With 3.1M following the International Space Station’s twitter account (@space_station), Leah Cheshier and her team at Johnson Space Center in Houston have a massive audience that depends on them for the latest updates from orbit.
Cheshier’s team is tasked with one of the most crucial jobs at NASA—keeping people connected. Whether you’re in space or on the ground, NASA’s social media works tirelessly to make space exploration exciting and accessible. That means knowing the ins and outs of everything happening on the ISS. And while COVID-19 puts most of the world on pause, the space industry, and science happening in orbit, presses on.
NASA and SpaceX are set to make history with Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission, the first crewed flight performed by SpaceX. The completion of the mission will mark a critical milestone in NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program. The new program was born just before the Space Shuttle was retired as a means of continuity for American access to space. Commercial Crew encourages the private sector to develop, manufacture, and operate vehicles that can carry astronauts to the International Space Station.
DM-2 is that program's vision being realized.
It marks the first time in a decade that astronauts will launch from American soil on a US-built spacecraft. To accurately capture what’s stacking up to be an important milestone in American history, NASA’s social media teams are busier than ever.
Supercluster (virtually) sat down with one of Johnson Space Center’s social media leads, Leah Cheshier, to get the rundown on how she and her team are making this historic moment, and life aboard the ISS, tangible for those of us on the ground.
“Although we may be working from home, we still have a crew working in space and another preparing for launch,” says Cheshier, referring to Expedition 63 and the upcoming DM-2, “We’re still very, very busy.”
Looking at NASA’s calendar, busy is an understatement. In May alone, the ISS oversaw three cargo missions from the US, Russia, and Japan. As such, there’s not a whole lot of Netflix binging going on for the folks at Johnson Space Center. Cheshier herself has plenty of travel and on-the-ground coverage ahead of her.
“For DM-2, I’ll be traveling to SpaceX HQ in Hawthorne, California, where I”ll help provide live coverage for the mission as the crew is in flight to the station. Leading up to that, I’ve been studying everything I can about Crew Dragon, our astronauts, and the mission profile,” Cheshier says, “I’m most excited about this mission because it’s my first chance to work with crewed spaceflight from the US. I was still in high school during the final space shuttle mission",
"The energy in the agency right now is contagious.
The ISS is about to get crowded, with DM-2 scheduled to dock while Expedition 63 remains on the station. DM-2’s crew of two has been in quarantine for weeks, so the astronauts of Expedition 63 won’t need to worry about maintaining social distancing guidelines. Even if they did, it wouldn’t be too much of a problem on the ISS, which has a square footage comparable to that of a six-bedroom house. At 357 feet long, it’s roughly the size of an American football field. So, even with a full crew onboard, staying six feet apart might not be so much of a challenge.
For folks on the ground, it’s a different story. With a total workforce of 11,088 (including federal employees and contractors), Johnson Space Center has needed to restrict activities in and access to its facilities to essential employees and limited visitors in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. Many of NASA’s offices are markedly bare, as the agency pursues more work from home strategies to keep its teams safe. Even the folks at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are working 100% remotely, as engineers man the Curiosity rover from the solitude of their own homes.
Continuing to work from home has proven to be no real issue for Cheshier. At JSC, social media is curated with almost as much care and precision as crewed spaceflight. All content is meticulously planned, sometimes up to a year in advance.
It’s crucial that the information that NASA puts out is accurate. As a government agency, most of NASA’s content is not copyrighted. This means that anyone can repost or retweet anything that’s on the agency’s social media channels, as long as it’s not for commercial use. So, it’s critical that NASA’s social media teams organize ahead of time in order to cover all their bases.
Cheshier and her team have been planning for the 20th anniversary of human presence on the ISS for several months already.
“There’s an entire working group planning how we’ll celebrate, but we actually kicked off the celebrations last October. That gives us a full year to capitalize on everything that happened during the past 20 years,” Cheshier says, “We’ve been sharing history articles and more of the “human side” of space, like the first tweet or first 3D object printed on station. But we’re also tying it into other celebrations, like the Earth Day 50th anniversary.”
What’s the secret to the ISS’s success on social media? The answer is simple: unprecedented content.
“We get beautiful imagery almost daily from the space station. And we’re sharing some of the best from the last 20 years.”
