The space race of the 20th century led to unprecedented progress in technological innovation. Major milestones included the Soviet Union sending the first man-made object into orbit, the first human into space, and the first landing on the moon by the United States (US). But an emerging power is making major gains in the great space race.

In early January 2019, China made headlines when it landed a spacecraft, the Chang’e4, on the far side of the moon, which was heralded as a breakthrough achievement in space exploration by international media. For China, the landing provides an immediate boost to its international standing, and is a boon for the global credibility of Chinese-made technology. But what does it mean for everyone else? Will this be the start of a new space race? And will the US and Russia ramp up efforts to assert their traditional dominance of the cosmos?

The space race from the 1950s had origins in the nuclear arms race between the US and Soviet Union, and focused on establishing national supremacy. However, the fierce rivalry that characterised the original space race has settled into a peaceful space cooperation, which has largely avoided diplomatic tensions on land. Amidst strained international relations in trade and politics, science diplomacy has emerged as a platform for international collaboration. Science diplomacy refers to the use of scientific exchange to build international partnerships, and the International Space Station is a key example of this.

China’s approach to space, namely its plan to be the leading space power by 2045, is indicative of broader hard power ambitions, but whether China can meet this ambition is far from certain. In the meantime, the US, via the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), continues to generate significant soft power clout through a savvy approach to social media. It is worth noting that NASA’s efforts are not necessarily in pursuit of digital diplomacy, but its social media success certainly has positive knock-on effects. Via NASA’s social media accounts, the world is now seeing a digital manifestation of science diplomacy.

NASA’s social media prowess is well-known, and it did not happen by accident. With over 500 social media accounts, NASA has to churn out an enormous amount of content, all thoughtfully placed and carefully curated to different social media platforms. As a US government agency, NASA cannot pay for sponsored content, so it drives organic growth and engagement through a comprehensive digital strategy. This includes daily posting on Facebook and Instagram, live streaming, and influencer engagement.

With the world’s most comprehensive space-themed photo library, Instagram is a natural fit for NASA, and arguably its best-performing social media platform. The NASA Instagram account has amassed a whopping 38 million followers, and receives hundreds of thousands of likes per post. This can certainly be attributed to its stunning shots of space. For many people, space holds a certain fascination, and NASA delivers by bringing content that is quite literally out of this world to the public’s mobile screens.

We have seen with many government agencies that Instagram is most effective when individuals come across as authentic and personable. This typically takes the form of selfies and behind-the-scene shots, to humanise otherwise serious exchanges. Professionally-shot posts, in contrast, can come across as posed and inauthentic, distancing viewers and rendering attempts at digital diplomacy ineffective.

NASA, however, bucks this trend. Its posts do not tend to feature individuals, but shots of the solar system. NASA is unique in that its “professional photography” involves the use of space telescopes to capture the beauty and wonder of space. As a result, professionally-shot posts are not alienating, but a reflection of NASA’s advanced space technology and a showcase of American technology and innovation. NASA draws its audiences in with its incredible photos, and shares interesting information through the captions. Leveraging Instagram’s visual nature, these posts receive some of the highest engagement levels, allowing NASA to showcase its – and by extension, the US’ – latest innovation and developments in space exploration to global audiences.

At the same time, NASA maintains a strong human touch by leveraging newer features such as Instagram Stories and IGTV to tell longer stories and connect with audiences. This includes live videos of rocket launches and space walks, behind-the-scenes footage at the International Space Station, as well as fun facts about space and NASA’s space technology. NASA’s work is, quite literally, rocket science, but it demonstrates that content can be informative and intelligent without being technical and full of jargon. NASA takes its social media strategy one step further by tailoring its content to specific audiences, such as women in science and technology, and environmental activists. By making its content relevant and relatable, NASA succeeds at unlocking new communities and engaging huge global audiences.

This is further supported by the NASA Social programme, which provides opportunities for its social media followers to go behind-the-scenes at NASA facilities and speak with scientists, engineers, and astronauts. This builds NASA a network of brand ambassadors, who are then inspired to share content and information about NASA on their own social media channels.

It is widely known that diplomacy, especially in the digital age, is no longer limited to foreign affairs ministries. Oftentimes, we see tourism boards and trade offices take on critical roles in nation branding and projecting of soft power. NASA’s unique approach to social media is an inspiring reminder that digital diplomacy can take many creative forms.

The US already commands a vast amount of soft power resources; while space exploration has historically carried undertones of an arms race, NASA shows us that in today’s context, strengths in science and technology can be harnessed as soft power assets. NASA’s Instagram posts are successful in engaging global publics; it does not explicitly brand the US, but makes the phenomena of space accessible to anyone with an Instagram account – which is a direct result of American investments and efforts to further space exploration.

Importantly, NASA champions international cooperation through posts about shared missions with the European Space Agency and photographs of other country’s spacecrafts. In outer space, where there are no geographic borders, NASA leverages social media as a critical tool for digital science diplomacy. Particularly as space leaders advance rapidly in space exploration, and competing national interests start to emerge, NASA should continue its efforts in digital diplomacy, and drive the agenda for space cooperation.