Without doubt the best known science-related public relations initiative of the last few years was NASA’s Curiosity mission to Mars.
In recent years NASA has faced shrinking budgets, which in turn has led to a cessation of manned spaceflight within the US. Their focus has been on robotic missions to nearby planets, Messenger to Mercury, Juno to Jupiter and of course the three main Martian rover missions, Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity.
Curiosity had an initial launch-date of September 2009 however, due to the late delivery of components, NASA delayed the launch (NASA 2011). This may have proved to be a boon in PR terms, as Curiosity was able to ride a zeitgeist of social media when it eventually landed in 2012.
The publicity campaign began properly in 2009 when NASA gave the public the opportunity to have their names etched into a silicon chip that would be sent to Mars (NASA n.d.). They also launched a competition inviting young people from across America to come up with a name for the Rover. This competition was conducted in partnership with Pixar, who provided WALL-e related prizes for the finalists (NASA 2009).
People have a tendency to connect with objects that have been humanised (or anthropomorphised). In linking it to WALL-e, NASA made Curiosity more than just a mechanical exploration device, and helped to capture the imagination of the public.
NASA allowed people follow the progress of curiosity. In 2008 they had set up a twitter account for the rover (@MarsCuriosity). While tweets from the account are written by people working on the MSL (Mars Science Lab) team, the point of view is from the rover. Followers have been able to connect with the robot and as a result feel more attached to the project. The NASA team let ordinary people into their world. Curiosity frequently answers questions from the public via the account.
This was essential in bridging the gap between regular space enthusiasts and the general public. By opening up avenues of communication directly with the team the public, and in turn the news agencies, got more interested.
In the run-up to launch-date NASA ramped up the access with live-broadcast briefings and Q&A sessions. Videos of Curiosity, its flight plan and landing mechanism were issued to news shows and web-based newspapers like the Huffington post (Stenovec 2011).
The next stage of Curiosity’s life would be spent hurtling through space. The only major news during this stage was the course correction needed in early January. Once again @MarsCuriosity led the way in informing people about how this would be done and why it was needed. In fact, throughout the 9 month trip, the twitter account kept a running commentary of everything it was doing or seeing, from monitoring solar flares to being nominated for shorty awards (Shorty Awards 2013).
This constant stream of information meant that Curiosity never quite fully left the public’s consciousness. There are now over 1.3 million people following @MarsCuriosity (to compare,the other NASA account for Spirit and Opportunity, @MarsRovers, has 192k followers).
In June 2012, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (the unit behind the rovers) released a YouTube video entitled:Challenges of Getting to Mars: Curiosity's Seven Minutes of Terror (NASA JPL 2012). In it the engineers involved with the project detailed the difficulties with a Mars landing and the very precise nature of getting Curiosity to the ground. Within a fortnight the YouTube video had racked up over half a million views and was cited in the New York Times (Chang 2012).
It was, in some ways, a work of genius. First NASA encouraged us to care about this machine; the voice of the twitter account is genuine and funny. The public were able to watch the launch and follow its journey through space. And now, in the final stages, NASA introduces danger into the mix. This little robot may burn up on entry.
To add to the anticipation of the entry sequence, mid-July, NASA released a game for the XBOX Kinect called ‘Mars Rover Landing’ allowing people to attempt their own landing (McGlaun 2012). The game was outside the comfort zone of NASA, as it was the first time they released anything for the console market.
The stage and mood were set. The rover was nearing Mars. And on the 6th of August at 6.25am, Curiosity entered the Martian atmosphere and the seven minutes of terror started. Over a thousand people watched the descent in New York’s Times Square (Space.com 2012). Thousands watched the NASA feed from different countries around the world. More followed Curiosity’s dive on twitter.
The tweet that announced a safe landing “I’m safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!! #MSL” was retweeted 70,635 times. 14,641 people favourited it.
NASA’S aim with Curiosity’s PR was to increase knowledge of the rover, the work that NASA do outside of manned space flight and to show the people responsible for their budget that there was still an appetite for endeavours in space. While we cannot yet know if there will be an increase in money made available for NASA, we can say with some certainty that the public’s imagination is still captured by space, and by the possibilities of travel to another planet.