Friday's live Google+ Hangout represents one small step for NASA, one giant leap for the Web-based videoconferencing tool.
Space-to-Earth hookups are nothing new for the International Space Station: NASA TV regularly broadcasts video from the orbital outpost as it circles the globe at an altitude of 240 miles (385 kilometers). Astronauts have been sending Twitter updates and Flickr photos from space for years. Heck, even NASA's robots have Facebook pages. But Friday's hourlong event, scheduled to run from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. ET, marks the first time that NASA has done a Hangout.
"We're looking forward to it," said Jason Townsend, a spokesman at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
He said NASA has selected 20 video questions from the scads that were sent in by the agency's social-media followers, and at least some of those questions will be aired for the space station astronauts to answer during a 20-minute downlink opportunity starting at 11 a.m. ET. "We're angling to fill every minute," Townsend told NBC News.
Three of the space station's six astronauts — station commander Kevin Ford, NASA colleague Tom Marshburn and Canada's Chris Hadfield — will participate in the space-plus-Earth Hangout. (The three others, all Russians, will presumably be minding the store.)
Townsend said that for the balance of the hour, questions will be handled by two NASA astronauts on the ground: Ron Garan, a social-media star who's in nearly 3 million Google+ circles; and Nicole Stott, who participated in the space station's first live NASA Tweetup in 2009.
The outer-space Hangout is just the latest leap for NASA's social-media strategy: The Tweetups of the late space shuttle era have given way to a string of NASA Social gatherings. One took place just this week at NASA Headquarters. NASA regularly sets aside seats for social-media mavens at big events, including next month's SpaceX Dragon launch.
Last year, NASA's social-media teams presented 16 events that brought more than 1,000 followers to NASA facilities and other spacey locales. Mars Curiosity rover has been the star of the show, thanks in part to her (yes, her) 1.3 million Twitter followers. During the rover's landing last August, NASA served up a record 36 million webcast streams, and the six-wheeled robot has been known to check in to Foursquare from Mars.
How can the Three Amigos on the space station possibly compete with Curiosity (and her cantankerous, non-NASA-sponsored alter ego, Sarcastic Rover)? Tune in on Friday and find out.
More marvels from the space station:
- Astronaut's artistry hits warp speed
- Space-plus-Earth duet makes debut
- Online contest to boost space station power
After NASA's Hangout, keep an eye out for the Weekly Space Hangout, which brings space scribes together for an hour starting at 3 p.m. ET. Universe Today's Fraser Cain and Astrosphere's Scott Lewis (the Bald Astronomer) are among the ringleaders.
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.