NASA is having a bit of a public relations crisis. Launching people and hardware to LEO (low-Earth orbit) has, to most, become commonplace and boring. The difficult engineering problems have been worked out to phenomenal precision, and with those solutions has come a perception of diminished associated risk, however misplaced. Public interest, it turns out, is proportional to perceived risk. Unmanned probes to stellar objects like planets and asteroids are hardly noticed by the media and the audience they are supposed to serve. Discoveries gleaned from orbiting observational platforms can hardly compete with the puerile interests of the American people generally. We pine for the sensationalist “reality” television show du jour, while six unappreciated human beings orbit Earth in their house-sized spacecraft. The public is unimpressed.
To overcome these dismal facts of our pathetic culture and psychology, NASA has brilliantly embraced social media. Astronauts tweet from space (@NASA_Astronauts), official photos are posted to a NASA Flickr account, and NASA maintains an oft-updated Facebook page. The most exciting endeavor to me, however, is the tweetups. NASA has learned that they can, with a very small budget, energize those who are most enthusiastic and have the longest social media reach. To facilitate and encourage this institutional altruism, NASA organizes tweetups for its major events, primarily rocket launches.
I was fortunate (a gross understatement, if ever there was one) to be invited to the STS-135 NASA Tweetup for Atlantis’ July 8, 2011 launch. STS-135 is the final mission for the space shuttle era.
The reasons for the tweetups wasn’t expressed, yet understood, and I felt a responsibility to do whatever I could do promote NASA, the STS-135 mission and science generally. Perhaps not coincidentally (the selection process was not random), science literacy is something for which I am deeply passionate, and I knew this opportunity would allow me to reach out in ways that would otherwise not be possible. NASA and I have mutual interests.
I never felt like my invitation to NASA was about me. I wanted it to be much more than that. I wanted to share my passion for science–and its importance to our society–with as many people as possible. To this end I sent out a Media Release to the local television stations and newspapers. I have a friend at WCSH 6 who saw my name amongst the plethora of releases and moved it up the chain for me. Thanks to her I got a call and arranged an interview.
I showed up to the WCSH 6 studio early on June 28 and got mic’d up. Anchor Lee Nelson arrived looking spiffy in his shiny suit, perfect hair and fresh make-up. He introduced himself asked me a few questions. Before I had a chance to poise myself the cameras were rolling and we were into the interview. This was my first time being on tv (it was not live) and everything moved as if it were a blur. After what they said was four minutes they removed the microphone, shook my hand and off I went to coffee with my friend. I was told the interview wouldn’t broadcast until the morning of my departure for Florida, and I was anxious to see how they would edit the interview.
No other media contacted me, so I tweeted the Portland Press Herald to let them know I wanted to share my experience, access and passion for science with its readers. Thankfully they agreed to an interview, which was conducted over the phone by Colleen Stewart. The following day I met with one of their photographers, Tim Greenway, at Bard Coffee to get a photo for the story. The article was published on the front page of the newspaper on July 2.
The Press Herald coverage seemed to be the impetus for its media competitors to be interested in my story. WGME 13 requested an interview, which I did at their studio on the afternoon of July 4. I sat on a small couch in a small room. The only other people in the room were Anne McNamara, who was interviewing me off-camera, and the cameraman beside her.
I was a bit mortified when I saw the broadcast that evening. I looked fat and far too serious. Like it or not, the video made it out to the “wire” (or whatever it’s called) and was picked up by television stations across the country. I had people calling, writing and tweeting from as far away as Kansas, Florida, South Carolina, California, and Boston telling me they’d seen me on television. I hadn’t talked to some of the people who contacted me in several years, and it was nice to reconnect. A couple people told me I had been on CNN Headline News! It was all very exciting. Unfortunately, the piece was mostly fluff about me and my big opportunity, and not about the mission, NASA’s future or the importance of science in society. It was a lesson to me in dealing with the media, however. I made sure in subsequent interviews to be very clear that my objective in talking to the media was to promote NASA specifically, but more importantly to spark interest in science generally.
The following day, July 5, I did a radio interview in the morning, which was a lot of fun. I got the call on my drive to work and pulled into a parking spot along Commercial Street in Portland to finish the interview.
Before lunch I arranged to do an interview with with Norm Karkos of WMTW 8. I walked the few blocks from my office to their studio at Monument Square. We conducted the interview outside. Norm and I did several different kinds of shots, including walking up the sidewalk (several times), standing next to each other, and me sitting alone and (pretend) tweeting. Before the interview I provided Norm with a plethora of information on the mission, details of the tweetup, and resources including media stories of the other attendees. I also made it very clear to him what I would like to be the primary focus of the story. Thankfully, Norm and his team at WMTW nailed it perfectly (and didn’t make me look too fat). Kevin, the videographer, did an excellent job and was a true professional.
In the early afternoon the same day I drove to Biddeford for an interview with Liz Gotthelf at the Journal Tribune offices. She was very thorough and scribbled notes as fast as I talked. Science is a subject about which I am intensely passionate, and I think she appreciated and enjoyed my enthusiasm. After the interview with Liz, photographer Jeff Lagasse took a bunch of photos of me and my kit, which was fun. Liz’s story, which ran in their July 8 newspaper, was excellent.
I did another radio interview while I was in Florida at the tweetup. When the phone rang around noon on July 7 I was standing in the twent next to astronauts Mike Massimino and Doug Wheelock. It was thundering and lightning so hard NASA TV had to suspend their broadcast from inside the twent. Notwithstanding, it was the perfect time for an interview, as I was riding a huge adrenaline wave, which was no doubt palpable.
The final newspaper interview was with Gillian Graham of the Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier. We did it over the phone a couple days after Atlantis had launched and the tweetup had concluded. I enjoyed her interview and article so much I asked her to have lunch with me when I returned so I could pepper her with a myriad questions about journalism, to which she readily agreed.
I learned a lot about the crazy and fascinating world that is journalism. The Portland Press Herald definitely, as several interviewers embarrassingly admitted, leads the news in southern Maine. WCSH 6 picked up the story first but was the last to broadcast, which is unfortunate. They were more proactive than the other television stations, but the award for most thorough would have to go to Norm at WMTW. He and Kevin spent over an hour with me, and the editing of their video was highly polished and well done.
Without local media attention my tweets would have reached a much smaller audience, which is itself an important lesson. I owe a debt of gratitude to the interviewers, editors, photographers and videographers who helped tell my story and enabled me to achieve my objective of promoting NASA and science. Without them it would have just been one guy watching a rocket launch, which would have been an unfortunate waste of a tweetup invite (but still extremely awesome for me). I’m glad they could be convinced it was much more than that.
Most of all, I hope somebody’s interest in space and science was piqued by the articles they read in the newspapers and stories they watched on television. And my tweets, of course.