Suddenly Obsessed

How SpaceX, social media and the 'worm' helped NASA become cool again

NASA is having a moment. 

The U.S. space agency teamed with Elon Musk's SpaceX in May to launch its first manned rocket from American soil in nearly a decade. And adorning that rocket was NASA's iconic "worm" logo, a throwback look that NASA announced a month earlier it was bringing out of retirement, causing space fans across the country to collectively geek out.

The worm added a touch of 1980s nostalgia to the launch with SpaceX that already had NASA followers buzzing about the future of American space exploration. And, the excitement over both served as just the latest reminder that NASA is back.

After all, in 2011, NASA shut down its storied but costly space shuttle program — the one that launched the Hubble Space Telescope and carried pieces of the International Space Station into orbit — prompting concerns that NASA was in "decline" and whether the U.S. had a future in space at all.

But in May, over 150,000 people braved the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to gather near NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch the first attempt at a launch (which ended up being postponed due to weather), and over 10 million concurrent viewers watched the final launch a few days later online.

"We're at the dawn of a new age, and we're really leading the beginning of a space revolution," James Morhard, NASA's deputy administrator, told reporters ahead of the launch. Headlines declared that the successful launch heralded an exciting "new era of human spaceflight".

An American flag is seen as SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken lifts off during NASA's SpaceX Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S. May 30, 2020.
Thom Baur | Reuters

NASA's glory days

So nearly a decade after the shuttle program shut down and NASA's future appeared to be, well, up in the air, it now seems fair to ask the question: Is NASA cool again?

"NASA's always cool. Always," insists retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who retired in 2016 after two decades in which he flew four space missions and spent 520 days in space, including a 340-day stretch (a NASA record) in 2015.

"It's like the greatest brand ever," Kelly tells CNBC Make It. "I travel around the world. You see that NASA meatball everywhere … Everyone knows NASA's brand." NASA's "meatball" logo — which was designed in 1959, used until the introduction of the "worm" in 1975 and then brought out of retirement in 1992 — features a blue circle of stars encapsulating red and white swooshes and block-y lettering. 

NASA's original "meatball" insignia, first introduced in 1959 and brought out of retirement in 1992.
Source: NASA

But that doesn't mean that the general public's interest in, and excitement about, NASA and space exploration has not fluctuated over the decades.

It's hard to imagine NASA's place in pop culture ever matching the space agency's golden age of the Apollo program of the 1960s and '70s, which turned astronauts into superstars and landed the first humans on the moon — an event watched by an estimated 600 million people around the world in 1969. 

"Indisputably, NASA was at its height of popularity during the Apollo moon program. That's when every TV in America was tuned to those launches," says Andrew Sloan, founder of Cosma Schema, a branding and design agency dedicated to the space industry.  

By comparison, NASA's shuttle program, which kicked off in 1981, did not inspire the same "fervor," Sloan says. "The shuttles were very cool to watch launch and cool to watch land. But that program was super expensive, super bloated, and the shuttle launches were way more expensive than planned and ran way less frequently."

As a result, NASA experienced a "dip in popularity" beginning in the early-2000s, Sloan says.

Even Kelly can admit that NASA's shuttle program had "become a little bit routine to the public," which was hungry for "something new [and] something that's different".

"I think where we are today, there is more of that," Kelly says.

Help from space-minded billionaires

Experts say the U.S. space agency has, in part, seen a boost from the rise of the private space industry, which has become a hotbed for innovation led by the deep pockets and headline-grabbing ambitions of billionaires like Elon Musk (the founder of SpaceX), Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) and Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic), among others.

They are "generating big interest again in what's happening in space exploration," Sloan says.

Any interest in space exploration from the American public is essentially interest in NASA, which is so closely associated with space and space travel in our minds. "A lot of people confuse NASA and SpaceX," says Michael Sheetz, CNBC's reporter covering the space industry.

In fact, Sheetz explains that the rise of the private space industry was NASA's plan all along. Starting in 2010, instead of the government paying to build its own rockets, it began to offer financial grants to private companies to build them, with NASA buying seats for its astronauts on the spacecraft for each partnered launch.

