The Science of Social Media Strategy

At NASA Science we use any and all ways to communicate our exploration from all perspectives. We talk about the colleagues who come up with space missions, the complexity of building spacecraft, the people who can hardly wait for the data to arrive, and the historic mission milestones and science results. As the way we learn and disseminate information evolves, so must we at NASA Science, to ensure we are best in class when it comes to sharing our message.

Over the past decade, social media has become an integral way that NASA shares its science and research with the public. Social media not only allows us to reach a variety of audiences, ages and demographics, but also it enables NASA to be more accessible to the public. Features offered by the various platforms, like Q&A’s and live video, enable NASA to take its followers behind-the-scenes and into areas that are normally not accessed by the public. The conversational nature of social media allows NASA to share its message and to respond to the public’s questions and engage with followers like never before.

With this rapidly evolving platform, informed strategy is key. During a recent review, we took a look at all of the social media accounts associated with NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. We found that there are around 300 accounts across 8 platforms (Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Tumblr, Twitter and YouTube). Although well-intended in all cases, our initial “more is better” strategy did not always work in all cases as we hoped. For example, a significant number of these accounts were inactive for time-periods over years, and others were highly duplicative and confusing at times, with respect to focus and content, resulting in the fact that many great posts were not seen by large audiences.

Because of this and to improve the reach and impact of our social media efforts, we are working on a strategic social media plan that will consolidate these existing profiles across the 8 platforms. This consolidation does not mean that information will no longer be shared. In fact, the goal is to share the same information under more thematic and broader account handles that have larger audiences. Based on our deeper understanding of social media gained during the past years, we believe that this more focused and aligned effort will result in higher followership for these accounts and broader engagement, especially around missions or research efforts that might not normally get public attention.

During the past year or so, our teams have experimented with thematic accounts and other ways to create more “bang for the buck” – broader reach and deeper engagement. Here is one example: The @NASASun account on Twitter is a thematic account that shares the various ways NASA studies the Sun and its influence in our solar system. It was also a huge driver of content and traffic during the 2017 total solar eclipse. Rather than setting up a separate account for our newest Sun mission – Parker Solar Probe – relevant information is shared on @NASASun. This allows people interested in NASA’s study of the Sun to not only learn about Parker Solar Probe, but other missions that they might not normally have known about.

Another example has been a deliberate alignment of social media around crosscutting stories. An amazing Earth Science news-story about Greenland, that upon first glance appeared to only focus on one science discipline was deconstructed and shared by a diverse group of social media accounts across disciplines. This story highlighted a second possible impact crater under the Greenland Ice. Instead of treating this as solely an Earth Science story, we engaged groups from other disciplines.

The result was astounding and added new context and viewpoints to the story. The Curiosity Rover account related the possible Greenland impact crater to the robot’s home on Mars – Gale Crater – which was likely created by an asteroid impact. As science is so often connected, the engagement we employed with this story highlighted those crosscutting angles to tell a more comprehensive narrative. This effort also resulted in 20 – 30% increased engagement compared to other similar social media posts. In addition, I noticed how much better the cross-disciplinary nature of science was shining through all this.

Over the next few months, you will see these efforts taking shape across our social media channels. Be aware that we do this for one reason and one reason only: We deeply care about sharing our messages with more people and this more strategic approach will allow NASA Science and its broad impact on society to be seen and appreciated by more.

Thank you for your support!

NASA’s Future Leaders

The agency has a wonderful leadership development program that provides leadership training for some of our most promising junior professionals. It’s called the NASA FIRST Program. The 2019 group of FIRST participants has just graduated from the program and I am so proud of what they accomplished. I wanted to share my excitement for what they’ve accomplished by posting my congratulatory letter to the participants here on my blog.

NASA FIRST graduation, Thursday, June 27, 2019 at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Dear FIRST Graduates,

First and foremost, I want to congratulate you for your successful completion of NASA’s FIRST program, and particularly for all the learning that occurred as a result. Meeting you was inspiring, and made me think about the very values that motivate me.

