On July 20th, 1969, an estimated 500 million people around the world turned on their televisions to witness Neil Armstrong taking his first steps on the moon. In the years since then, interest in NASA has certainly waned, even after the second moon landing. Apollo 13's live broadcast while they were en route to the moon was not picked up by any of the major networks, something that none of the astronauts were aware of while they were recording. Unfortunately, interest in NASA still seems to remain low, until high profile problems crop up and really serve only to cripple the agency's image. That's hard to counter when they have a hard time reaching the population with the good news - which, surprisingly enough - does happen.
One thing that I've found recently is that NASA has entered the social networking world of the Internet, bringing live updates to users. Social networking sites fascinate me, and we're only beginning to explore their use. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter are only the latest big sites, and NASA has begun to use these, and by doing so, will hopefully reach more people around the world with what is going on.
Facebook has numerous groups and pages for NASA. The Official NASA Facebook Group has some active discussions, but the real place to keep an eye on is the pages and events, which can allow users to keep up to date on announcements and updates, as well as letting people know when things, such as launches, happen. I've subscribed to a couple of pages, notably the Kepler Mission, and the Last Mission to Hubble which is scheduled for sometime early 2009. The space shuttle has its own page and links in to two event that have been created, the launch of STS-119 (Discovery), which will be February 12, 2009 and STS-125 (Atlantis), which launches May 12, 2009. Both pages link in to other pages, where I've since learned that 119 will be carrying a truss for the International Space Station and that 125 will be servicing the Hubble Space Telescope.
Wikipedia comes into play here with all aspects of upcoming space information, especially with the upcoming shuttle missions, with a page for both STS-119 and STS-125. Each page not only outlines the mission that both shuttles are scheduled to complete, but also information about the crew, the mission patch, pictures and other relevant information. People with free time on their hands can also go to information on both shuttles, Discovery and Atlantis, which gives you more information about the shuttles individual history.
With the upcoming missions to the Space Station, it's interesting to find that astronauts on the International Space Station have begun to use twitter. Twitter is a newer service called micro-blogging, and allows for short status updates in the real time, which has proven to be extremely popular. Looking around the internet, there are a number of other NASA services that utilize the tools: NASA has an official feed, as does the Space Shuttle Endeavor, as well as upcoming missions: STS-119 and STS-125, which help to pass along developments as the crews prepare for their missions. Each one of these has several thousand followers receiving the updates.
Even sites such as Youtube is extremely handy for getting up to date information. A couple months ago, Astronaut Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper dropped her tool bag while making repairs to part of the International Space Station. Video, taken from her helmet camera, was up on youtube fairly quickly. (Interestingly, the tool bag is visible if you know where to look). There are other videos online, such as STS-126 crew wake-up call, Flight Day 14 and Riding on board Atlantis during re-entry. There's even an entire section of podcasts available through iTunes, which I haven't begun to explore yet.
I have my doubts about wikipedia, especially for concrete historical research, but for things like this, especially as events happen, and social networking sites are even better, because they allow the PR people to release whatever information they want, to a specialized audience who wants to receive this. Not only that, but there is an incredible ease to which users can pass along information to other users who they think might be interested, by inviting them to events or just passing along the URL to someone. NASA has kindly posted up a page (Riding onboard Atlantis during re-entry) that links into a lot of the sites that they have begun to post up update to, which touch on some that I don't do much with, including Myspace and flickr.
There is a vast amount of potential for the general public to have an unprecedented view of NASA's operations in ways that weren't around just a couple years ago, let alone fifty years ago for the first moon landing. Yet, with that number, 500 million people watching those first steps, it's a wonder why we have yet to see the same level of interest with space exploration that is currently ongoing, even with the ease and degree to which we can watch. Hopefully, person by person, NASA will once again command a certain amount of attention, even for the more "mundane" missions to outer space. For me, I now know when the shuttle missions will be happening, so I won't miss another one.