastern Time, August 6, there’s a hint, a stirring in the atmospheres of both planets that that’s about to change and social media might be what’s driving the exuberant response. Consider this: Curiosity, the Martian rover, already has 864,165 Twitter followers. That’s roughly 264,165 more than the 600,000 total numbers of people that watched the Apollo 11 lunar landing. And after only two days, the number of people who have clicked on the YouTube video of the rover’s “seven minutes of terror” landing followed by control-room jubilation has reached 744,575. Other rover videos have eclipsed one million. Google trends similarly noticed an uptick in search term frequency for words like Mars, rover, landing and curiosity.

It seems as if a wave of Mars Madness has swept the planet.

Of course, Martian dust, like Earth dust, settles. And this momentary blip will surely fade like a comet rocketing away from our evening skies. But for the first time in decades genuine interest has been sparked. And it’s been sparked in no small way thanks to the power and reach of social media and the ability to instantly share news content in a mobile environment. Like the Olympics concluding in London later this week, social media was certainly around the last time the U.S. played in the Martian dirt back in 2008. Here too, though, the brief interlude of a single presidential term, underscores just how much can change and how quickly.

As I said to my brother, Robert, recently via gchat, I really do hope that Curiosity, (to some extent the progeny of past Martian satellites, surveyors and landers), is the vehicle our children and children’s children remember as THE one that definitively discovers living or fossilized extraterrestrial microbial life.

But even if it doesn’t, this latest wave of social-media-fueled excitement and curiosity should serve as a reminder to the PR industry, our clients and any other Earthlings reading this post that social media has matured and its impact is already beginning to be felt on other worlds – even if our footprints, save for the Moon, have yet to make an impression.

God speed Curiosity.

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