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Moon 2.0: Opening up space exploration

4 min read

Digital Technology

Social media really is changing the world – and beyond — as an enthusiastic South by Southwest Interactive Festival audience learned during one of the most “holy cow!” sessions at this week’s conference in Austin, Texas.

Moon 2.0: The Outer Limits of Lunar Exploration, moderated by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Veronica McGregor, who began tweeting in 2008 as @MarsPhoenix, addressed the topic of space exploration as a social experience.

The first panelist, Nick Skytland, is the co-founder of, a collaborative experiment in open, transparent and direct communication about the U.S. space program. Skytland is the perfect champion for public access to the experience of planning for, executing and learning from space missions, given his experience simulating human responses to space flight. In his introductory remarks, he talked about Twitter as a way for astronauts to tell their stories in more human ways that can give NASA some personality.

A number of astronauts are live tweeting from space, including:

  • @Astro_mike, the first to give behind the scenes perspectives via Twitter, has the biggest audience at 1.3 million followers.
  • @Astro_soichi, is particularly adept at using Twitpic to capture and share photos from space.
  • @Astro_Jeff ordered his wife flowers from space as his first Twitter activity.

Just think for a moment how cool that is.

Skytland and his team have recognized the benefits of bringing discussions about space exploration into forums where public conversations are happening. His current push is using all the NASA channels –, @nasa, their blog — to encourage participation in President Barack Obama’s open government initiative, in which citizens are urged to communicate directly with lawmakers about  issues and programs they would like to be addressed.

“How do you want to participate with NASA?” Skytland asked the room. “$5 million has been set aside by NASA to act on your ideas, so let us know.” (As of this writing, tomorrow is the last day to submit ideas, so hop to it!)

Two other panelists, Amanda Stiles and Dave Masten, brought the non-agency perspective to the fore. As online community manager and Google Liaison for the Google Lunar X PRIZE, Amanda is a firm believer in “space for the rest of us.” Dave Masten is the private entrepreneur who rose to the X Prize challenge and won $1 million towards continued space flight experiments. He’s motivated by the fact that only half of today’s population was alive when the “U.S. abandoned the moon” on Dec. 14, 1972. He wants to go back in a sustainable way so that more people can be involved with it.

“We need more engineers,” Masten said, and he hopes his Web site, which features YouTube videos not only of successes, but of mission failures, will inspire the next generation of explorers.

The fact that space exploration is no longer the exclusive domain of the government was underscored by the final panelist, Cariann Higginbotham, co-owner and co-host of, a private high-definition video company on a mission to dispel the idea that space is boring and frought with missteps. “The media mainly covers things at NASA that go wrong.  But there’s always something interesting happening in space, and people need to know about it.” Hers is one of three Web video podcasts covering space, educating people and getting them interested in exploration. Teachers and enthusiasts around the world tune into their videos via Skype. “If you want to watch a launch and treat it like a tailgate party, you can!” Cariann exclaimed. “Space geeks are very, very cool.”

This whole topic is so cool, it’s somewhat difficult to return back to Earth — and onto the next session. You can expect more SXSW coverage throughout the week.

Image credit, Merritt Colaizzi