Since the shuttle program ended, NASA had been paying Russia's space agency as much as $90 million per seat on that country's spacecrafts, Sheetz notes. The cost for a seat on the SpaceX Crew Dragon that launched two NASA astronauts into space in May is estimated at $55 million, by comparison.

"The mere fact that we can — every few months, or so — send up our own astronauts, and even astronauts of other countries, on our spacecraft, really changes the game," Sheetz says.

NASA awarded SpaceX a contract worth $2.6 billion in 2014 for development of the Crew Dragon capsule that transported two astronauts to space in May 2020. In total, NASA has provided more than $3.1 billion in contracts to SpaceX. Boeing has received more than $4.8 billion in contracts from NASA to develop its Starliner crew capsule, and the space agency recently awarded Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin a $579 million contract to develop a lunar lander.

This support from NASA and the U.S. government is spurring exciting innovation like SpaceX's development of reusable rockets, which greatly reduces the cost of space travel and makes Musk's high-profile goals, like putting humans on Mars, seem all the more attainable.

Trendy branding

NASA's prominence in pop culture has always been a boon to reaching new generations of followers. And today, NASA's iconic logos have become a fashion staple, thanks to the fact that the space agency allows nearly any company to produce merchandise featuring its logos for free (as long as they obtain permission and follow some guidelines).

Apparel featuring NASA logos have been popular items for retailers from JCPenney and Forever 21, while even high-fashion designers like Heron Preston have used the NASA logo to add some science nerd chic to a $500 hooded sweatshirt. Last year, sportswear giant Nike and NBA star Paul George celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing with a pair of sneakers that sported the NASA "meatball" logo and gold soles.

"You go to Target and you buy a NASA T-shirt and you wear it and you support it because being a nerd is cool," says Leland Melvin, a retired astronaut who flew two space missions in 2008 and 2009.

"NASA" also happens to be the name of a hit single from popstar Ariana Grande's double-platinum 2019 album, "Thank U, Next." After performing the song at last year's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Grande even debuted some limited-edition, NASA-themed merchandise.

Melvin points out that the popularity of the NASA logo in fashion, from kids' t-shirts to an NBA player's Nike sneakers, is just another sign that people associate the space agency with a certain kind of "cool" that taps into the limitless possibilities of space exploration.

"We're looking at going to Mars. We're looking at sending the first woman to the moon in the Artemis program. And I think kids see this, people see this, and they say, 'These are the things that are possible,'" says Melvin.

Promoting diversity

Making space more accessible is also enticing for kids who dream of being an astronaut or engineer working at NASA, says Melvin. 

For Melvin, who is one of only 14 Black NASA astronauts to ever go to space, becoming an astronaut was not a childhood dream because he "didn't see someone who looked like me" when he watched NASA's moon landing as a 5-year-old.

Melvin, who has degrees in chemistry and materials science engineering (and who was drafted by the NFL), was recruited to join NASA as a scientist at the Langley Research Center in 1989, six years after Guy Bluford became the first African-American in space, and at a time when NASA was pushing to increase its diversity

That push continues today (NASA's employees are still 72% white, with 12% identifying as Black or African-American). But NASA's improved diversity has been on display more and more, thanks to people like Melvin, who spent 25 years at NASA, as well as behind-the-scenes contributors like Kathrine Johnson, the mathematician whose work on the early NASA crewed flights (including the Apollo 11 moon landing) became the subject of the 2016 Oscar-nominated movie "Hidden Figures." 

Melvin also notes that NASA's next crewed launch in a SpaceX spacecraft, scheduled for later this year, will include Victor Glover, a Black NASA astronaut making his first trip to space.

NASA astronaut Leland Melvin poses with his dogs, Jake and Scout, for an official portrait that later went viral.
Source: NASA

Though "there's still a long way to go," things have changed, says Melvin.