The first value is leadership. Leadership is not just about being good at something or getting great grades and evaluations. True leadership is the recognition that, through deliberate action, we inspire others to join in. Leaders remember the moment when they first realized that others were following them, not because they were told to follow, but because they were motivated by the goal or vision, and the example the leader sets.

The second value is service. The kinds of leaders who have so often made the world better in a lasting way are the ones who understand that concept. When they see others following, they recognize that tremendous potential and empower those followers to unleash it for the betterment of all. Joining NASA civil service, I have come to admire these servant leaders, and I observe them every day. These are leaders who bring their best to work, serving their office, our agency, and our nation. I think many of you are on track to be the same type of leaders, and I am proud of you for that!

Most importantly, I hope to see you again doing something that can only be achieved by an excellent team in which you have a critical role as a leader. Like many things in life, to be a master leader takes a lot of practice. I know I still learn a lot every day from people around me. So, be patient with yourself, as you are moving forward on this path of learning, of leadership, and of service. Through it, you leave an impact that is bigger than anything you might even think about today!

Sincerely,

Thomas H. Zurbuchen, Ph.D.

Associate Administrator, Science Mission Directorate

NASA FIRST graduation, Thursday, June 27, 2019 at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

To learn more about the FIRST Program, visit: https://eoeb.hq.nasa.gov/training/NASA_FIRST.html

Celebrating Earth

Earth is our precious oasis in the cosmos. Out of all the planets in the solar system, our own is the only one we know with certainty to have life. Motivated by the potentially habitable worlds we find our solar system and beyond, we look at our planet in new ways. At NASA, we monitor, study and observe our planet 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year – attempting to learn even more about this complex rock on which we live, and to protect and improve life on Earth through it.

Each year, to celebrate our home on Earth Day, NASA Science Art Director Jenny Mottar designs a beautiful poster. Last year’s Earth Day artwork and messaging was inspired by a Carl Sagan quote, stating that the “…Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean.”

Earth Day 2018 poster

This year’s artwork expands upon this theme and dives into the depths of the universe in search of our cosmic origin.

Earth Day 2019 poster

A bioluminescent jellyfish is at the forefront of the composition, composed of DNA strands, vines and trees, meant to represent life on our planet from a new perspective, motivated by our questions about life beyond Earth. A second jellyfish floats in the distance, depicting the possibility of life on planets that orbit other stars. In the cosmic depths we discover ourselves, and “the water seems inviting.”

I hope you enjoy this beautiful creation and it allows you to appreciate the incredible planet we call home.

To download a free copy of the poster, visit: https://go.nasa.gov/EarthPoster2019

Happy Earth Day!

The Hidden Value of NASA Leaders

Last week, Mike Freilich, the director of NASA Earth Science retired after dedicating a dozen years of his life to NASA Science. Mike has been truly excellent and he has already won all kinds of awards, and will hopefully win even more. He is credited with turning around a failing science program and creating a program with vitality and excellence. But his retirement made me think: Mike is a lot better than most people know. Let me explain.

Here is something I learned during the last 2.5 years in government, which would have changed how I felt and talked about Mike and others who worked within the government in the previous decades, especially civil servants in leadership positions.

There are two ways NASA leaders have value. On the one hand they do good things, on the other hand they prevent bad things from happening.

The first bucket of actions are what earns applause and recognition. There is a new mission, a launch, a discovery and societal impact like better weather forecasting. It is what award citations are made out of, honorary doctorates, etc.

The second bucket – the actions that prevent bad things from happening – is far less glamorous. It is often full of disappointments and challenges, and there is not one thank you or recognition for it.

Some of this hidden work relates to hard decisions that are made to protect the program and the greater good. To protect the viability of NASA’s science program, we need to sometimes stop activities that under perform. Sometimes, such tough decisions come from constraints that are not obvious. But, in all cases I have observed or have been part of, these decisions are made to protect NASA Science and for the health of the community. But, there has never been an award given for cutting back a mission with bad financial or technical performance, even though such an action is in every way as important as starting a new mission because it is the only way to maintain a balanced program of excellence.

