Anyone who works for NASA has to learn how to be patient, even when it comes to the need-it-right-now world of social media.
From launch to landing, the mission to land the Curiosity rover on Mars on Aug. 5 took more than eight months, and that didn't include the time it took to design the rover, build it, plan the flight path, and do all the checks necessary to ensure it got to Mars safely. From the very beginning of that process almost four years ago, social media has been a component.
"We'd really been building this audience for years," says Veronica McGregor, social media manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The explosion of interest when the rover touched down on Mars—it was a trending topic on Twitter for more than a day, and millions of people watched live feeds on the Web despite a lack of live coverage from the major TV networks—was no fluke.
A full toolbox
The @MarsCuriosity Twitter account started in late 2008, McGregor says, as NASA was testing the rover's various components. That Twitter account launched not long after the first mission account, which McGregor also launched, for the Mars Phoenix mission.
JPL's social media team started a Facebook page about two years later.
The team really began to ramp up online video early in the mission, taking five full months to obtain permission to broadcast a live stream from the clean room where the rover was being built. For nine months, NASA broadcast the assembly for four hours each day.
"People could drop in and watch the rover in whatever stage it was being built," McGregor says.
Most online projects don't require that sort of lengthy approval process, but showing a space vehicle being built "is very sensitive," McGregor says. NASA has to meet State and Commerce department regulations for showing foreign nations how to build spacecraft.
That live stream, broadcast via UStream, also included a chat box in which people could chat with the social media team, and sometimes special guests from the mission team, for about two hours every day.
"We would answer a lot of the questions, every day," McGregor says.
Over the nine months, the stream got about 4.3 million unique visits, she says. After that stream ended, the team has worked on other video series such as "Cruising with Curiosity" and "7 Minutes of Terror."
Other offices at the lab had other social projects going on, such as a 3-D simulation of the mission called Eyes on the Solar System.
"That's using real mission data," McGregor says.
Another group worked on an Xbox Live game that launched a few weeks before the landing.
"There was a lot of groundwork already laid on this," McGregor says. "Certainly at this NASA center we've been leading a lot of things. We are pretty well oiled."
The big night
The team's years of work built a sizable audience of space-exploration lovers—about 150,000 Twitter followers the Saturday before the landing—but the team had no idea how big the numbers would explode when the rover touched down. The team estimated it might grow to 250,000.
"We thought that was maybe a high bar," says Social Media Specialist Stephanie Smith. "We knew it was going to be big. We didn't know how big."
The number was actually 300,000 or so as the landing took place. By Thursday, it was nearing 900,000.
The live, streaming video had millions of viewers, some of whom gathered for overnight showings at museums.
Smith says the landing, when the rover started sending back pictures from Mars, "that was the moment that world kind of looked up and said, 'Wait, what? We're getting what? We've got a rover where?'"
It's lucky McGregor and her team had prepared for it.
The team couldn't say exactly how many watched because there were so many different streams—JPL set up an additional one just a week before the landing to make sure the video didn't blink out because of the high demand. The lab's two UStream feeds had a total of about 1.1 million viewers, McGregor says, while the NASA stream itself had several million.
The response got so big the three-woman team couldn't even keep up. Twitter interactions with the Curiosity Twitter account were going so fast team members couldn't even read them. About 100,000 people were trying to chat in the UStream chat room.
That's a considerable outpouring of interest from the community, considering no major network broadcast the landing. (It was shown on some of the cable news channels.) Courtney O'Connor, also a social media specialist, says that proves people with a strong interest don't necessarily need to rely on their local news channels to dictate what's valuable and what isn't. Smith agrees.
"Social media is allowing [fans] to find each other and connect," she says. "We see these relationships blossom."
A playful rover
On Twitter, Curiosity doesn't really talk like a robot. It's got personality. JPL's team refers to Curiosity as "she." It trades quips with Steve Martin.
The team, which voices Curiosity as a "hive-mind," tries to keep the tone of the account light and fun, Smith says.
"If some kind of pop culture reference or song lyric or movie quote comes to mind that makes us laugh, and we can use that hook to get people's attention, there's a good chance they'll click on the link and be exposed to some science and engineering coming straight out of the mission," she says.
O'Connor adds that the team often offers countdown tweets—to the launch, to the landing—to keep people interested.
But what about the next two years of the rover digging and searching on the surface of Mars? How will the team keep enthusiasm up?
"It's a mission of discovery, so we can't put those discoveries on a timetable," Smith says, "but everything we've seen so far has been amazing. We've only just begun."
It doesn't hurt that Curiosity herself is sending back loads of information. Soon, it'll beam high-resolution video to Earth.
"She's a multitasker," Smith says. "We love her."
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.