Red Bull Stratos: What We Learned

On October 14th, 2012, I woke up a little more excited than I normally do. I’m not much of a morning person, but that day was a little different. It was a Sunday, and Sundays are awesome, but more than that, it was the next scheduled launch window for Felix Baumgartner’s Red Bull Stratos team. After a previous attempt was scuttled earlier that week due to winds, their next attempt at a record-breaking jump from higher in the atmosphere than any man was going down in a few hours, and I wanted to be there to witness it as it was taking place live. Online. Because it’s the future and we can do that sort of thing now. Which is totally awesome.

Felix was attempting to break a number of records that day, one of which being the first human to break the sound barrier during a freefall. There were assumptions as to what would happen if that record was broken, but no one really knew what breaking the sound barrier would do, if anything, to the human body. One of the main reasons I was interested in this mission from a science point of view has to do with applying lessons learned from this jump into planning for any type of astronaut “escape” from space.

I was 10 when the Challenger disaster occurred. Like many schoolchildren, we had made special arrangements to watch TV in our classroom. When it happened, I don’t think any of us knew what really happened, but we knew that something went wrong. My fascination with space never wavered, but my thoughts about space being safe and “easy” to travel to were changed forever.

It was many years later when researching the Colombia disaster that I learned more about exactly what happened to the space shuttle Challenger. I was under the false assumption that the whole shuttle had “exploded” and the astronauts were killed immediately on impact. Although we’ll never know everything that happened in those final minutes with certainty, most experts agree that it is more than plausible that the astronauts not only survived the initial event, but may have survived until they hit the ocean at a very high rate of speed.

Felix is a world champion BASE jumper, helicopter pilot, balloon pilot, and kind of an overall badass. He has parachuted many, many times. If you or I were to try jumping out of a balloon at 120,000 feet, well, let’s just say it wouldn’t be pretty. With that being said, there was a point after Felix had begun his freefall that I was a little nervous for him.

The air at 120,000 feet is extremely thin. There’s basically no air resistance. Once he did start to encounter more atmosphere, he started to go into an “uncontrollable” spin. I quote uncontrollable because it was a controllable spin–but only for people as experienced as Felix. It was a very helpless feeling watching him go into that spin, and there was palpable relief from Red Bull Stratos Mission Control (and his parents, watching from mission control) when he gained control of his spin.

With all this being said, NASA and other private space companies will need to think about and develop technology that controls for massive freefalls. Felix has said one of his main goals with the whole mission is to help design better spacesuits for astronauts. Companies such as Blue Origin are already working on this issue, but more work needs to continue.

So here’s what we learned:

  • The human body can survive breaking the sound barrier
  • Jumping from 120,000 feet is super hard

Whether or not you view this as a publicity stunt or something else entirely, I thought it was an extremely cool experience and a testament to the human spirit of exploration and curiosity.

Social Media and NASA – A Marriage Made in Space

I love NASA. With a long history of innovation, leadership, and doing more with less, I’m a huge admirer. With that being said, I try to be objective in my criticism of NASA, especially with major flaws that resulted in the loss of human life such as the Challenger and Columbia disasters – both of which were preventable.

However, I have to give it up to NASA. Being a government agency, the expectations that they would embrace the quickly changing world of social media were not that high, at least in my mind. But they’ve done everything right when it comes to their social media strategy, especially when it comes to their recent successes such as the Mars Curiosity Rover.

It’s All About the Master Plan

It’s not just the number of social networks NASA participates in. These social networks include your usual Twitter, Facebook, and Google plus, but also a YouTube channel, flickr, slideshare, UStreamTV, and Foursquare accounts. Here’s what makes NASA the master of their social media domain (oh Seinfeld. . .you will live on forever): NASA incorporates every NASA-related account into their social media plan.

Think of the main NASA social media accounts as the “Main Hub”. NASA has a TON of related accounts, such as the Curiosity Rover’s Twitter account, JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) social media accounts, Kennedy Space Center, Johnson Space Center. . . .just the list of Twitter feeds alone would be enough to keep you busy.

Each of these “sub-accounts”, if you will, connect with the main NASA accounts, and they both feed into each other. A great deal of planning goes into their coordinated messaging, but what makes NASA so special is they allow each subaccount to be creative and do their own thing.

The picture below, courtesy of Wired.com, is a visual of what it may have looked like when the rover checked in on Foursquare. Needless to say, it may be a while before anyone unseats Curiosity as the Mayor of Gale Crater.

It’s Also About Throwing Out That Plan

The other thing about social media that you always have to keep in mind is the speed at which things happen. As a social media manager, you have to know what to respond to and what to filter out. That’s why you get paid the big bucks (HA-you do not get paid the big bucks. . .I know because I am ONE OF YOU). Let’s say that you’ve spent a few months getting ready for an event. Everything’s laid out, you’ve charted your timeline . . .the event starts, and. . .your plans change. Maybe your feedback isn’t what you expected, maybe the traditional media has picked up on your campaign and taken it in a direction you weren’t expecting. You have to be adaptable to the flow of where social media takes you. Plan for what you know, gird yourself for what you don’t.

So, to recap so far: Have a plan, but be adaptable. This last point is, what I think, what makes NASA truly exceptional in the social media world.

Make ‘Em Laugh

Want to engage your followers? Be funny. Want to encourage behavior change? Be funny. Want to spread your message throughout your partners and beyond? Be funny.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Sometimes the subject matter does not lend itself to humor. Being funny and witty is one of the hardest things to do in real life, let alone in 140 characters.

But research shows that these messages resonate with the public. For instance,  let’s look at a tweet from Curiosity:

First of all, you have to take something very sciencey, fit it into a tweet, and make it understandable. NASA not only did that, but they really brought their point home with their awesome use of hashtags. We all know that #pewpew is the international language of lasers, and that’s the take-home message here. Lasers are cool. Curiosity shot freaking lasers. If you learned nothing from the tweet other than that, that’s the point. Here’s another example:

This tweet accomplishes the same goals as above, and also endears itself to those of us who grew up in the 80s with an Inspector Gadget reference. Pop culture references are a great touch, but you just have to be careful not to use them too much. At a certain point, it can turn into a gimmick.

#Pewpew, NASA. #Pewpew.

To wrap up, I give laser kudos to NASA for their use of social media to not only share information, but to share it in a way that’s entertaining and meaningful at the same time.