"I've spoken to kids all over the world…" says Melvin, who served as NASA's Associate Administrator for Education from 2010 to 2014. "When you see a kid in South Central L.A. that's wearing a NASA shirt, you know things have changed a lot and that it's cool."

Science and technology on the 'bleeding edge'

NASA is doing "bleeding edge research when it comes to climate science and technology," Sheetz says, as well as deep space probes like the one carrying a new Mars rover (named "Perseverance" by a Virginia seventh-grader's winning entry from a NASA essay contest) that's set to launch July 20.

For instance, NASA uses state-of-the-art technology to study the effects of natural disasters on the Earth, including using infrared imagery captured from its satellites and high-altitude aircraft over wildfires in places like California and the Amazon rainforest to collect data on those fires that could hopefully one day help to contain or prevent future fires. NASA's satellite imagery has also been used to track decreasing air pollution as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

NASA's Earth Science Disasters Program also uses satellites to study earthquakes, floods, industrial accidents, volcanoes and hurricanes. Last year, NASA created an animation to track the Category-5 Hurricane Dorian using imagery taken from an "experimental" satellite that's "the size of a cereal box" and which NASA hopes can eventually create higher quality predictions for major storm systems. And after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico in 2017, NASA used its Black Marble technology, which uses satellite imagery to detect electric lights on Earth from space, to aid disaster response teams by identifying all of the parts of the island that had electricity and those that did not and were in need of assistance.

And NASA doesn't necessarily have to rely only on sending people into deep space — it already has deep space probes like the New Horizons probe (which made the Pluto fly-by five years ago) and Voyager 1 and 2. Voyager 1 launched in 1977 and is currently the farthest man-made object from Earth, having traveled over 13.8 billion miles (and counting) over the past four decades. Those probes are constantly transmitting data back to NASA scientists on Earth, including everything from photos of a volcanic eruption on a moon of Jupiter to readings on the density of interstellar particles encountered billions of miles beyond the sun.

NASA isn't shy about showing off the results of its research, whether it's on social media or the massive (and searchable) photo and video database the agency launched three years ago, at images.NASA.gov. There, anyone can search among the 140,000 NASA images, videos and audio files from the space agency's 62 years of research and exploration, such as a breathtaking photo of the Andromeda galaxy, over 2.5 million light-years away.

The Galaxy Evolution Explorer captured this image of the Andromeda galaxy, or M31, the Milky Way's largest galactic neighbor, in 2012, according to NASA.
Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Sharing the NASA mission on social media

To share all its work, NASA's social media team boasts more than 500 distinct accounts. Sure, nearly 60 million people follow the official NASA Instgram account (that's just ahead of pop star Justin Timberlake, but behind teen singer-songwriter Billie Eilish). But, a separate official Instagram account dedicated to the Hubble Space Telescope has another 3.3 million followers and 4 million people even follow a Twitter account for the Mars Curiosity Rover that features tweets written as if the rover itself is tweeting from the Red Planet.

Since 2008, when NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) communications head Veronica McGregor first started tweeting as the Mars Phoenix Lander in the first-person, NASA's social media strategy has been to flood the internet with content that shows off the scientific research and innovations undertaken by the space agency.

NASA has had a seemingly unending string of social media hits over the subsequent years, including a viral 2015 Instagram post showing a close-up photo of Pluto taken by NASA's New Horizons space probe during a fly-by. Other photos shared far and wide online include NASA's shots of wildfires as seen from space, the ISS passing in front of an eclipse, and rectangular icebergs.

Social media is also a platform that allows NASA to show the human side of its endeavors, whether that's a viral official NASA photo of Melvin's rescue dogs excited to see him in his orange NASA space suit, or Kelly holding NASA's first-ever Reddit AMA conducted from space.

Kelly adds that one of the most memorable questions he ever received during his time as an astronaut came on social media, when then-President Obama chimed in with a cheeky query. "It was: 'Hey, Scott. Do you ever look out the window and just freak out?' That was cool," Kelly says.

SpaceX did not respond to CNBC Make It's request for comment and NASA declined to comment. 

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