There is another way NASA leaders add value, which is by preventing bad things from happening. This is done through discussions and negotiations with various government stakeholders, a game with ever changing rules but big consequences for all. For example, within weeks the 2020 budget proposal will come out. Do not forget: prior to that release, lots of work occurred, work nobody will ever know. It is tough work, sometimes taking over weekends and family time of the dedicated individuals who are tasked with it. And recognize there are many often scary threats that did not materialize because of the hard work of these leaders.

If I had to estimate the value Mike had for NASA Science in “do good”, vs “prevent bad from happening”, I would think the ratio may be 25:75 in favor of the second category. And, you should not be surprised if many of Mike’s colleagues, including me, score in very much the same way.

People on the outside of the agency often miss that, perhaps they sound off sitting in a tenured university position like I used to, and do not see or understand 75% of the value a given person is adding for their own benefit. They are in every way as wrong as I used to be.

With that, I want to thank Mike for his honorable service – all 100% of it- and wish him the best for whatever is next for him. I am attaching a picture of Mike in tears, signing the launch vehicle of ICESat2, the last mission he launched as director of NASA Earth Science.

We will miss Mike, but I want to thank all of the members of our NASA Science leadership team for their service and hard work! Let me ask you a favor: when you see them next, please thank both Mike and the other leaders for their dedication and service to the benefit of many!

Science: A Deeply Emotional Affair

In many popular movies scientists are cold, analytical men and women who run almost exclusively on the left side of their brains. Often, scientists and engineers are considered loners and the successful ones do not make mistakes.

I believe that such perceptions are not only dead wrong, but also discouraging to those who are thinking about their futures. “Who wants to work alone? Who is good enough to enter careers where perfection is needed? Not sure – but certainly not me!”

I spent this week, in part, at JPL bidding adieu to NASA’s Opportunity, which – together with Spirit – formed the Mars Exploration Rover mission. This mission started at the edge of disaster: JPL has two Mars mission failures in a row, putting its very existence at risk.

The Mars Exploration Mission was an attempt of a turn-around, a 3 year crash program targeted at re-establishing excellence. Lead by Pete Theisinger, a space legend and manager, and Steve Squyres, a youthful Cornell Prof and science lead, an exploration team was assembled.

It was a huge success when first Spirit and weeks later Opportunity responded from the surface of the Red Planet. The missions, initially designed to last 90 days each and good for 1 km of driving, exceeded their mark manyfold. Opportunity drove longer than a marathon and lasted over 55 times longer than designed. And these missions changed entirely how we think about Mars now.

By any measure, this exploration team is one of the very best and most successful. Yet, if you try to find the stereotypical engineers and scientists I described earlier, you will be disappointed.

Many remember the pure joy and elation at the beginning of the mission. The team members were deeply passionate and excellent during this mission. They decided to forego the proprietary phase of their schedule and directly released the data that came down from Mars – to the elation of millions worldwide. Joy, inspiration and love were words heard in pretty much any science meeting focused on this.

But, what struck me is how the end of the mission felt.

The team was prepared: Spirit was lost years ago, and Opportunity had been silent for 8 months due to a dust storm, even though the team sent over 1000 commands to wake it back up. It was my job to decide when it was over. We pulled the team into a room on Tuesday and told them that we would try one more time and – if not successful – I would declare the mission complete on Wednesday.

This session felt like a memorial to a loved family member. Tears were flowing freely as scientists and leaders shared their memories and told each other how much they loved being part of this team – with two robotic emissaries on Mars.

Men and women of all ages talked about their passion, their worries they they would lose contact with the team that became family to them. They reminded each other of challenges, near-death experiences their missions overcame – by them working together. They were vulnerable, often dissolved in tears, and visibly touched, but deeply proud.

