Redesign Enables NASA Site to Handle Traffic Surge, Tragedy

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The space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on entry Feb. 1. NASA's Web site received 72 million hits that day -- less than 24 hours after its revamp. By month's end, NASA.gov had attracted an unprecedented 512 million hits.


Despite the enormous surge in traffic, not once did the site have problems, NASA officials said.


"NASA would not have been able to handle the volume of traffic were it not for overhauled technical infrastructure and information architecture," said Tyler Niess, account director at Calgary, Alberta-based Critical Mass, the interactive agency that handles the NASA account along with eTouch, Fremont, CA.


February's traffic volume was more than the previous five years combined. Perhaps the closest online interest NASA.gov received to the Columbia disaster was when NASA landed the Mars Pathfinder probe in July 1997, when it received 750 million hits over the probe's six-month mission.


Of course, it helps that NASA is a government agency with the ability to install unlimited bandwidth. Still, many other government sites have buckled under traffic spikes or technical glitches.


There are lessons here for retailers and marketers. One is the efficient use of the Internet as a communications tool in times of crisis. Another is the technology preparedness when consumer interest is expected to peak, in this case, Columbia's descent to Earth.


So what happened when the Columbia disaster unfolded?


A team at Critical Mass and eTouch assembled and put together recommendations for NASA less than an hour after the tragedy. A multimedia introduction on NASA.gov was replaced with the image of a U.S. flag at half-staff, and the tone changed from celebratory to mourning.


Another far more important addition was a microsite that included a schedule of events, biographies of the seven crew members and the ability to upload directions for video and photographs. The microsite was designed to handle information requests, serving as one of the most invaluable information portals in the crisis management chain at NASA.


A few factors helped officials meet the demands created by the Columbia tragedy. NASA had, for the first time, outsourced site hosting. Next, it took advantage of its different in-place systems to conduct searches and balance the query load. Finally, NASA redesigned the site architecture to make it flexible enough to quickly add a new section that did not break the navigational conventions.


Direct marketers, online retailers and even news sites in the aftermath of major events can learn from NASA's online experience. Retail sites undergo similar stress during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday shopping season.


NASA had the foresight to erect load, traffic and peak bandwidth requirements that seemed outlandish.


"The information architecture and the stripped-down content delivery system were critical," Niess said. "So, when planning for anything special or for anything unexpected, you have to maximize load times and accessibility."


NASA has faced tighter budgets and diminished public interest in its activities. Last year, however, the E-Government Initiative became law, and government agencies were challenged to use the Internet to meet public needs as the private sector does. Encouraged, NASA decided to accelerate its awareness and advocacy by making its site a public outreach asset. NASA.gov now is the portal for 4 million pages of information from 2,922 disparate NASA sites.


This new philosophy will be put to test with the next Mars Exploration Rover Mission slated for takeoff this summer and a January landing. This mission is expected to generate 10 times the traffic as the previous Pathfinder spacecraft in 1997, a number running into billions of hits.


Critical Mass will not delve into the specific features expected on the site with the new Mars probe. But the shop does disclose the efforts are going to be unprecedented.


In essence, NASA is in the midst of an online rebranding. As a government agency, it is aware that it needs to be more accessible to the public. More importantly, the site is the agency's only public interface. There is no NASA magazine or newsletter, and all communications are conducted online and via press conferences.


Before Critical Mass' online retooling -- it took only three weeks to prep NASA.gov for Columbia's return -- the site was aimed primarily at scientists. Now the site has a broader appeal.


"We think the site is unusual because it starts with user needs and modifies internal processes to meet those needs," Niess said. "It is unprecedented for government agencies to think this way."


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