Space | 04. January 2012

SpaceTweetup - a new format for spaceflight communication

SpaceTweetup. Foto: Simon Bierwald.
SpaceTweetup. Foto: Simon Bierwald.

On 18 September 2011, German Aerospace Day, DLR and ESA staged the first European SpaceTweetup. A tweetup is an event in which users of the social media platform Twitter meet up. Together with ESA, we invited our Twitter followers to come and find out more about the European aerospace industry, meet scientists and astronauts and have a look at our research facilities and aircraft.

My ESA colleague Andreas Schepers and I had jointly planned and organised the programme for this (update from 5.1.12) SpaceTweetup together, so, for me, alongside the success of the Raumzeit podcasts, this was one of the highlights of 2011 that I wanted to reflect on again today (even though we have already made a few comments on the SpaceTweetup in this blog). The idea of using a tweetup as a new genre of social media communication comes from NASA. Veronica McGregor held the first NASA Tweetup in January 2009. Since then, NASA has regularly staged tweetups, especially for mission launches. My boss Marco Trovatello agreed with our ESA colleagues (Fulvio Drigani, Erica Rolfe, Maria Bennett, Daniel Scuka, update from 5.1.12), to hold the first SpaceTweetup in Europe on our Open Day – the first tweetup ever for this type of event in Europe as far as we know. Marco Trovatello had already written about our interest in tweetups as a communications strategy in this blog (update from 5.1.12).

Group photo of the 60 participants in the first European SpaceTweetup (Credit: Stefan Meiners)

A view of the Tweetup marquee – participants are sitting at their tables – Alois Himmes is on stage (Credit: Stefan Meiners)

Crowds at the DLR site during German Aerospace Day 2011 (Credit: DLR)

The SpaceTweetup was part of the 2011 German Aerospace Day, which attracted 80,000 visitors from all over Germany. However, the tweetup itself was conceived as an international event to be conducted only in English. Two months before the big day, we sent invitations for the event to our Twitter followers. We were overwhelmed by the interest; 418 people from 29 countries registered for the 60 places available. Some were even prepared to travel from the USA and Canada. Ultimately we distributed the 60 places among participants from the following 13 countries: Belgium, Germany, France, Greece, Great Britain, Italy, Canada, Macedonia, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Spain and the USA. The group made a colourful mixture: one third were women; many were still students; some were what you might call official space geeks – and others we turned into geeks.

On 'Zulu Stand', visitors to German Aerospace Day could view some unusual aircraft. In the foreground, an Airbus A380 faces an Airbus A340 from the Special Air Mission Wing of the Bundeswehr (German armed forces). At the rear and to the left is the Zero-G parabolic aircraft; to the right, the SOFIA airborne observatory SOFIA. (Credit: DLR)

SpaceTweetup participants toured the Airbus A380: "Awesome!" (Credit: Stefan Meiners)

On 18 September 2011, we gave the participants exclusive access to our research facilities and provided them with a VIP programme of talks, tours and face-to-face contact with researchers and astronauts. Even before the doors had actually opened, we took the participants to the Zulu Stand, on which DLR research aircraft and a number of other special aircraft were parked on German Aerospace Day. The SpaceTweeps were able to take an exclusive look at the Airbus A380 and the SOFIA airborne observatory. SOFIA had been brought to Europe for the first time on the occasion of German Aerospace Day. On this unusual transfer flight, I accompanied a number of journalists who were able to follow the work of the scientists. The SOFIA project leader at DLR, Alois Himmes, gave a presentation on SOFIA and answered questions asked by the tweetup participants.

Alexander Soucek delivering his inspiring lecture on Earth observation (Credit: Simon Bierwald)

Above: The European Space Agency astronauts Samantha Cristoferetti and Alexander Gerst (Credit: Simona Forti). Below, right: SpaceTweetup presenter Andreas Schepers (Credit: Simon Bierwald)

The main event of the SpaceTweetup took place in a marquee. The recipe for a tweetup marquee for 60 participants is: 10 round tables, a large number of power strips, a password-protected WLAN with very large bandwidth, a small stage with a screen and sound equipment, a moderator (my ESA colleague Andreas Schepers did a magnificent job), a catering service and 60 motivated SpaceTweeps. Besides SOFIA, the programme covered subjects such as the International Space Station (ISS), the Rosetta comet mission and Earth observation. We made sure that there was enough time for questions during the presentations by researchers and project managers. As we are trying to nurture open, transparent communications, we were pleased that there were also apparently critical questions from some participants, regarding, for example, delays in projects.

