NASA looks to social networking to lure Gen Y

/ Source: Discovery Channel

Ask most folks around NASA what lured them into the space business and they'll tell you about how shivers ran down their spines watching Neil Armstrong step onto the moon in 1969.

That's a problem for an agency that exists to inspire the young and explore the unknown.

"The first time I ever heard of people going to space was when I was 6 years old and the Challenger accident was live on TV. From then on, I was really interested," said Nicholas Skytland, an engineer and project manager who is among the mere 4 percent of NASA employees under age 30.

The picture isn't much brighter for the under-40 crowd, which comprises just 16 percent of NASA's work force.

Skytland and three colleagues recently brought the point home to NASA on its home turf. They created a PowerPoint presentation illustrating the differences between Baby Boomer communication styles, technologies and work relationships and the modus operandi of Generation Y, or Gen Y, generally considered to include people born in the early 1980s through about 2000.

The presentation, which referenced social media and networking tools such as Twitter, SlideShare, Facebook and other personally generated content streams distributed via the Internet, was widely circulated among NASA. It eventually caught the attention of then-administrator Michael Griffin, who passed it along to all his senior managers.

"We started off looking internally first, how it applies to keeping employees and recruiting new ones," Skytland said. "Now PAO (NASA's public affairs office) has embraced the social media part of it."

The idea is to open NASA so that people worldwide can directly participate in the agency's exploration initiatives.

"We're exploring what a government role in public social networking sites is," said Bob Jacobs, the deputy assistant administrator for public affairs, who was twittering on two accounts about shuttle Discovery's launch preparations during an interview Sunday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"It's a huge challenge for government because people get entrenched in a model of working that can be difficult to change. For decades, our folks have been churning out news releases. Now we can get information out not through a media filter, but it's a slow process," Jacobs said.

It's not just the form of the communication, but the content as well that NASA is aiming to tweak. "We want to put things in a way that doesn't suck all the fun out of what we do," Jacobs said.

Skytland, who advises his over-50-year-old parents to follow him on Twitter if they want to know what he's doing, is incorporating social and professional networking into two life science projects he manages for NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Working collaboratively, he says, not only should help NASA solve some of its technical problems quickly and for less cost, but also expand the space community by drawing in people who previously have had no direct connection to NASA.

"The key to public support is to get people engaged," Skytland said. "It's not clear what NASA does and what the value of NASA is. The younger generation is not that interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) which is a huge problem. NASA can give them a goal to apply that knowledge in a really useful way."