Many team members came to the command center in the evening. Squyres chose the last wake up song – Billie Holiday’s “I’ll be seeing you”. The team was there and talked about common experiences, about love – the raw emotion of individuals who put their heart and soul into something that gives purpose and a sense of community. The picture below shows Steve and I in the ops center as the final commands are sent out.

No, these are not left-brained analysts who work alone. I am sure there are introverts and extroverts, but they work together, passionately.

Great, history-making science of the type we do at NASA is a team sport, a deeply emotional affair. Exploration is about individuals with mistakes and deficiencies coming together and struggling, transcending their limitations to create something that is as close to perfection as it can be.

I wish we could explain that to children and to their parents.

A Lifetime of Opportunity

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “opportunity” as a favorable juncture of circumstances, or a good chance for advancement or progress. To me, Opportunity’s legacy embodies the name she was given. This rover, along with its twin – Spirit – not only gave us a better understanding of the Martian landscape and its history of water, but significantly improved our knowledge about how to navigate on other planets – something that will help future robotic and human exploration of Mars.

Opportunity can arise when we least expect it, or it can be a product of hard work and preparation. In the case of the Mars Exploration Rovers, it’s both. NASA’s robot geologist duo, Spirit and Opportunity, landed on the Red Planet in 2004 with the goal of searching for clues of ancient water activity on Mars. While the missions were prepared down to the very last detail, the unexpected opportunity arose when both rovers exceeded their planned 90-day mission lifetimes by many years.

Spirit lasted 20 times longer than its original design and sent its final communication to Earth on March 22, 2010. Twenty times longer! That’s incredible. Even more impressive is that Opportunity continued to operate for more than 14 years after landing on the Red Planet. Eventually, all missions operations come to an end and their legacy is used as a foundation for future missions of exploration.

As we reflect onOpportunity’s legacy, I’m reminded of my fondest memory of its mission – its first encounter with Mars. I was a professor at the time and was so excited about the incredible feat humanity was about to attempt: bounce onto the Martian surface with the rover inside a landing craft protected by airbags. The week before landing, I showed my class an amazing animation of the intense landing that was ahead. I wanted them to realize how difficult this endeavor actually was.

The night of landing I was alone in my living room with a laptop watching the NASA livestream of the Space Flight Operations Facility. You could there was an eerie silence in the room – each person waiting, listening, hoping. You could almost feel their energy through the screen, and then…confirmation! The room busted at the seams with joy and tears of happiness and relief. Humanity just accomplished a nearly impossible feat and I am so thankful I was able to witness it in real time.

Last night, the team made their final attempt to contact the rover. I was in the room when the command was sent – this time felt much different than the last. There was a heavy feeling in the air, which was filled with many team members, some of which have spent a majority of their careers assisting this rover as it explored a planet more than 33 million miles away. The humans behind the robot. Secretly we were all wishing that Opportunity would suddenly wake up and ping us back. That did not happen, as we all expected.

Farewell, Oppy. Thank you for all the science.

Leading Through Ambiguous Times

What can Ernest Shackleton teach us about leadership in ambiguous and ill-defined times, such as during a government shutdown? During the past month, I have been thinking a lot about the story of Shackleton, one of my favorite leadership stories I have ever read.

A brilliant explorer and seafarer, Shackleton is best known for his leadership during his failure to achieve his goals. When his exploration got into trouble and the Antarctic sea and ice tore apart his ship, he lead his team to safety using a series of techniques that remain relevant today. First responders, military and other emergency leaders I have talked to have often told me about these techniques as well.

This shot from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows a maelstrom of glowing gas and dark dust within one of the Milky Way’s satellite galaxies, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC).

The challenge, of course, is to lead during a time that is ambiguous or even chaotic. Here are some of the techniques that I use during such times of ambiguity and challenge, and which Shackleton has masterfully demonstrated.

#1 Stay focused on the goal! Through regular communications consistently focus on the goals at hand. NASA Science is equally important whether or not there is a government shutdown. When working with our teams, we focus on that, focusing forward and upward.

