A film by NASA

About a year and a half ago, a video went viral called “NASA—The Frontier is Everywhere”. It was a promotional ad for the beleaguered space agency—but not one like it had ever produced.

A meditative piano underscores silent, haunting images of society in chaos—riots, hunger, brutality. There is no heroism in sight, no slow-motion, Right Stuff walks down the gantry towards the camera to the solemn call of trumpet solos and snare drums. Instead, the inimitable baritone of Carl Sagan, in a segment of his original narration from Cosmos, asks the listener: We who cannot even put our planetary home in order, riven with rivalries and hatreds—are we to venture out into space?

The answer comes quietly. We’re an…adaptable species, Sagan reassures us. It will not be we…it will be a species very like us, but with more of our strengths and fewer of our weaknesses. More confident, farseeing, capable, and prudent. For all our failings, despite our limitations and fallibilities, we humans are capable of greatness.

The piano strikes its final chords. A space shuttle lifts off in silence. We drift over the blue marble of Earth.

Our remote descendants, safely arrayed on many worlds through the solar system and beyond…will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of our potential once was, how perilous our infancy, how humble our beginnings…how many rivers we had to cross before we found our way.

The final image: NASA’s “meatball” logo, the familiar blue orb.

The video received over 1.7 million views. The credits read: “Social media created for NASA by Reid Gower.”

Reid Gower is not employed by NASA. He received no payment from NASA for the social media exposure (over a million views). He isn’t even an American citizen. The video was born out of frustration. “NASA is the most fascinating, adventurous, epic institution ever devised by human beings, and their media sucks,” he wrote in the video description. “Seriously. None of their brilliant scientists appear to know how to connect with the social media crowd, which is now more important than ever. In fact, NASA is an institution whose funding directly depends on how the public views them.”

It looks like a few people at NASA heard him loud and clear, and are finally doing something about it.

That would be the Scientific Visualization Studio at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

To date, most of its visualizations have been created with the relatively modest goal of finding unique ways to visualize data sets. “The mission of the Scientific Visualization Studio is to facilitate scientific inquiry and outreach within NASA programs through visualization,” its web site dryly states. “To that end, the SVS works closely with scientists in the creation of visualization products, systems, and processes in order to promote a greater understanding of Earth and Space Science research activities at Goddard Space Flight Center and within the NASA research community.” Not exactly the most exciting way to put it.

The visualizations are something else.

In one, ocean currents trace out mesmerizing patterns, the sinks and eddies of ocean currents rendered as pulsing streamlines that prompted comparison to Van Gogh’s Starry Night from io9, the popular commercial design blog of Fast Company, and the UK Daily Mail. It’s as beautiful and elegant a rendering of a scientific dataset as you can find.

But its latest one, titled Pursuit of Light, tries for something more—to tug on your heartstrings, to make you love NASA. In the Reid Gower mold, it juxtaposes spectacular images from NASA planetary missions with a large dose of humanity. Spectacular cratered landscapes of alien moons raked by stark shadows and vistas of UV aurora dancing around the poles of Saturn share screen time with stock footage of urban time-lapses and children painting on a golden sun-drenched patio. Titles dissolve in: Are we alone? Will we endure? What makes us who we are? How far to the farthest star? What then? We’re heading out. Come with us. Even more than Gower’s original video, it is an explicit cry for support.

It’s not perfect. It is, perhaps, a bit overwrought compared to Gower’s quiet editing. And at over six and a half minutes, it is probably too long to go truly viral. But it seems to represent a growing and much-needed evolution in NASA’s thinking about how it promotes its online brand—and yes, NASA is a brand, and ought to think like one.

It also seems clear that SVS hasn’t maxed out its exposure yet. The Perpetual Ocean video was created as a submission to an academic research conference on digital animation and rendering research conference with attendance of 15,000, but was not accepted. SVS posted the failed entry to their site on the NASA.gov domain almost as an afterthought, letting it languish only as a download. It wasn’t until April 2012, when a truncated three-minute clip was loaded to Flickr, that the clip went viral and was viewed by millions.

But viral it went, and SVS is starting to build a following. Although NASA has had success in getting its astronauts and missions to engage in social media, education and outreach isn’t the same thing as building brand awareness. SVS is clearly trying to bridge this gap, and seems to understands the importance of connecting the warm fuzzies and awe inspired by the images with the organization—the brand—that brought them to you.

They certainly have adopted one cinematic gesture from Gower. The final image of Pursuit of Light: the NASA logo.

NASA meatball logo

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