Mars, Instagram and the NBA: Central Coast launch a NASA Social opportunity

May 8, 2018

NASA successfully launched a spacecraft to Mars from Vandenberg Air Force base on Saturday. It was the first ever interplanetary launch from the West Coast, and if all goes according to plan, just before Thanksgiving the Insight mission will land on Mars and begin drilling down into the surface. The mission's goal? To learn more about how rocky planets form.

Media from all over the world were on the Central Coast to cover the historic launch. Also invited was a group of people whose key qualifications were to be space curious and into social media.

"I decided to apply for the social opportunity to see if I could see the InSight launch,” said Madeline Garcia,  a 20-year-old aerospace engineering major at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I’m really interested in seeing the overall vision for InSight and how we’re going to be able to use this data.”

Garcia sat in an airplane hanger at Vandenberg’s 'Mars Day,' when scientists and engineers explained - and broadcasted on the NASA channel - details of the mission. Garcia was part of a select group invited out to experience it first hand. It’s called NASA Social, and it’s not just for scientists or engineers.

“What brings me to Mars Day is NASA.gov/social,” Justin Hartney said. Hartney is a 22-year-old advertising and business major at the University of Oregon. “They have events every time they have rocket launches. They bring out a team of about 40 people who have various backgrounds in social media and they want you to talk about it to your audience, and through that they reach audiences that NASA wouldn’t reach on their own."

People apply, NASA selects a group and runs background checks, and then invites those who pass to a launch.

“They don’t pay us or anything,’ Hartney said. "But they’re giving us a bunch of exclusive access. They gave us a swag bag which has a Hot Wheels of the launcher, so that’s pretty cool,” Hartney laughed.  

Joining Garcia and Hartney as part of this NASA Social was professional basketball player Chris Bosh.

“I’ve always kind of been, I don’t know if it’s a student or a fan, just kind of curious about science...it’s been fascinating for whatever reason,” Bosh said. “I was good at math growing up.”

Bosh is formerly of the Miami Heat, but is currently a free agent; the jury’s out if he’s officially retired or not. Maybe he’s thinking about a new career in rocket science?

“I wanted to kind of see what NASA’s doing,” Bosh said. "And I was very curious to see what kind of event it was going to be. We knew that influencers and great minds were going to be here, so I wanted to see where I fit in.”

As he spoke, Bosh signed a postcard for a fan, another member of the InSight NASA Social event, Fig O’Reilly. Her social medium is Instagram.

“It has been such a great way for me to reach new audiences,” O’Reilly said. “I understand, especially as a NASA Datanaut, NASA is trying to kind of break through these stereotypical molds of, 'the only people who are interested are old and wear glasses.’”

NASA Datanauts work with NASA’s open data community to explore and solve data problems. O’Reilly said she's sending the postcard Bosh signed to the organization she works with, Girls Who Code.

“It’s this massive community of girls who are interested in these things,” O’Reilly said. “So being able to show young girls what they can do with this information, whether it's their own interest, their own projects that they are working on, or just careers in general. Bridging that gap for little girls of all ages is just really rewarding and it’s super important. We need more women, we need more women of color in this field.”

Several of the NASA Social members attending the InSight mission launch work in data science, another is a public defender, and one works at the Monterey Aquarium. There were bloggers, too.

Eric Monacelli, who works for Marvel Games, also participated.

“What brought me here was I’ve always been been interested in space and science, and space exploration,” Monacelli said. “My brother is actually a scientist on the SHERLOC Mars project.”

SHERLOC is the next planned mission to Mars, in 2020, aimed at hunting for past microbial life.

"I wanted to see the lander that was going to Mars before he did," Moncelli said. “A little bit of a sibling rivalry."

For two days, the NASA Social team got treated like VIPs and familiarized with NASA’s work on the Central Coast.

Then right on time, at 4:05 in the morning May 5, the moment everyone was waiting for arrived. As forecasted, a Central Coast fog rolled in and no one could see a thing. But you could still hear and feel it from many miles away.