How much would you pay for the universe?

“Man in his quest for knowledge and progress is determined and cannot be deterred.”

These words were spoken by John F. Kennedy in his famous “We choose to go to the moon” speech. His speech was meant to persuade the American people to support the national effort to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth. Before this speech, NASA was severely underfunded, having a $400 million budget. However, Kennedy’s speech called for NASA’s budget to be raised as high as $5.4 billion. Thanks to his rousing speech, public perception about the Space Race became largely positive. As a result, NASA’s budget soared, peaking at $5.93 billion which accounted for 4.41% of the federal budget, the largest portion of the budget NASA has ever been allotted. For decades NASA’s budget has been tied to public perception. NASA was largely founded in response to the Soviet Union launching the world’s first ever satellite, Sputnik. Sadly, after landing on the moon, few people saw utility in continuing the Space Race. Since its peak in 1996, the NASA budget has continually regressed, dropping to a mere 0.5% of the federal budget in 2014.

plutoIn an effort to boost its public perception, NASA has been utilizing social media. To date NASA has over 500 social media accounts across the agency, creating accounts for its astronauts, scientists, rovers, probes, and even entire labs! NASA has been wildly successful in its use of social media, winning award, after award, after award. This past year, members of NASA’s New Horizons team did a Reddit AMA, where anyone with access to the Internet and a Reddit account could ask any question they like. Additionally, one of NASA’s most popular posts ever came this year, when they posted the first ever high resolution photos of the dwarf planet Pluto. The post was a massive success, earning NASA’s Instagram account an additional 300,000 followers. Originally, NASA had planned to release all photos of Pluto at an official press conference. Instead NASA decided to post an image of Pluto one hour before the press conference on Instagram.

But here’s the thing, as a government agency, NASA is publicly owned which means that it is illegal for them to do anything that benefits a privately held company. By choosing to post the photo on Instagram, NASA is showing favoritism to its owner (Facebook) over the likes of Twitter, Flikr, etc. NASA needs to ensure that no privately held company generates revenue as a result of its actions, and posting the rare photo of Pluto exclusively Instagram’s platform drew millions of people to the site resulting in increased ad revenue. Fortunately, NASA has been able to avoid any legal issues by citing their charter which states that one of their missions as an agency is to “provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof.” Based on this mandate, NASA is not treating any platform more favorably than others but is disseminating their information in a way which will reach as many people as possible. Seeing as the photo is their most liked piece of content to date, and the fact that it netted NASA an additional 300,000 followers, it’s hard to argue that NASA wasn’t acting in good faith.

In conjunction with its phenomenal social media presence, NASA has benefitted greatly from increased competition from the private sector (SpaceX, Boeing), multiple academy award nominated space travel films (Gravity, Interstellar) and the return of the wildly popular TV series, Cosmos. However, NASA’s budget still only accounts for 0.5% of the federal budget. That means NASA gets half a penny for every tax dollar. As a result campaigns such as Penny4Nasa have emerged, beckoning space enthusiasts to donate money to NASA so that it may continue to explore the universe.

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One final thought: the 2008 bailout, which required $700 billion in federal funding, cost more than the entire 50 year running budget of NASA. Perhaps the issue stems from not properly allocating resources rather than not having enough resources.

“How much would you pay for the universe?”

6 comments

  1. Wow, this was an extremely powerful post. I am following NASA on Twitter and Instagram so their information has very much been a part of my life. It is amazing that we are now able to communicate to astronauts in outer space and even have an idea of what the rover on Mars is up to. This is definitely an example of one of the benefits social media has on our world. Furthermore, it gives people the option to actually fund our space research, people can have an impact on ideas they really care about. Unfortunately, those people with the most money are probably more inclined to spend it on material goods or save it. As the ending note suggests, capitalism is dominating our society. It has gotten us this far but as we saw in the TED talk by Johnson last week, I believe it is time to break our desire to keep information secret for personal gain.

  2. This post was so eye opening. I follow NASA on instagram and twitter and always look forward to their posts and hashtags. Their large social media presence makes me forget that they are still a governmentally funded department. I am glad that they are using social media effectively and that campaigns have started as a result of it to raise their level of funding. If the entire government followed their progressive lead… we could be in a different situation today.

  3. Great post on an example of social media being effectively applied in the pubic sector. Like @bismansethi123, I am curious about how campaigns such as Penny4Nasa will impact the future budget of the agency. It gets brought up many times, but the political power that social media brings to the public is really quite astounding.
    I also appreciated the point you brought up about how NASA as a public agency is subject to much stricter regulation of its social media content than traditional companies. Even the act of choosing a platform from which to post receives scrutiny. Like you mention, they seem to be good at managing the legal aspects. I wonder what type of punishment they would receive for violating such agreements, or what it would take for that to happen.
    I look forward to seeing how NASA and other government agencies will use social media to interact with the public!

  4. Really interesting topic. Never thought about how NASA was using social media to promote their findings and create awareness about the importance of having more funding.

  5. Interesting. I would not have known about the “not able to show favoritism” angle. Of course, I guess they could argue that they are just using a certain channel to reach a desired audience. SM tends to change the rules around alot. My favorite SM and Nasa was getting to get feeds and images from Mars rovers. They were pretty stunning images.

    1. @geraldckane Those images were amazing. I like how NASA tries to give their rovers and probes a personality on social media

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