#2 Stay focused on the team! Everybody deals with pressure and worries in different ways, and Shackleton knew that. To focus on his team, he used various techniques, but most importantly created opportunities for the team to connect and build each other up. We were deliberate about this during the past month, reaching out. Only last week, did we have an informal get-together in a bar and a significant fraction of our team – civil servants and contractors – showed up and were there for each other.

#3 Lead tighter to create more certainly where that is possible. Shackleton knew that emptiness, boredom, and ambiguity can rapidly give way to desperation and hopelessness. To keep his men busy, he made up a regular and strict schedule and even an Olympiad of sorts in which two teams were competing against each other. Our leadership team worked consistently and coherently through a series of teleconferences and meetings that were run the best way we could during this time, and focused on creating the best status quo, but also focused towards the most effective way to bounce back once we were going back. Guessing from my many emails, texts, and statements to me, this leadership technique Shackleton used still works today.

#4 Communicate what is happening, do so truthfully and consistently. A key element of Shackleton’s challenge was to recognize that food needed to be rationed increasingly and hard decisions needed to me made as things became more desperate. To build a resilient and successful team, the trust that comes form such communication is not only good to have but absolutely necessary. It may be counter-intuitive, but this trust comes particularly from sharing and managing bad news, factual and accurate – not with emotional and sarcastic overtone, but reflecting a trusted leader!

#5 Be a relentless advocate for hope. In the darkest times, when it looked like the crew was doomed, they were working up plans for the rescue! At times, these activities may have felt a little bit unreasonable. Why do we plan for this now? What is the likelihood we will use this solution? We have worked on a number of startup plans these past few weeks. We will be better next week for it. And no, not all of the plans will be 100% useful as we worked on multiple scenarios.

My favorite part of Shackleton’s story is what happened months and years after their emotional and unlikely rescue. Being a seafarer and explorer at heart, he put together a new expedition and asked from volunteers. And guess what – of the crew stuck out there on the ice, nearly freezing and starving to death – most if not all volunteered again! Most people who have seen true leadership immediately understand – they would rather be part of a great team in horrific circumstances, than part of a horrific team in great circumstances.

We are hiring a number of people right now to be part of our team. I hope they see on our team what we see: a group of great individuals who are coming together with their strengths and weaknesses to learn and excel because what we do in importance by far exceeds the challenges that we face in our environment that is sometimes unpredictable and ambiguous und illogical. I am sure I feel like so many of our team-members: we can’t wait to go back to work full-time!

Here is one favorite books on this story: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endurance:_Shackleton’s_Incredible_Voyage?fbclid=IwAR1R-70ewtKugwJi0Y-4Mb9330v59_lATwu5JR1W0mVaB3lT2OuoYL3aBhU

Happy 60th Anniversary, NASA!

I gave 10 talks this week, the week right ahead of NASA’s 60th anniversary.

Each one of them had a different audience and purpose, and each of them was important to NASA. But, together they represent, in part, what NASA Science is all about, and also how we are part of an agency that seeks to lead during the next decades. Let me give you a few highlights:

NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen speaks to the 2017 astronaut candidate class, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018 at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

1) I gave a talk about NASA Science to the astronauts in training. This team of exceptional leaders stand for one of the key activities NASA has been about from its inception – the human space program. As the leader of NASA science, we do not see this program as competition, but a crucial part of NASA, enabling science we would never reach elsewhere. Some of these astronauts are not US Citizens, a testament to the fact that NASA does not see leadership and cooperation as a contradiction.

2) I gave a talk at a Foundation, which seeks to build bridges between the US and Switzerland by supporting young leaders. My team recommended that I do this, because the key audience were young, international leaders. To me, the most memorable part of this talk were two young female leaders. First, Aisha Bowe did a heart-felt introduction and told everyone how my mentorship helped empower her. Frankly, I struggled holding back my tears – it meant a lot to me and I am so proud of her and her achievements. I also met another young woman there named Lauren, standing next to me in the above picture. She led the charge to re-name her school after Buzz Aldrin. I spontaneously offered to take her to NASA HQ and she met all the astronauts. That was her lucky day ? Luck comes to those who innovate and work hard. So, I felt lucky to meet both of these young leaders.