There’s a lot of content to pull from the last two decades of ISS. Over its lifetime, the ISS has seen 3099 investigations and represented over 4022 investigators, with representatives coming from 108 countries. In the last three ISS expeditions alone (61, 62, and 63), there have been 509 research projects, with 291 of them being US-led. With several new and ongoing projects happening simultaneously, the ISS has become a main pillar of NASA’s online presence.
Thanks to social media leads like Cheshier, NASA’s social media endeavors have been abundantly successful. The agency’s twitter accounts have followers into the multi-millions, its main account (@nasa) accounting for 36.3M alone.
It’s a lot of pressure, and the social teams are constantly on their toes.
“I feel like no two days are really ever the same,” says Cheshier of her and her team’s day-to-day, “I work to develop and implement the creative strategies for most event highlights (like Earth Day 50th).”
“Some weeks I do extra study about what’s going on aboard the space station, so I can write a script for Space to Ground,” says Cheshier, referring to the ISS’s YouTube web series (which she also hosts) reporting weekly updates on the space station, “Or I might be covering mission operations, like doing commentary for a vehicle arrival or spacewalk, so that requires my attention. It takes a whole team to talk about the engineering marvel that is the space station.”
The nature of space exploration and research is wavering. In pursuit of discovering the unknown, things can change at a moment’s notice. The current pandemic has meant those changes now include losing a safety-net — the mainstream press.
With much fewer media credentials issued than normal, DM-2 will have a strikingly smaller media presence compared to those of previous historic launches. And because there’s a modified NASASocial program for influencers to participate online rather than attending DM-2, there’s even more pressure on NASA’s social media teams to track new developments and share them with accuracy.
This requires not only diligence, but also the ability to switch gears on a dime. But Cheshier and her team have had their fair share of days loaded with mountains of new information.
“A challenging day for my team was the discovery of a leak onboard. I was woken early to start working out how we’d share that information via social media,” says Cheshier, “We knew the crew was safe at that time, but didn’t know where the leak was from, so it required a lot of updating throughout the day.”
Cheshier and her team have gotten handling these situations down to a science.
“There was some uncertainty, but our team covers anomalies very well. We have constant open lines of communication with HQ and other parties involved, so we’re able to share information quickly.”
“Eventually, a hole was found and a solution was applied, but that wasn’t the end of the work,” Cheshier says, “Information requests still came from the media afterward, and the hole was later investigated during a Russian spacewalk. Once a story is public, it’s our job to share approved developments.”
It’s crucial that the information Cheshier and her team are sharing is accurate. According to a 2018 survey by Pew Research Center, 64.5% of US adults see breaking news on social media.
A majority of Americans read developing stories on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, or Instagram.
Moreover, NASA’s entire platform has more followers than BBC, Reuters, Google, the MLB, the White House, Christina Aguilera, and Ryan Seacrest. If there’s any pressure for NASA to produce engaging and accurate content, it’s having a bigger following than a Grammy Award-winning international pop star and the former host of American Idol combined.
For the ISS social media team, those followers include the very astronauts whose discoveries they are reporting on.
“When Christina Koch returned from her almost year-long stay aboard the space station, she spotted me at a press briefing, turned to my coworker and said ‘Welcome to Space to Ground, I’m Leah Cheshier.’ We never realized they actually watch our videos about their work while they’re still IN SPACE. That was pretty cool.”
Not only is it cool, it’s essential.
Christina Koch made waves in February when she returned to Earth after spending 328-days in space, breaking the record for the longest spaceflight by a woman. There’s scientific evidence that spending almost a year in space has certain biological effects. A year ago, we covered the potential effects long-duration spaceflight might have on astronauts’ emotional well-being.
What former astronaut Nicole Stott reported to us at the time still rings true. “With these longer missions on the space station, we may be learning some things about our bodies, and I think there is some psychological aspect to it too.”
Being up on the ISS, with crews of only three to six at a time, is almost like being in mini-isolation. When we asked Stott what she missed the most about Earth during her cumulative 103 days in space, she had this to say:
“This might just sound so predictable, but my family. I missed them in a different way too, because I knew that they would’ve loved to be there."
Even on the ground, we are all drawn to the wondrous possibilities that inhabit the space above us. Call it fate or luck for us Earthlings, but it’s possible to see the ISS with the naked eye.
“As the third brightest object in the night sky, it’s pretty easy to spot if you know when to look up,” says Cheshier, “Seeing that and knowing there are people looking back down at you is a really surreal feeling. You can sign up for notifications when the station will fly over your area at spotthestation.nasa.gov.”