How space has opened up new frontiers for the web

Last week the US space agency Nasa’s website received 1 billion hits between noon Saturday and noon Tuesday – a third of the volume handled during all of 2003. It was a happy start to the year for the web, demonstrating not only the giant step for use

Featured sites

As a professional web-watcher, I rarely look at the web for my own pleasure. Last week was different: television and print just could not compete with the Mars websites – American and European – that were tracking a drama of success and failure both exciting and moving. There is a rider to this. I normally use a broadband connection: without it, as I discovered when I tested the sites on a modem link, the tension vanishes. The digital divide – narrowband versus broadband – is getting worrying.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration Nasa, site has a temporary home page more like a film poster than a public sector website. “M2K4: Roaming the Red Planet. We’re back!...”, it says. M2K4 is a contortion of Mars 2004, but the message is clear enough: Nasa is on Mars, and this is the place the find out about it.
The Flash Feature (“Enhanced for Broadband”) leads to a rather beautiful site, with the “red planet” spinning in the background, striking images all over the place and an upbeat voiceover. “We’re back!…” sets the tone for an excited but informative ramble around the planet. Definitely aimed at the consumer this – or maybe the child who wants to know about space. It will, whatever else, be a tremendous recruiting tool for Nasa.

Advances in use of technology


I am sceptical about the use of elaborate technology on the web, but here it is in its element. The buttons buzz or click satisfactorily thanks to Flash software, the images appear with satisfying smoothness, Mars keeping on rolling away in the background. Videos are brought in too: the Challenges links lead to a site that contains many mini-films, either real or animated.
Why, though, does the link say “Enhanced for broadband” when it should say “Broadband users only”? As a page loads, a moving bar shows its progress: with a modem it is painfully slow. The Feature site takes a good two minutes to load, with similar waits for many of the links within it. Having loaded, it works perfectly well – but who will have the patience? Worse, it is impossible to get into the main Nasa site without being tripped up by slow-loading Martian fancy work: using a modem I waited 50 seconds for the temporary home page to load, then the same again as an M2K4 logo loaded at the top of Nasa’s main home page. Once in the site I could switch to either a non-Flash or a low bandwidth version. Why not offer these options right at the beginning?
The European Space Agency has a fair amount of tricksy technology, but does not assume we all have broadband. The main page has a nice newsy look, with 15 small flags leading to similar pages tailored for different countries: not just translations, but different selections of stories, which makes good sense. It uses Flash effectively but modestly with an unusual mini-screen that highlights different features: on a supernova, satellite shots of Finland and, of course, “Europe to Mars”. This leads to the sites of the Mars Express orbiter and Beagle 2 site, which is supposed to bring us word from the British-built landing craft.
An unhappy place it is too: “Current status: No signal returned from Beagle 2” tells us that the mission seems already to be over. I watched the webcast press conference at which the director calls eloquently for another Beagle to be sent. Better than telly this, at least on broadband. First, it is available immediately, and can be watched as an archive any time. Second, it is uncut: this speech needed to be saved from the editor’s razor blade.

Enthusiasm and education blended


All the space sites I looked at manage to combine enthusiasm with education, and also to serve an array of audiences successfully. I have the impression that space people think of the web as ‘their’ medium and as the prime channel for spreading the word. The kids section on Nasa’s Mars site (marsprogram.jpl.nasa.gov) is one of the best children’s sites I have seen. Drive a virtual rover through the Valles Marinaris (broadband definitely necessary), find out your weight on any planet (an easy way to lose weight), build a Mars spacecraft out of paper and lots more.
The European Space Agency site has good material for the casual skywatcher, including a page that tells you where and when you can spot the International Space Station from any one of 2 million towns or villages. I liked the VideoTalk on the Mars Express site, though it needs broadband for best effect. This is part-video, part animation which discusses questions that space exploration should answer: why is Mars so red? Is there water on Mars? Is there life on Mars?
The Hubble Space Telescope has a site that bubbles with enthusiasm but also contains astonishing images and deep technicality. Like Nasa’s Mars site, it is happy to use the devices of entertainment to drag us in. Here is the introduction to a serious press release about new Hubble pictures: “Too fast, too furious: a galaxy’s fatal plunge…. Trailing 200,000 light-year-long streamers of seething gas, a galaxy that was once like our Milky Way is being shredded as it plunges at 4.5 million miles per hour through the heart of a distant cluster of galaxies…”.
Why can’t other academics or businesspeople or anyone use the web like this? There is nothing wrong with being populist on the home page: there is plenty of room to give us all the nitty-gritty in the universe later.

First published 14 January, 2004
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