20th October 2015

NASA: Boldly Exploring Cultural Trends

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I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s fascinated with all things space. I love kicking back with a good sci-fi novel, and I’m always on the look-out for news about the latest exoplanet discovery or revelations from the Curiosity Rover on Mars.

You can imagine, then, that I was extremely interested to stumble upon a new interactive app developed by none other than NASA that charts the epic journey taken by Matt Damon’s character, Mark Watney, across the wastes of the Red Planet in the latest Hollywood blockbuster, The Martian.

Dubbed Mars Trek 2.0, the app lets you explore the landscape of Mars, providing lots of fascinating insights into the character’s route to his rendezvous with his rescuers, from information about topographical features on the planet’s surface, to details about previous rover landings in the area.

The app is a great educational tool to teach people of all ages about the real exploration work being undertaken by NASA and other space agencies around the world, and a good reminder of the importance of such work to our technological progress.

Moreover, it’s a fantastic example of how following and responding to current cultural trends, like new film releases, combined with taking advantage of digital communications channels can help NASA engage with people who, otherwise, wouldn’t be interested in space exploration. Not only does this raise the organisation’s profile in a positive way among the general public, it also helps to make physics and astronomy more accessible.

This isn’t the first time though, that NASA has used popular culture to reach out to ordinary people in an eye-catching way. Real-life NASA astronaut Mike “Mass” Massimino, for example, has starred in a constellation of episodes of everyone’s favourite sit-com The Big Bang Theory, not only providing us with hours of entertainment, but also helping to make the agency seem more approachable and more human. NASA has also teamed up with game designers Rovio Entertainment to create a space-themed spin-off of the successful Angry Birds mobile game franchise. The organisation even responds when new sci-fi films are released to challenge or praise their scientific accuracy (it often has to do more of the latter than the former), using Hollywood as a hook to educate the public about its work.

But why does the organisation feel the need to engage with the public at all? Why not keep its sights trained permanently on the stars?

Well, NASA has been committed to talking openly and honestly to the general public ever since its birth as an organisation in 1958, through a sophisticated and sustained communications campaign. The body has a long heritage of explaining its work, its successes and failures, as clearly as possible through TV and print media, but increasingly through digital channels as well. In addition to its highly popular main Twitter account, it engages with the public through its dedicated feeds for the International Space Station and the Mars Curiosity Rover.

All this transparency and engagement is about more than public education though. As a government agency, in receipt of public funds, NASA has to demonstrate its value to the people ultimately holding the purse strings – American taxpayers. The organisation needs to show what the money it receives is being spent on, and the benefits to ordinary people – this means reaching out to the general public through the media channels that they use every day.

By monitoring and taking cues from what is happening in popular culture, NASA can do more than simply communicate its work to the general public, it can actually engage with its target audiences, generating their interest and enthusiasm. In doing so, the organisation can ensure it is both maintaining a positive media profile and demonstrating the exceptional value of its research on society.

By Michael Wood, Senior B2B Copywriter