NASA's popularity soars again with Mars mission

Jennifer Trosper, Mars Science Laboratory mission manager, shows off a model of the Mars rover Curiosity at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif.

Jennifer Trosper, Mars Science Laboratory mission manager, shows off a model of the Mars rover Curiosity at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif. (Fred Prouser, Reuters / August 6, 2012)

Congratulations are in order for NASA. Not for the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, though that was pretty spectacular.

But for doing something the space agency has failed to do for quite some time and that's capture the imaginations of throngs of people who otherwise couldn't care less about space exploration.

This is an extraordinary feat in an age when so many screens and bits of information peck at our time and attention with the same persistence and ferocity that those Angry Birds go after the pigs.

Never mind unlocking the universe's mysteries on a faraway planet. NASA appears to have pulled off a rare win in the attention span game.

Today will mark Day 5 of the Curiosity craze that started in earnest on Sunday as people gathered to watch the early Monday morning landing. That's practically a millennium in Internet time.

Such an achievement took precision science, some luck and latest Internet meme Bobak Ferdowsi — we'll get to him in a minute.

It started with a video created by the NASA nerds. They explained in stark and jaw-dropping terms what they planned to do: Hurl an SUV-sized rover through space for eight months until it reaches Mars.

Then, if all goes according to plan and there was a big emphasis on "if," slow the rover down from 13,000 miles per hour on the edge of Mars' atmosphere by deploying the largest and strongest supersonic parachute in the world that opens with a "neck-snapping 9 G's."

But the parachute would only do half the job of slowing the vehicle down, so NASA created a hover craft that would eventually lower the rover with nylon tethers from a sky crane onto Mars' surface as gently as a mother would place a baby in a crib.

It all sounds crazy and petrifying. Even the wonks said so in the NASA video appropriately named, "Seven Minutes of Terror." Nobody knew if this $2.5 billion experiment would actually work.

Was George Lucas in charge of this thing?

The folks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California assure me he wasn't.

But "Seven Minutes of Terror" has been watched on YouTube more than 2 million times and that doesn't count the many thousands, maybe millions, of views it received after it was posted by news organizations and blogs. The grainy video of Curiosity's descent onto Mars has been watched nearly 2 million times since Monday.

A similar video created by NASA in 2008 for the Phoenix mission to Mars tallied just 56,000 views. And the Phoenix landing video just 85,000.

Curiosity certainly piqued America's interest in a new way.

JPL social media manager Veronica McGregor said Twitter, Facebook and sites like Tumblr, which weren't nearly as pervasive in 2008, thrust this mission into a new stratosphere of attention.

"It just comes down to the sharing," she said.

On Saturday, Curiosity Rover's Twitter account (@marscuriosity) had 150,000 followers. Shortly after the landing that number had grown to 312,000. By Wednesday nearly 900,000 people were followers on the account.

The now-famous "GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU" tweet was retweeted 71,000 times. No doubt by some of the hundreds of people who gathered in New York's Times Square to watch the landing and chanted "U-S-A" and "Sci-ence."

"A week ago if we had had 700 retweets that would have been pretty good," McGregor told me.

And then there's @sarcasticrover, the hilarious spoof account that was reaching more than 46,000 people by Wednesday with observations like, "I think I've got a dust allergy!! WORST PLANET IN THE UNIVERSE TO BE! EXCEPT FOR EARTH… POLLEN amirght?! I miss the flowers."

Not surprising in our reality-TV obsessed culture that SarcasticRover, a made-up character, is only to be outdone by the real-life, mohawk-sporting NASA engineer Bobak Ferdowsi a.k.a Mohawk Guy.

The flight director's black mohawk with stars shaved into the side of his head stood out among the rest of the blue-shirted geeks in the JPL control room as the rover landed.

One fan created a Tumblr site documenting all the chatter about Mohawk Guy and it's received more than 230,000 page views.

The title of the Tumblr site? "NASA needs more mohawks."

Isn't that the truth.

bkassab@tribune.com or 407-420-5448
CHICAGO

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