Mars Curiosity's secrets for social-media success

Posted Online: March 23, 2013, 10:50 am
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By Leslie Meredith
There's more to social media than cute babies, wacky cats and food photos. In fact, NASA has embraced social media and Twitter is its favorite tool.

But few techies who gathered at the annual South by Southwest Interactive conference recently in Austin expected to see so many space-related headliners on the schedule.

NASA and other space organizations may have been new to the tech gathering, but their sessions were wildly popular. Who could resist a preview of the new James Webb Space telescope (including a huge outdoor replica), a discussion of the 100 Year Starship initiative that aims to make interstellar travel possible within the next 100 years (LeVar Burton was on the panel), or the inside story on Mars Rover Curiosity's awe-inspiring landing last summer?

The Mars Rover Curiosity has become a social media star — with a huge following on Facebook, Twitter and even Foursquare where she logged the first interplanetary check-in. How can a six-wheeled robot win so many loyal fans? She's the product of a talented team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (Yes, Curiosity is a "she.")

Her ascent to social media stardom was won by her dramatic descent onto the Red Planet.

Curiosity's social media team came to South by Southwest to tell how they make Curiosity a household name.

Curiosity wasn't the first rover to use social media. It started in 2008 when Mars Phoenix posted her first "selfie" — a photograph taken by her own camera. It wasn't long before @MarsPhoenix became the fifth most popular account on Twitter. (Back in the day, that meant 38,000 followers.)

Veronica McGregor, head of the JPL newsroom, said she'd planned to live tweet the landing and then stop. But people on Twitter started asking questions, and the questions continued after Mars Phoenix was safely on the planet's surface.

"The response on Twitter redefined everything we do in communication," McGregor said. She didn't want to wait for the landing to introduce Curiosity to space enthusiasts and asked to install a camera that would livestream the engineers at work in the cleanroom.

"The mission team was dead set against it," she said. Five months later, the camera with its live feed to Ustream was approved.

For nine months, McGregor and her partners chatted with viewers on Ustream for two hours every day.

"Turned out that the guys in the bunny suits (the engineers) loved it," she said. "Pretty soon they had set up the stream on their computers in the cleanroom so they could wave to the camera when people made requests in the online chat window."

The JPL team also wanted people to understand just how remarkable a successful landing would be, come Aug. 5, 2012. Filmmaker John Beck was given 30 days to create a video to simulate the complex landing. Instead of taking a traditional route — one that would reassure viewers that Curiosity was bound to be successful in her landing — Beck took a different approach.

"We wanted people to know it's hard and it's scary," Beck said. "This wasn't "Mission Slightly Do-able," this was "Mission Impossible."

He attributed the video's success to showing the mission's vulnerability — "if we fail, we die."

Millions of viewers watched the landing with fear instilled from watching Beck's "7 Minutes of Terror," but they weren't the only ones affected by the film. (You can watch the video at

Joining the NASA panel was Bobak Ferdowsi, also known as Mohawk Guy, the JPL engineer who became an overnight celebrity himself, after social media sites exploded with references to his hairdo.

"I wasn't scared about the landing until I saw the video," Ferdowsi said.

The landing was made safely. Upon landing, Curiosity tweeted, "Gale Crater, I am in you."

However, McGregor and her team were prepared for an "anomaly," NASA's tactful expression for a crash. Simply put, no tweets would be necessary within the fiction of Curiosity's self-tweeting.

"If she just crashed and burned, she couldn't talk anymore," McGregor said. "Eventually, we would tweet an update in brackets from mission control."

If you'd like to stay up-to-date on Curiosity's adventures, you may follow her on Twitter @MarsCuriosity.
Ogden, Utah-based guides consumers by comparing products in the world of technology, including electronics, software and Web services. Have a question? Email Leslie Meredith at, or follow her on Twitter @lesliemeredith.


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