If you’ve paid any attention at all to the Internet this week (and let’s face it, you have, because 2015), you’re well aware that America has once again been tasked with rescuing Hollywood’s favorite damsel in distress, Matt Damon. No knock on him, but at some point dude needs to just stay home and read a book, because America is eventually going to get fed up and leave him out there in space. That’s unlikely to happen anytime soon though, because, like Interstellar before it, Damon’s new movie The Martian is a certified blockbuster. Not to be outdone by someone who still thinks Ben Affleck is cool, NASA decided to one up Damon by using his own movie’s hype against him and announcing even bigger Mars related news: flowing water on the planet’s surface!

Now, in all likelihood, NASA probably wasn’t trying to stick it to Damon (although who could blame them, did you see Interstellar?), and the release of the movie didn’t dictate the timing of NASA’s announcement that much, but it’s a good bet the synergy possibilities weren’t lost on NASA’s PR team. They’ve been throwing a lot of weight behind the film, staging a Q&A event with Damon, director Ridley Scott, and author Andy Weir, and promoting it with plenty of content across their constellation of social media accounts. The collision of these two events is a huge marketing opportunity for NASA, which, in turn, is a wonderful chance for us to explore the inner workings of the agency’s social media program. We’ll be discussing how NASA organizes and operates its social media accounts, how social strategy is influenced by its history, and how it’s leveraging social outlets to protect its future and influence funding.

NASA’s Social Media Constellation

When most of us think of NASA, we generally picture the manned spaceflight programs that sent humans to the moon and constructed the International Space Station. One of the challenges the agency has always faced is how to promote projects that don’t receive the same coverage as these high profile missions, and for that reason it maintains more than five hundred social media accounts, spread across nearly every platform. This decentralization allows each program to have its own voice, and allows for segmentation, as audiences can select which facets of the agency they follow based on their particular interests. Accounts are generally operated by program specific experts who perform social media duties as a secondary responsibility. Coordination efforts at each of NASA’s ten field centers are handled by social media leads, which supervise all the accounts at their respective locations. They also pass along requests for new accounts, whether it is for a new project or an existing project that wants an account on a different platform, to the Social Media Manager, who oversees the entire department and guides strategy. The flagship accounts pass along notable updates from project accounts and disseminate major news and announcements.

There are some oddities about NASA’s social media program that separate it from most other large organizations, corporate or governmental. For one, the majority of its social media accounts began organically, initiated by project members that simply wanted to share information about their work with the public. There were many accounts that had to be consolidated or eliminated in order to gain any semblance of organization, but leadership was able to recognize early on the benefits of having so many accounts, as mentioned above. The second oddity is that there is no budget for social media beyond employee salaries. This is a result of NASA’s tiny budget allocation, which is only 0.05% of the United States’ total budget. Just as it does in the agency’s various missions, this has led to culture of resourcefulness and inventiveness; the social team has collected several Shorty Awards for Best Government Use of Social Media.

Growing that budget is paramount if NASA plans on hitting its mark of sending a manned mission to Mars in the 2030’s. Next time we’ll examine how they intend to utilize their social media to make that happen. In the meantime, watch The Martian, and visit NASA’s social media outlets for a lot of interesting content related to the movie. Maybe check out that whole “water on Mars” thing, too. Seems kind of important.