Kids used to want to be astronauts, now they want to be YouTubers.
Kids used to dream of walking on the moon and traveling to distant stars. Now instead of looking up at the night sky, many look down at their smartphones.
Research shows that YouTube has taken “center stage” in children’s lives, and that over 50 percent want to be YouTubers and vloggers when they grow up. But the hope that many of those children will dream of becoming astronauts is still very much alive. Kids may be spending a lot of time on YouTube, but it’s providing them access to a growing space scene that’s educating and inspiring millions. By meeting kids where they are, and embracing YouTube as a platform for sparking and fostering interests, we can inspire the next generation of astronomers, space enthusiasts — and yes, even astronauts.
Dedicated space YouTubers are delivering, with footage from space, black hole explainers, and tours of the International Space Station. Their content is making learning about space exploration more accessible, well-rounded, and fun than ever before. Earlier generations might have cracked an encyclopedia, but that can only get you so far.
Space knowledgeis endlesson YouTube.
Even NASA — which has more than 5.2 million subscribers across its channels — utilizes the platform as an invaluable tool for increasing public awareness. The agency produces YouTube content specifically geared toward kids to spark early interest — it knows it has to, because this is the place to reach them. NASA also sees space YouTubers as partners and necessary compliments to its own content, and together, they’re seeing real results.
“Working with other creators has been really beneficial to help bring more people into the space community and grow the audience on YouTube for everyone,” said NASA Deputy Social Media Manager Jason Townsend. For example, NASA arranged for seven YouTubers — including Hank Green of SciShow Space and Kyle Hill of Because Science — to ask astronaut Scott Kelly questions, which he answered from the International Space Station during his much-publicized ‘year in space’ experiment.
Ariel Waldman is a space YouTuber who, with no background in science, jump started a career in space after landing a job with NASA’s CoLab in 2008. Her interest was piqued after watching a documentary about NASA’s human space flight program — a prime example of how youtube can inspire someone to pursue a career in the field. She now sits on the council for the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program, and has started organizations, published a book, and given a TEDx Talk — all about space. Waldman also worked with and was honored by the Obama administration. Having gone from the arts to working in space herself, her mission is to prove that anyone can contribute to space exploration.
“I think that's really the driver of all of my work,” Waldman said. “Ultimately, it's about getting people to realize that space exploration is available to them, whether or not they have any background in it.”
Waldman sees YouTube as the perfect tool for this. She mostly posts explainers and news breakdowns, always trying to find the silly, creepy, or funny angles on space exploration. More recently, Waldman brought viewers along on her trips, like a recent expedition to Antarctica. Her lessons are now as immersive as they are educational, which her fans are loving and learning a lot from.
“YouTube isn't just where you can go to watch funny videos; it's one of the world's largest search engines,” Waldman said. “So from the perspective of people working in space, YouTube and videos in general are very important. There's definitely been movement toward that in the last few years.”
The work Waldman puts into connecting with viewers is paying off. She regularly receives comments from inspired viewers, kids included. In one instance, a viewer commented that they were working on building the architecture for a Mars settlement. “That's really cool. Do you have a link to what you're building, or a website with more information?” Waldman recalled replying, thinking it was an adult. She was pleased — and a bit shocked — to learn this excited fan was a sixth grader working on a school project.
“I just love that, because it's not as easy to reach young people on other platforms. So that just makes me think about who is watching and what they're getting from the videos. And I just think that's really great."
Amy Shira Teitel is another space YouTuber, and although the fanbase of her channel Vintage Space skews older, she’s a space communicator hoping to make YouTube, the internet, and the world a little bit smarter.
The moment that propelled Teitel into the world of space exploration came when she was seven years old. While doing research for a school project on Venus, she discovered a cartoon of astronauts on the moon.
“I was like, 'hang on. People actually went to the moon?! Why was I not informed? I want to know everything about this because this is the coolest thing ever,'” she said of her discovery. The rest was history.
“And then I was just obsessed. It really was my childhood curiosity, and how the moon landing works kind of parlayed into wanting to know so much more. And the thing with space is that the more you dig in, the bigger the answers become. I was just able to retain the childhood fascination, keep that curiosity into my adult life, and make it a profession.”
Now she’s about seven years and 300 videos deep into YouTube. Originally launching the channel to drive traffic to her blog in 2012, it quickly became clear that video was what was going to take off and provide her a larger platform to educate about space exploration. She formally partnered with YouTube two years later and is now hoping to spark that same kind of inspiration she felt when learning about the moon landing when she was seven.
“If I can provide that type of moment where a little nugget in the video grabs them — like 'I had no idea this program was responsible for that. That’s really cool,' and then they internet deep dive down a rabbit hole for that, that's awesome,” she said. “To be able to do that, to be that person would be so cool. I don't know if I've ever done that, but it'd be really cool to give people an outlet where they can find those moments that might just give them something that they want to pursue.”
Overall, her goal is to get people watching content they can learn from. Providing that little “huh, I learned something today” moment is her focus, and she’s seen how powerful YouTube is for delivering that to people. On top of indulging people’s personal interests in space, her videos are also used for lessons by teachers in their classrooms — something both she and Waldman experience. From time to time, Teitel will receive emails from teachers who show her videos to their students, explaining that they are used as introductions to topics like physics, before diving into the math. And the university she attended for undergrad shows her videos to students as an example of all the different career options available.
“I love it as a tool and I think it's fantastic,” Teitel said. “That's why I want to be a part of the slice of channels that you can actually trust and use as a resource. I'd like to be part of the group of the channels that end up inspiring about science.”
NASA’s YouTube accounts are also used as lessons for students — something the agency intends when producing content. The agency also works with YouTube on placing curated content into playlists for the YouTube Kids app, so even young students can begin learning about space.
NASA also facilitates more interactive, student-targeted learning experiences though YouTube. This includes live Q&A videos, as well as live streamed events with experts available in the chat box to answer questions.
“For us, connecting with students and getting them interested in STEM is key since they are our future,” Townsend said. “If we can spark an interest in students studying these subjects in school, it's in our country's best interests since this is the workforce of tomorrow that will continue these exploration efforts.”
And the impact is clear. According to NASA, students who talked to astronauts in space through these initiatives report feeling inspired to study harder in school. This is crucial, since studies show that four in five STEM college students chose that path at an early age — during high school at the latest.
We know that kids’ interest in these topics is sparked when they’re young. And with a projected 8,600 jobs opening for astronomers, physicists, and space scientists by 2024, there’s never been a better time to use new media to inspire the next generation of space enthusiasts.
Disclosure: The author is employed at a digital agency of which YouTube is a client.