A Day of Firsts

President Obama in the Preview Television at the EventLast Thursday was a very busy day for those of us here at NASA.gov. It was a day of many firsts, as we worked hard on special coverage of President Obama’s visit to the Kennedy Space Center, where he spoke about the new course for NASA and the future of the U.S. in human spaceflight.

In a first for NASA.gov, we streamed live video coverage of the visit in high definition (HD). Web users increasingly expect to see HD video online, with sharing sites like YouTube and Vimeo offering increasingly higher and higher quality video. Thursday was an important test of this capability for the team here and overall, it went really well.

In today’s online world, single-person teams armed with cell phones and social media accounts seem to accomplish this type of work routinely, and technology has made it much simpler. But most people in those situations don’t worry too much about technical risk. If the gear fails, it fails. At NASA.gov, we worry a lot about the risk. Regardless of technical difficulties, people still expect to see what they came to see. We tend to spend most of our time not worrying over how to make something happen, but how to keep things from going south once we’ve got it working.

That takes a lot of geographically dispersed people working closely together. We were getting our HD video from a team on the ground at the Kennedy Space Center who fed it to the encoding team at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. Their encoded web stream went to our commercial data centers in Texas and Virginia, then out to the globe via Akamai and Yahoo!. Only then did it get on to your computer.

Additionally, there was the NASA.gov Web and Multimedia Team, plus the NASA TV Master Controllers at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. who helped provide support and coordination of the video streams and coverage. Also involved were our colleagues at the White House’s operations. With coverage on streaming NASA TV, NASA.gov, internal NASA websites, and on White House Live, there was an incredible breadth of locations where viewers could watch this event online, including Yahoo!’s main web page for a while.

In addition to the HD streams, the space conference following the President’s speech was streamed in standard definition. This conference included several sessions, including four simultaneous breakout sessions that were webcast only. With the standard three channels of NASA TV streaming, plus the Space Station views stream, we were broadcasting eight unique feeds of video at one time, another first.

Beyond the streams, we provided a full-spectrum of coverage before, during and after the event. One hour into the event, multiple photos were online, and the arrival video was posted. We continued this level of coverage throughout the remainder of the conference and well into the evening as more and more materials became available.

Additionally, all of these materials were also posted in multiple locations across cyberspace. This included photos going into photo galleries on NASA.gov and on Flickr from teams of photographers located on the ground in Florida. It also included videos being posted to the NASA.gov video collections, the NASA.gov HD page and also on YouTube. We also posted MP3 soundbites on the NASA Audiofile page, and supporting documents across the NASA.gov site.

In all, this was a busy, but exciting day for us here on the NASA.gov team as we provided this special coverage of the event. Hopefully, some of these technologies will be used again in the future and eventually, become standard fare for our online offerings. Let us know what you thought of it all. Did you like our coverage? Did something not work right for you? Please let us know. We’re always listening.

Going from Cloudy to Clear

There’s a part of the homepage that very few users were looking at. If you went to the homepage, I’d bet that you missed it several times over the last several years. Most of our visitors do. It was a little graphic in the right hand column about two-thirds of the way down the page. And for the last four months or so, it has said “2012” in really big digits in four different places.

And now it’s gone.

We’re talking about the “tag cloud” that appeared under the “What are people interested in?” area in the right hand column of the page. It was that nebulous-looking area on the homepage that showed you the popular search terms from the past day, week, and month in different font sizes depending upon their popularity. And the reality of it was that it was a cool feature to look at in 2007 when we launched the current design of the site, but it wasn’t a very useful tool for our actual audience.

However, the concept of sharing what are people interested in is still very, very useful. You’ll find it on some of the best Web sites out there. On CNN.com, they have “NewsPulse.” On the New York Times web site, they have the “Most Popular” section. And it’s on countless other sites.

So taking some of the standard-bearers’ approaches and putting a NASA twist on them, we reinvented that box to hopefully provide a ton of more useful information. We ended up giving it a multi-layered tab approach with three areas of interest:

  • A “Most Viewed” tab that looks at the top stories, images, videos and interactive features in separate lists.
  • A “Top Rated” tab shows the top user-rated pages on the site for the last week.
  • And an “Editor’s Picks” tab that showcases links selected by the Web site staff based upon popular pages that people often say are hard to find.
Transition of the Tag Cloud to a List of Links

We hope that this provides more useful information to you than the previous ‘tag cloud.’ A more standard list of titles with links should already present a more intuitive interface compared to the different search words of smaller and larger font sizes. Let us know what you think of this. We hope it takes things from ‘cloudy’ to clear and useful.

Does it work better for you? Are there other hard-to-find links that we should work to put into the “Editor’s Pick” tab?

NASA Chats Help to Make it a 'Small World (After All)'

Maybe Walt Disney was right when he commissioned the song, “It’s a Small World (After All)” in the 1960s. At the time, commercial aircraft and other modes of transportation were beginning to bring folks together from the furthest reaches of the planet as never before. Fast-forward to the 1990s when the spread of the Internet made the world an even smaller place.

At the time, large scale chat rooms and instant messaging ruled the day. It was a community meeting place where people with similar interests met virtually even if they were in different parts of the world. These chat rooms provided some of the original allure of the Internet and showed how easily it could make this one small world after all.

Since then, chat rooms haven’t really changed. The rooms still bring folks together in the same virtual space, allowing them to collaborate and talk with one another. It’s not cutting-edge; it’s not high-tech. It’s just a good idea that still manages to be highly functional, even after all of these years.

Image of a Restricted Area sign. Image credit: cmurtaugh on FlickrHere at NASA.gov, we’ve previously hosted chats between astronauts, educators and students. Continuing this tradition, from time-to-time we’ll be hosting question and answer sessions between NASA scientists, engineers, and support personnel. It’s a chance for you to chat with the folks behind that gates at NASA and ask them anything you’d like about a given topic.

This afternoon, NASA Chats features Bill Cooke of the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, who will be online to take your questions about the Leonids meteor shower. The shower is a pretty neat thing to see and will be visible over the Americas on Tuesday morning.

Join the live chat with Bill Cooke today, Nov. 16 from 4:00 p.m. until 5:00 p.m. EST at: https://www.nasa.gov/connect/chat/09-094.html.

As topics come up and neat things are happening at NASA (when aren’t they?), we’ll have NASA experts answer your questions in future chats. Hopefully, the chat room just keeps proving that “it’s a small world, after all.” Now that’s pretty neat.

(Image credit: cmurtaugh on Flickr)