HAMPTON, Va. — Rocket science isn't easily explainable in 140 characters, but NASA is asking a group of people to do just that with a series of VIP tours for some of its ardent Twitter followers.
The events, called tweetups, offer ordinary science fans a behind-the-scenes look at the space agency's facilities that can include its astronauts and scientists. In exchange, many participants narrate their day through tweets, photographs and videos.
NASA's imagination-grabbing work gives it a bigger pool of fans to draw from than many companies or government agencies, and it sets itself apart further with its egalitarian approach to social media. While it's not unusual for an organization to give special access to journalists or influential bloggers, experts say NASA sets itself apart by inviting people who may only have a few dozen followers.
"It goes against the grain of only talking to people that have a lot of influence," said William Ward, a social media professor at Syracuse University.
Participants are chosen through a lottery. While some end up being self-described techies who blog regularly about space, it's important to NASA that it draws people with a wide range of interests who can tweet with authentic voices to a varied audience.
"I think everybody knows if you hear it from a friend or a family member, you see it as being much more credible than it being from a government organization like NASA," said Stephanie Schierholz, NASA's social media manager.
The sentiment was echoed by a participant in a tweetup held last week at Langley Research Center in Hampton.
"I know I have friends at home who are following every word here," said David Parmet, from Westchester County, N.Y. "And they're not normally space enthusiasts, but it's just something that, 'Hey, David's going down there. Let's see what he's up to.' And they're following my photos and my tweets and they get excited, too."
NASA's first tweetup was in 2009, and it's held a total of 30. Some have coincided with news events such as rocket launches, and one is planned in Florida the week of Thanksgiving for the Mars rover launch. The events can last from two hours to two days, ranging from a few dozen participants to more than 100. Participants pay their own travel expenses.
While it's not clear how many new Twitter followers NASA has gained from the tweetups, the number is expanding rapidly. Since June, nearly 600,000 people have started following the agency — about 4,000 to 5,000 per day — for a total of about 1.6 million.
NASA tweetup alumni closely monitor their reach and noted that when 150 participants were invited to Kennedy Space Center in Florida this August for the Juno spacecraft launch their tweets — through the power of retweets — had 29.9 million potential views.
"This is pretty small from a resource perspective, yet it has this huge impact," Schierholz said.
The tweetup has become a prime example of how NASA is harnessing social media to keep the agency in the public's imagination in an era where its most recognizable program, the space shuttle, has come to an end.
"We know more about Kim Kardashian than we do important scientific events that are happening in our country," said Donna Hoffman, a marketing professor at the University of California at Riverside. "This is NASA's opportunity, I think, to educate a new demographic."
Schierholz said the public generally has a strong positive reaction to NASA, but is unfamiliar with a lot of its work.
That is particularly true at Langley. Among other things, the center's research has resulted in wing design that allows airplanes to use less fuel. It's currently testing whether a craft designed to send astronauts into deep space can survive falling into the Pacific Ocean.
The work is important, but it rarely generates public excitement.
"We really do live in a visual society and people want to be able to see things," said Rob Wyman, Langley's news chief. "One of our challenges here is that there's a sort of latency to the work that we do here. There's a very deliberative process that research follows that tends to take a lot more time."
Illustrating the center's lack of fame, one participant at last week's tweetup from Maine was late because he thought the center was across the state in Langley, Va., the same place that's home to the CIA. It's a common mistake.
Even for those who live near one, opportunities to visit a NASA facility are limited.
"It's a good chance to actually see Langley. Just dropping in is one of those things you don't do much," said Langley tweetup participant Matthew Francis of Richmond. "This kind of thing is very cool."
Those who followed along with tweetup participants could watch Langley test the Orion space capsule — what NASA plans to send astronauts to Mars in — and also found out that the center is working on a new air traffic control system, among other things.
Those are exactly the kind of tweets the center's research director was hoping for.
"I often am told that we within Langley don't do a good job of telling the world all the great things we do, so maybe you can do that for us today," Charles Harris told the group.