Though neither as sensual as the original, nor as cute as Elmo’s version, a recent parody of LMFAO’s mega-hit "I’m Sexy and I Know It" has tallied nearly 1 million YouTube views in just a few days.
The success of the video “We’re NASA and We Know It” represents an extraordinary phenomenon that has been occurring ever since NASA’s intrepid rover touched down on Mars – people are actually interested in space again.
Do you remember Sojourner? No? How about Spirit? Opportunity? Neither do I. But, like me, you certainly know of Curiosity, the NASA rover that managed to decelerate from 13,200 mph to zero in just seven minutes with the help of a parachute, a feat that had a roomful of NASA scientists on the edge of their seats and, more importantly, a feat that piqued the interest of millions of average Americans.
Statistics such as Curiosity’s remarkable brake are intangible to the typical person. And so there must be a better explanation for the popular frenzy that Curiosity has spawned. The process by which NASA placed a car-sized explorer on Mars is undeniably impressive – perhaps the most impressive venture in NASA’s celebrated history – but it is also inarguably cool, an essential element that early explorations lacked. Airbags may have worked for the rovers that landed in 2004, and landing legs may have sufficed for the Viking missions in 1976, but neither can hold a candle to the space-crane system* that gently deposited Curiosity on Martian soil.
Another unique feature of the recent NASA endeavor is the human element. Many of the millions who have tuned into Curiosity’s saga were first drawn to the images of control room engineers exuberantly celebrating their success. The LMFAO parody has attracted so many viewers not for its stirring humor – it is silly at best – but for its ties to the characters in the control room that millions have come to adore. The awkward high-fives that make them relatable are the missing ingredient that has turned cold, unfeeling science into a hot topic.
NASA could not have touched as many hearts as it has without the help of the buzz-factory that is the internet. Bobak Ferdowski would be just another engineer had he not inspired a viral meme and news of NASA’s victory would have reached far fewer ears had Curiosity not experienced the social media hype that platforms such as Twitter have provided. Apparently, it takes the viral speed of an internet meme to attract millenials to the astonishing deceleration of a rover and the conciseness of a tweet to interest them in the infinity of space.
Yet this is not at all to say that the future prospects of NASA and likeminded science programs should depend upon social media and mohawked engineers. Not all publicity is good publicity as the European Commission learned the hard way with its “Science: It’s a Girl Thing” ad campaign.
As America falls behind other countries in scientific and mathematic disciplines, it is crucial that young people find something more than a superficial interest in the current fad, as NASA’s latest success could prove to be. With no Cold War to spur us into the Final Frontier, NASA needs to find a new method, a substantive and sustainable method of engendering interest in space exploration. Curiosity proves that we haven’t stopped dreaming, but we need to continue to dream up ways to rouse the next generation of space explorers.