This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first chilled, fountain-poured Coca-Cola in space aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. But besides agreeing on the soft drink of choice for astronauts, what do NASA and Coca-Cola have in common?

Both celebrate and embrace the diversity of their fans and offer opportunities for deep engagement with their brand and products. Recently, NASA has embraced its fans by offering up-close and personal tours for launches through “NASA Social” events.

NASA Rocket
A long exposure of the launch.

Wes Swain

On March 11-12, I was fortunate to attend the launch of NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale Spacecraft, or MMS, a payload aboard an Atlas V rocket launched from the Eastern Test Range, LC-41 Launch Pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. I and 49 other NASA social media followers went behind the scenes to learn first-hand about NASA's missions, people and programs, and shared our experiences with our personal networks. This expanded NASA’s online audience and creating digital content from varied perspectives. 

Like the Breakfast Club kids 30 years before us, the 50 NASA Social attendees were a diverse group. There were the natural fans: scientists, engineers, educators and space enthusiasts. Also expected for their social reach were bloggers and social media consultants. Less predictably, NASA invited pro gamers, entrepreneurs, travel bloggers and corporate types (like me.) The resulting pool of online stories, photos and videos from our two days on campus creates a rich tapestry of content highlighting all perspectives. NASA for the people, by the people. You can get a sense of it by logging onto Twitter and filtering for #MagRecon – it even sounds cool.

Coke & NASA
The Atlas V rocket and a Coca-Cola bottle.

NASA Social guests witnessed and participated in every step of the launch, documenting events from our own perspectives and highlighting details that captured our imagination. The odyssey began with the rocket rollout, a 35-minute trip from the United Launch Alliance Vertical Assembly Building to the launchpad. We also attended two NASA TV press conferences, posing questions to the heliophysicists whose last 10 years of work had climaxed in this moment in time. We observed Mission Control, saw the Atlas V rocket on the launch pad, and visited the retooling of the massive Vehicle Assembly Building – the tallest one-story building in the world, at 525 feet.

And of course, the finale was watching the rocket launch at 10:44 p.m. from two miles away (front row by blast proximity standards.)

My trusty prop for the entire journey was an aluminum Coke bottle, which often posed with NASA’s own aluminum product bound for a more celestial destiny. Further, having dined with NASA employees in their cafeteria, I can report with certainty that it is Coke, and only Coke, that powers the new space race.

I am sure I'm not alone in having once assumed that NASA's operations dwindled to International Space Station replenishment missions after the Shuttle program was retired in 2011. In actuality, NASA is partnering with private companies like SpaceX, and politically tricky joint ventures like United Launch Alliance, to bring Kennedy Space Center into the next century. In March alone, NASA is scheduled to launch two rockets, test fire a third, and bring home astronauts from the ISS. And in the background, the Orion missions are scaling up to take us to Mars and further.

NASA is alive and well, and looking to connect with all of us. To see more perspectives from this and similar events, follow #NASASocial on Twitter and Instagram. To apply for an experience like this for yourself, follow @NASASocial and @NASA for new opportunities, or click here for more information. Pack your camera, you smartphone and of course – your Coke. 

Ashley Vanderpoel is the digital and social media manager on The Coca-Cola Company's Global Sustainability Marketing team.