The highlight of the SpaceTweetup was probably the repeated visits by astronauts to the Tweetup marquee. In total we had 11 European and American astronauts on site; both the crews of ISS Expedition 26/27 and STS-134, as well as other ESA astronauts, joined in. The SpaceTweeps' euphoria reached a peak during the group photo with all 60 participants and the SpaceTweetup organisers, when a large number of the astronauts unexpectedly came to the marquee and spontaneously joined in with the group photo.

Euphoric mood during the group photo as more and more astronauts entered the SpaceTweetup marquee and spontaneously joined the participants (Video: Arvid Bux)

Astronauts up close (Credit: ESA)

However, my personal favourite moment of the SpaceTweetup came shortly after this. The astronauts had just 30 minutes or so for the SpaceTweetup on their 'post mission tour'. While preparing for this, I had the idea of abandoning the standard question-and-answer session between the stage and the audience in this part of the programme, since a maximum of one participant and one astronaut could take part at a time. Instead, we used a format that was better suited to the eye-to-eye communication of social media. We spread the astronauts around the tables so that the SpaceTweeps could talk to the astronauts in person, with a ratio of about 1:6. The atmosphere in the marquee at the time was quite special.

Above: autograph for the youngest SpaceTweetup guest. Below, right: Beth Beck and Stephanie Schierholz discuss social media communication at NASA. (Credit: ESA)

Special thanks go to Beth Beck and Stephanie Schierholz. The two NASA social media managers made a special trip to Europe for the SpaceTweetup to help us out and report on their experiences with social media in spaceflight communication. The conclusion of the SpaceTweetup consisted of excursions to DLR's human centrifuge and ESA's European Astronaut Centre.

I found the participants' self-organisation noteworthy. Once we had set up a SpaceTweetup Wiki prior to the event, some participants were immediately struck with the idea of meeting up beforehand to visit an observatory together. Many of the SpaceTweeps who had travelled a long way took part in this. The 60 participants even organised a gift for the organisers – a poster that they all signed – for which we once again offer our thanks!

The SpaceTweetup is documented in numerous photos, for example on @Unkreativnet, @SimSullen, @DanielScuka and in the Flickr SpaceTweetup Pool. There are also many many (Blog) reports in German: ZDF Hyperland, Rhein-Zeitung, by Andreas Schepers, @Unkreativnet, Daniel Fischer and Karl Urban, and in English by @akanel auf Space Tweetup Society, @mfrissen, Beth Beck, @unkreativnet, @olidax im OEWF-Blog, Camilla SDO and Marco Trovatello. There's also a 4 hour video available on the ESA blog.

Live streaming the SpaceTweetup programme (Credit: Simon Bierwald)

'Space Barbies' at the SpaceTweetup (Credit: Simon Bierwald)

The DLR / ESA SpaceTweetup team (Credit: Simon Bierwald)

We consider the first European SpaceTweetup to have been a complete success. The tweetup is a great new format for science communication; an enormous reach can be achieved through the multiplying effect of the followers. Marco Trovatello will be blogging a few details about this shortly. Our experience leads us to believe that we would do almost everything in exactly the same way next time. However, at the start of the event we would include a round of introductions for all the participants and collaborators. We would also cut out one or two subjects to make more room for interaction between the participants. In addition, an even higher proportion of participants would prefer that there was not so much focus on the subject of spaceflight. Therefore, in the next round of invitations we hope to meet an even wider circle of interested parties – because a next SpaceTweetup is a certainty! The lesson I personally learnt was to always have Gaffer tape handy. Furthermore, I would ask all interested parties for feedback following my appeal for ideas and suggestions on new formats of online / social media communication for science and spaceflight, since this is something we are very interested in.

"Awesome!" - Group photo with astronauts (Credit: ESA)

Image sources: Simon Bierwald, Stefan Meiners, Simona Forti, DLR, ESA.