Mars rover aces social networking, but will it inspire study of science?

The rover Curiosity, with nearly 900,000 Twitter followers, had a strong Internet presence even before its launch to Mars. Scientists hope this will lead to more student interest in science – and more funding.

Damian Dovarganes/AP
NASA engineers look at image sets from NASA's Curiosity rover and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter at the Surface Mission Support Area, SMSA NASA's JPL in Pasadena, Calif.

As the 1-ton, six-wheeled Curiosity rover scours the Martian surface over the next 23 months (one Mars year), its main mission is to search for traces of possible life on the red planet. But beyond that, many hope it will inspire a new generation to look to the stars – and to learn the science and engineering needed to get there.

Scholars who evaluate the state of science education worry that the United States is falling behind and not preparing students for a future that will depend more on scientific and technological skills. But some experts hope that the popularity of this Mars mission, one of the first major NASA expeditions with a wide social media presence, could boost interest in science and technology.  

The Curiosity rover and its dramatic landing procedure captured the public eye, at least for now. Nearly 1,000 people gathered in New York's Times Square on Sunday night to watch the footage from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), chanting “NASA,” “Space,” and even “USA, USA, USA!”

They are still figuring out the exact numbers, but it seems that almost 4.5 million people watched the landing on TV and that more than 3.2 million streamed it over the Internet, according to David Seidel, deputy education director for the JPL. Curiosity has more than 240,000 Facebook "likes" and close to 900,000 Twitter followers. Its closest NASA-built rival, Phoenix Mars Lander, currently has about 212,000 followers. 

This is the most popular and most active social media account NASA has ever created for the public to engage with a mission – and schools and universities plan to try to tap into that excitement.

Kip Hodges, a professor and the director of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration in Tempe, says he has high hopes that students will be inspired by the rover. A new research facility at the school is equipped with a 3-D high-definition theater and space to project images streamed from Mars. Mr. Hodges says some scientific disciplines are already growing rapidly, with young people concerned about the environment, and that the cool factor and interactive tools NASA created for Curiosity could attract a lot of interest.

“It’s like the greatest video game in the world, you’re dealing with an avatar on another planet, and one that’s really there,” says Hodges about the mobile Mars laboratory’s appeal.

But there are still questions about whether surging interest in space will translate to more science and engineering students and, perhaps more important, increase funding for science education.

When polled about space, many people react by saying, “I love it; I don’t want to spend any money on it,” says space historian David Portree, manager of the Regional Planetary Information Facility at the US Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Ariz.

School budget cuts in states around the country hurt science education, and have resulted in layoffs of younger teachers who might be best able and most interested in using NASA’s new tools, says Mr. Portree. In this year’s “State of State Science Standards” report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, the majority of states earned Ds or Fs, indicating that in most of the country, students aren’t receiving the basic education needed to do scientific work.

Portree doesn’t expect to see people clamoring in the streets for more money for scientific research anytime soon, but he does say that NASA’s current outreach efforts and the availability of beautiful images from space have helped ensure that the “planetary science community right now is healthier than it's ever been before, even during Apollo.” 

Those Apollo missions are famous for inspiring people to think of space as possible to explore – about 600 million people watched Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” on the moon. But images were much fuzzier then, and much of the investment in scientific education was spurred on more by cold war fears about the Soviets, especially after the 1957 Sputnik launch, than by a desire to explore space.

And beyond Apollo, many – Portree included – were influenced by science fiction, which painted a clearer image of space’s potential than could technology at the time. Now, technological advances allow all to see high-definition images beamed from Mars, and it’s possible to use tools set up by JPL to see what the rover sees.

It’s part of the continuing evolution in the way NASA interacts with the public, according to Mr. Seidel. It’s important for kids to see that there are real people, including one with a famous mohawk, that are actually maneuvering machines in space.

Part of NASA’s outreach has involved creating lesson plans for teachers, as well as desktop and mobile apps that allow people to interact with the rover and other devices. But Seidel also says this mission has captivated the public simply by addressing a fascinating question: Can we find traces of other life out there in the universe?

By addressing a question like that – and with a strong social outreach that takes advantage of modern communication technology, including sending tweets from the rover – “we’re talking to people in a way that they can actually hear us,” Seidel says.

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