At the start of his and astronaut Ron Garan's session at Ragan Communications' Social Media for Government Communicators conference at NASA headquarters,
astronaut Michael Fossum observed that lots of people in the audience had their cell phones out.
"We don't want to be disconnected," Fossum said. "The lights are glowing in your laps. You want to know what's going on right now. You demand it."
That demand, plus a desire to share an experience only a handful of people get, is why Fossum and Garan have been tweeting about their journeys in space
for about four years now.
"When Mike and I flew together in 2008 and I looked out the window for the first time, it was frustrating to me," Garan said. "I saw this amazing sight
that I couldn't really describe, I couldn't really share."
Since then, they've shared their stories and sights to huge audiences. Garan's first tweet from space, a photo of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, was
retweeted by the White House and by celebrities and got 126,000 views in a week. And though NASA may have a leg up on earthbound communicators in terms of
inspiring awe, a good number of the astronauts' tips for tweeting could come in handy for anyone.
1. Re-create the emotion.
"We're always looking for creative ways to tell the story," Garan said. "I saw this as a way that I could bring people on, not just as spectators, but as
A still photo may not always do that, he said, but time-lapse video of thousands of photos as the
International Space Station orbits above lightning storms, passes above aurora borealis, and witnesses several of the 16 sunrises the astronauts saw every
day certainly has an impact. Fossum said the images in the video are pretty close to what the astronauts actually see as they peer out the window.
2. Document current events.
Pictures of Earth from space are pretty cool on their own, but Fossum and Garan went the extra mile, photographing Tripoli on the day it fell to rebel
forces in August 2011, England the day before the royal wedding, wildfires in Texas, and Hurricane Katia as it bore down on the East Coast. Fossum managed
to snag a photo of the space shuttle Atlantis' plasma trail in its last-ever landing.
"I got a picture that nobody had ever captured before," he said.
Of course, not everyone has direct access to all those events, but you can document what's around you, or maybe even what's happening to you. Fossum
tweeted photos of a muscle biopsy performed on him, for example.
3. Make time for it.
"Give up sleep. It's worth it," Fossum said when asked about how he and Garan managed to take photos and get all his work done on the space station.
He went on to explain that astronauts do have some free time on the International Space Station, and that he often took advantage of those times to snap
photos or post tweets. It helped that ground control would send up messages that something worth documenting, such as a hurricane, was coming into view in
a few minutes.
"You're only up there for so long," Garan added. "You want to make every moment count."
4. Work with your followers.
The time-lapse video of the view from orbit wasn't actually made by NASA. A fan put the video together using still images.
In some of Garan's tweets about geography, followers would occasionally correct him on a spelling or other fact. He ended up using that to his advantage
after he noticed that one fan was a particularly avid corrector.
"I got smart," Garan said. He started sending the photos to his fact-loving fan first; then the follower would OK it and send along a ton of context in
which to put the picture. Garan would give his new pal credit, and people devoured the enhanced content, he said.
5. Be sprightly.
While Garan and Fossum were on the space station, some of the time-sensitive photos they were taking were going on out Twitter "in almost real time," Garan
said. They had to. Who cares about seeing a hurricane a week after it's gone?
But doesn't NASA, as a government agency, have to review and approve every photo? Not really, Garan says, if it's a photo outside the station. The agency
really just needs the file so that it can answer the numerous requests for prints it always gets as soon as one goes up.
"We have to have that freedom to communicate in real time," Garan said. "It deepens the experience for us if we share it."
The ideal is that agencies should have basic guidelines for behavior—don't curse, don't make political statements, don't endorse products, and so on—and
let their employees tweet, he said.
Of course, there are privacy concerns for pictures taken inside the International Space Station. Fossum could tweet photos of his own muscle biopsy, for
instance, because the photos were of his own leg, but he couldn't send out pictures of someone else's.
Matt Wilson is a staff reporter for Ragan.com, a sister site of PR Daily.