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Why is NASA seeking out the MySpace generation?

Dr. Stephen Hawking, professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge, and his daughter Lucy Hawking give a speech entitled "Why We Should Go Into Space" on April 21, 2008, in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Stephen Hawking, professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge, and his daughter Lucy Hawking give a speech entitled "Why We Should Go Into Space" on April 21, 2008, in Washington, D.C.
Paul E. Alers/NASA/Getty Images

In 2008, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) celebrates its 50th anniversary. The organization actually has two reasons to recognize its existence -- although Congress officially created NASA on July 29, 1958, the United States began launching satellites into orbit by Jan. 31 of that same year.

This might explain why NASA isn't focusing on one particular date for its celebrations. Instead, it's throwing a yearlong birthday bash in the form of Future Forums, conferences held about once a month in several cities across America, including Seattle; Columbus, Ohio; St. Louis; Miami; San Jose, Calif.; Boston and Chicago. Along with recognizing the 50th anniversary, the programs, according to NASA, "discuss the role of space exploration in advancing science, engineering, technology, education and the economy that benefits [the] community and the nation" [source: NASA]. While looking back on NASA's history, presentations will also focus on the future, such as planned trips back to the moon and potential travels to other interstellar destinations.

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Part of NASA's anniversary also involves keeping up with the present. In December 2007, NASA's Web site received a significant redesign to commemorate the milestone. Older versions of the site, despite offering lots of information about the program, were simple in nature -- you could click around from one page to the next and read about technology and present missions, but that was about it. The redesign offers visitors a new organization and a more interactive experience, one that usually appeals to the 18- to 25-year-old set known as the MySpace generation.

Why might NASA jump onto the social networking bandwagon? What does a big government space program gain from appealing to a younger crowd? Is space camp just not that popular anymore? Is this just some bad pun on "space"? To learn about NASA's new foray into the wild and woolly world of Web 2.0, read the next page.

NASA deputy administrator Shana Dale, who also blogs for the organization's Web site, delivers the keynote speech at the Future Forum event at the Center of Science and Industry on Feb. 21, 2008, in Columbus, Ohio.
NASA deputy administrator Shana Dale, who also blogs for the organization's Web site, delivers the keynote speech at the Future Forum event at the Center of Science and Industry on Feb. 21, 2008, in Columbus, Ohio.
Bill Ingalls/NASA/Getty Images

So why is NASA trying to appeal to all the young folks? What do they have to gain by messing around with their official Web site?

One possible explanation, suggested by Guardian writer Jack Schofield, is that NASA depends on funding from American taxpayers, and an updated, entertaining site will keep people aware of the organization's relevance [source: Guardian]. NASA might also be trying to reach a younger generation that never grew up with moon landings or exciting spacewalks. Although space shuttle launches frequently receive national attention, the organization could be keeping the country's youth in touch with space exploration, and if they happen to pick up some potential astronaut recruits along the way, it's no loss for NASA.

The most likely answer is that the space program is just trying to stay in step with the changing atmosphere of the Web. You may have heard of the term Web 2.0 -- although it's a loose term and no one completely agrees on what it means, it may be the best explanation for NASA's recent updates. Web 2.0 at its broadest describes the more interactive, user-friendly aspects of the Internet employed by current Web sites.

Whereas the so-called Web 1.0 was a passive experience, in which the typical Web surfer simply clicked around from one page to the next and took in information, sites built on the spirit of Web 2.0 let the user's voice be heard. Facebook and MySpace are two good examples of this philosophy, two sites that allow their members to create profiles, post comments, share pictures, video and music, and generally communicate with others. In other words, they allow people to take part in social networking.

You can't create your own astronaut profile, but many parts of NASA's new redesign embrace this philosophy. The latest version of the site offers a calendar of events, which lists things such as future conferences and upcoming launches. Millions of people typically watch space shuttle launches on television, but with the growing popularity of Internet TV, the allure of watching a live takeoff while sitting in your cubicle may be just right for those tech-savvy young kids. There are also blogs by NASA employees such as Shana Dale, the organizations's deputy administrator, that give readers an insider account of the space program. On top of that, there are also frequently updated videos and an Image of the Day to keep people curious about new photographs of ongoing missions and the current status of the final frontier.

NASA also has a few of its own Facebook pages to encourage more social networking. One application allows members to display the NASA Astro Photo of the Day on their profile page, which creates more exposure for the site. NASA's television show with a younger, hipper bend, "NASA Edge," also has its own Facebook, MySpace and Twitter profiles, and its section of the official Web site includes a blog and several downloadable videos

For lots more information on NASA and the changing landscape of the Web, see the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • Schofield, Jack. "NASA for the MySpace generation." The Guardian. March 3, 2008. http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2008/mar/03/nasa.website
  • Thompson, Tabatha and Huetter, Ted. "NASA celebrates 50th anniversary at Seattle Future Forum." National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Jan. 24, 2008. http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2008/jan/HQ_M08025_Seattle_Future_Forum.html

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