3) My team had bi-lateral meetings this week with both Korea and China. Yes, we got congressional approval for one of these meetings, but we believe that NASA is a key part of the US diplomacy. We cannot work with all countries on all stages, but we seek to build bridges in science – we share the same planet, are warmed by the same star and look at the same night sky. That is why it is crucial to build bridges, just like NASA has done for 60 years.

4) I spent 2 days this week with the NASA Science leadership team, including all Center Directors and specialists on commercial and international engagement to chart out a new strategy for NASA Science they seeks to amplify excellence by recognizing both that NASA has a lot to offer and that we can now achieve things in partnership which were the stuff of dreams

I want to point out something obvious: there is no way I can do these talks at highest quality without a team who works hard to keep our messages on target and our visuals fresh. Credit for my successful talks always goes to our team; blame for my botched talks go to me, because frankly, the preparation to each and every talk is at highest quality.

Happy 60th anniversary, NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration!

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“Let Me Tell You About It”

I spent many years teaching entrepreneurship and innovation programs designed to develop great ideas and to also make these ideas reality. There are many important lessons learned from this that transcend into my work at NASA.

One of these skill sets is to talk about the work you do, to inform and also to gain support. I am on the receiving end of such pitches and I often wish that more people – especially technical and science experts – attended some of the type of classes that are typically part of the entrepreneurship programs.

Let me focus on the two mistakes that  I see:

  1. The motivation and importance of the work is not clear
  2. The pitch does not consider who is listening 

To address the first mistake requires that the the speaker knows “the why” behind the organization or the projects she/he works with, and how her/his work relates to their overall objectives. Without a good understanding of that, pretty much any subsequent explanation falls flat, unfortunately.

The second issue is about a lack of understanding of the recipient of the pitch. The level of detail, the level of jargon, etc., should adjust depending on whether you pitch to an entry-level employee or a senior executive, whether you pitch to a technical expert or a business-focused  specialist.

Listen to these experts from NASA’s Glenn Research Center work on tough engineering problems, but they manage to bring across to me why their work matters to NASA, and I would like to learn more about each and everyone of them.

Amjad Almansour, Materials Science Researcher at NASA’s Glenn Research Center. 

Taylor Pember, Data Systems Engineer at NASA’s Glenn Research Center.

John Wang, Computer Engineer at NASA’s Glenn Research Center.

Ariel Dimston, Materials Engineer at NASA’s Glenn Research Center.

Humanity’s Search for Life Beyond Earth

Originally Published: Aug. 1, 2018

I testified on Wednesday to a senate committee about Space Science and especially about research we do in regards to “finding life beyond Earth”. Ellen Stofan, David Spergel, and Sara Seager were expert witnesses with me – it was an honor to be on stage with them.

A question asked by Senator Cruz was truly interesting: “Why is it important to search for life elsewhere?”

Each of us was asked to respond and – I believe – together we came up with the most compelling answer I ever heard to this question.

So, why is it important for NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration to search for life beyond Earth?

1) It is to make history – answering this question in a compelling way will be one of the most important breakthroughs in science history. It will not only change what we know, but how we think, as a human species. At NASA, we want these breakthroughs to come from the USA.

2) It is to drive transformative industries – asking big and very hard questions has benefits that we cannot even guess. The internet, integrated circuits, and so many transformative technologies came from asking big science questions and reaping the benefits. This is not about creating a few startups, it is by opening up new, paradigm altering Industries.

3) It is because this question matters to everyone. Everybody is affected by this question somehow, no matter what the background. Together, this can provide motivation to engage and inspire and connect to science in a fashion that is rare.

4) It is because working on this question can inject a whole new workforce into the STEM community, a workforce that will advance prosperity and well-being of all similar to the transformative effect they the Apollo program had onto the US economy.

This is precisely why we see this question as one of three themes that drive all of NASA science!