(CNN) — It inspired childlike moments of wonder. It was a feeling that many had not felt since NASA’s final space shuttle launch, Atlantis in July 2011.
That’s how the fans and followers around the Web described the weekend’s events to NASA’s social media team. And while social media users are often portrayed as having short attention spans, the @MarsCuriosity Twitter account continues to receive about 1,000 new followers an hour since landing on the red planet early Monday morning. The Facebook page imploded from 30,000 to more than 200,000 fans.
“We were blown out of the water,” Stephanie L. Smith, social media specialist at NASA, said about the response NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab’s social team received on platforms including Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, Facebook, Instagram and Google+.
The social media strategy was something that was considered years before the landing. NASA-Jet Propulsion Laboratory social media manager Veronica McGregor’s first mission with Mars was in 2008 when the Phoenix rover landed. McGregor began making plans for Curiosity’s big day back then. @MarsPhoenix was the fifth most followed Twitter account in 2008, she said. That account still has more than 200,000 followers.
“We knew there was a big audience out there on Twitter,” McGregor said. The Saturday before the landing, @MarsCuriosity had 150,000 followers. It now has more than 818,000 and is growing at a rate of approximately 1,000 per hour, McGregor estimates. She and two team members, Courtney O’Connor and Smith, shape the voices behind many of NASA’s social media accounts including @NASAJPL @MarsCuriosity and @asteroidwatch.
Although exact numbers aren’t yet available they were astounded when they discovered their official “landing tweet” at 1:32 a.m. EST on August 6 was retweeted 70,000 times around the world. A search of links, tweets and images including “Mars” from Saturday to Tuesday surpassed 700,000.
McGregor and her team said they believe interest in space has always been high. Social media simply allowed the community to find each other, McGregor says.
CNN commenters also responded enthusiastically, sharing the Mars landing article to social media more than 26,000 times and leaving more than 4,900 comments.
A CNN.com commenter known as Explore wrote, “At the very core of me is a desire to seek the unknown, a desire to look beyond the confines of this tiny little spec in the universe to the vastness that lies beyond. This is inherent to every one of us even though we may sometimes deny it because we can only see the here and now.”
And then there were the unexpected Internet wins that the NASA social media team never expected to happen.
Bobak Ferdowsi, a NASA engineer and flight director of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity mission, was quickly dubbed the “NASA Mohawk Guy” by Twitter users who followed his updates at @TweetsOutLoud. Internet memes showing a side view of Ferdowsi’s mohawk with captions including, “Becomes an Internet sensation. Too busy landing a robot on Mars to notice,” Tumblrs about Bobak and blog posts exploded across the Web. He received several marriage proposals via Twitter but probably hasn’t seen them.
McGregor says Ferdowsi has been on Twitter “a while” but his account went from several hundred followers on Saturday to more than 30,000 Tuesday. As Curiosity landed Ferdowski tweeted, “So incredible to be a part of this team and all that we’ve accomplished. Impossible not to be an emotional wreck.”
A Curiosity rover “Call Me Maybe” mashup video surfaced on YouTube. Caley Burke, an aerospace engineer with the Kennedy Space Center created the video after being inspired by the U.S. Olympic swim team’s version.
After closely listening to the lyrics for the first time Burke said it made perfect sense. “I knew we were only going to call if the rover actually landed,” she said. YouTube analytics show the video has been viewed 27,000 times, mostly by males between the ages of 45 and 50.
There were viewing parties and thousands crowded into Times Square in New York City to watch the event unfold, snapping photos and sharing them with McGregor and her team. It was an event that, judging by social media updates, connected science-loving strangers, restored people’s hope in space exploration and elicited a sense of awe.
Since 2010 NASA has ranked at the top of public sector organizations in effectiveness of social media sites by experts from L2, a think tank for digital innovation. NASA hosted social media followers at seven field centers around the nation on August 3 and live streamed the event online. Participants were also given the opportunity to be present when the first signal of the landing was detected by mission control.
Strategy aside, for some it was simply a moment in time to reflect on the amazing accomplishments of their fellow humans and science.
No matter how they arrived, they walked away with much more than just Curiosity.
To see more tweets and photos click here.
By Dorrine Mendoza – CNN
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