Computers

Live tweeting from space shows power of social media to engage public

May 19, 2013 

There are moments when you start seeing technology in a different way, and one of these occurred last week as a Soyuz space capsule streaked through the atmosphere for a landing in Kazakhstan.

Aboard were Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn and Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, whose descent was tracked by, among others, more than a million of Hadfield’s followers on Twitter. After 144 days in orbit and 2,336 orbits, Hadfield emerged as a social media star whose presence changed our view of space.

Social media can put you in places you’re not, using nothing more than 140 characters and a link. During Hadfield’s time on the International Space Station, I routinely clicked on his photos of whatever feature the crew were passing over at the moment. A given morning might bring a tweeted image of Marrakesh, or a view of clouds over the Crimea.

Hadfield emerged as a continuing presence by making sure he kept his Twitter followers informed day after day, hour after hour. Even when the Soyuz dropped out of communication on his return, a normal part of the re-entry procedure, the tweets kept up, slipped in by Hadfield’s son Evan. All the way down, Evan explained what was going on until his father picked up the thread on the ground. And then the astronaut sent out: “Safely home – back on Earth, happily readapting to the heavy pull of gravity. Wonderful to smell and feel Spring.”

Cosmic connections

What we do by way of major projects is critically dependent on public involvement, and I’m thinking that Chris Hadfield has just written the book on using computers to reach people in the midst of big science. He used not just Twitter but Facebook, Reddit and Tumblr. He led Canada in a nationwide sing-along, strumming a guitar aboard the space station, all of which can be seen on YouTube. He ran an April Fools’ Day spoof posting a photo of himself with a little green alien. And while he was doing the experiments he was onboard the station to perform, he walked us through everything from astronaut cuisine to the effects of a weightless exercise regimen.

Vinton Cerf, widely regarded as the father of the Internet after writing the TCP/IP protocols that drive it, has been engaged for some years in an attempt to set up specialized Internet protocols for spacecraft. The Hadfield lesson is timely here: Imagine a future Mars mission in which such high-speed data networking allows us to experience truly high-definition views of the surface on demand. Or couple that to Mars One, a Dutch plan to send colonists to Mars that has already attracted some 78,000 volunteers for what would essentially be a one-way journey.

The future today

If that sounds suicidal, think again. Many original settlers didn’t return to Europe from Australia, either. In this case, the plan is to develop a self-sustaining colony, one that will be chronicled through the same kind of social media presence Hadfield has reminded us how to use. The project will be partially funded by reality-TV broadcasting of astronaut selection and training. Remember, too, that the first commercial flight of Virgin Galactic’s suborbital rocket plane is scheduled to take place in December. We can imagine the social media ride to be had there.

Livestreaming, tweets and networking from space bring us experiences we could not otherwise have, and ramp up the public’s stake in what we as a species do. Astonishingly, the realm of a select few with the ‘right stuff’ is becoming accessible to all. We’re already in a science fictional future, one in which the direction that new technologies take us is always tinged with surprise.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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