While many online marketers may feel like they are sometimes dealing
with clients from a foreign planet, no one knows this to be truer than Kirk
Goodall is one of the visionaries behind NASA's immensely successful
Mars Pathfinder web site, which created one of the largest public relations
successes to date on the Internet. Honored with a Tenagra Award at the recent
ad:tech conference in Chicago, Goodall was glad to see that the Mars Pathfinder
web site was the receipient of its due credit.
Clearly, Goodall's three-man skeleton crew accomplished
a task that would make even the most savvy web entrepreneur envious. In
only a four-week period prior to landing, the team was able to lock up five
major corporate mirror sites which carried the majority of the internet
traffic during that historic week in July of 1997. Even more amazing, the
mirroring project worked within a "seed capital" budget of $15,000
until three months before landing.
Howd he do it? Hear the inside word from the Mars Pathfinder web
CLICKZ: How instrumental do you feel the sites press page
was? Was making a specific area on the site available to the press (with
continually updated information) integral to the sites success?
GOODALL: Actually it's really interesting that you ask that question.
What we learned is there is a symbiotic relationship between the press and
No one understood this better than CNN. Essentially the press realized,
especially CNN, that if they pumped the Internet, people would log on to
see the pictures and this would in turn would encourage them to stay tuned
into CNN to see what's coming up next. So the two really fed off one another;
that's why we got an astronomical number of "hits" from around
CLICKZ: What kind of traffic did the web site actually receive
during the mission?
GOODALL: In the first couple days, it was comparatively slow in
terms of traffic compared to what happened the next week -- when people
got back from vacation. As you know, it landed on July 4th, which
was the start of a long holiday weekend.
Here, let me go pull the numbers. On July 4th we did 32.8 million hits.
And then our biggest day was on July 8th, and we did 46.9 million.
And then it dropped down after that week to about 12 or 13 million hits
per day, and that was at the time across about 25 mirror sites.
CLICKZ: Why did you choose to market the mission online?
GOODALL: It was basically three engineers and one manager who
decided that we needed to do something to handle the load.
Actually, it's really interesting how it all came together. We convinced
Kennedy to cover the launch of both Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Pathfinder
in real-time on the Internet from Cape Canaveral at the Kennedy Space Center
in Florida. At first, there was reluctance due to time pressures at the
Cape and also due to procedures associated with the fact that we actually
launched from an Air Force facility located adjacent to the Kennedy Space
In the end, Kennedy decided that they should do it and the Air Force
quickly agreed that it was a worthwhile public relations effort. The Air
Force deserves a lot of credit for making things easy for the public relations
people at Kennedy. With four weeks to go before launch, they put everything
into place and had real time coverage of not only the launch preparations,
but the actual launch itself.
About this time the head of NASA, Dan Goldin, saw it from his personal
computer at NASA Headquarters and immediately fell in love with it. Within
a couple of days he made an announcement that we would cover every phase
of the Mars missions in real-time on the Internet.
Back at JPL this sort of caught upper management by surprise, since no
money had been allocated for this new task. However, the three principals
evolved in the effort -- myself, Bob Anderson and David Dubov -- were not
all that concerned, since we never expected to get whole lot of additional
funding anyhow. Unlike the other components of the Pathfinder mission, we
suspected that we could leverage off outside parties at little or no additional
cost to JPL.
CLICKZ: I bet that you were really working with a very small budget?
GOODALL: Yeah, $15,000!
CLICKZ: I know sites that can blow that in about a week!
GOODALL: Essentially that's all there was. But that's only partially
true, because I was funded by other things at JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory].
I received permission from my section manager to put in some extra hours
on my own and to bill some time to a business development account in anticipation
of future funding. My section manager, Jim Korfanta, deserves a lot of credit
for giving me the flexibility I needed to work on the project in the early
stages when there was only a little money available.
CLICKZ: I'd guess that the Mars Pathfinder site through JPL has
actually brought in substantial traffic through other NASA sites?
GOODALL: Yeah, after the Pathfinder landing every NASA site experienced
more traffic than ever before. You know, we basically boosted all of NASA
up to a level higher in terms of exposure on the Internet. Weve done
780 million hits since July 4th -- that's for all of the Mars missions combined.
CLICKZ: What is your background with the Internet and the web?
GOODALL: Here's a little factoid. I had never used a Netscape
browser before I came to the Lab two and a half years ago. I sat down one
day at a terminal in the JPL library, I think it was my first week at JPL
and started exploring existing JPL web sites.
I had ideas for real-time Internet coverage of the Mars missions before
I came to JPL -- it was sort of floating around in the back of my head.
That day at the JPL library was the first time I had ever used a browser
with a fast connection -- prior to that I had only used Mosaic across a
modem and wasn't impressed. I sat down at a good machine with a fast connection
and said, "WOW - I can do stuff with this, no wonder Netscape is worth
hundreds of millions of dollars!"
CLICKZ: But you really hadn't done anything with the Internet
GOODALL: Well, I saw the potential but I hadn't done a thing with
it. It was all new then back in '95, I just heard the fuss over the Internet
on the radio as I drove my Z across the country from Washington D.C. to
California. I had just left a startup company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
in which I was one of four of the original principals. It was a good profitable
little company, but I had just turned 30 and wanted to be totally in charge
of my destiny.
I first moved to D.C., but quickly concluded that I was better off in
California within my old Silicon Valley stomping ground. However, as I drove
across the county I kept thinking of JPL and those Mars missions that I
knew were coming up. ( I have a Masters Degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics
). JPL was the first place I went after I crossed the California line. When
I discovered that the first mission was less than two years away, I decided
I really wanted to work at JPL.
It took me about three months to network into the Lab. I started in late
November of 1995. Initially, my job did not have anything to do with the
Mars missions, but it only took me about four months to network into the
Mars Program Office.
CLICKZ: How hard was it to convince corporations to donate bandwidth
and assist with the Pathfinder site?
GOODALL: It wasn't hard to convince them at all because they saw
the tremendous marketing potential. The only constraint was that we couldn't
use corporate logos on our web pages. There are very strict Federal regulations
preventing JPL from appearing to endorse a company or to favor one company
over another. There are all these fair competition laws that we must adhere
CLICKZ: How much increased press coverage of the mission do you
think NASA and JPL received because of having the real time Pathfinder site?
GOODALL: I don't know, it's hard to say. I've been told it made
a big difference, being able to get on the Internet and see the actual data
for yourself. I think it terms of public relations it was the biggest mission
since the first moon landing. No NASA mission has been covered to the extent
of Mars Pathfinder since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I'm pretty sure
even the first shuttle launch wasn't covered this well.
It was really an amazing experience. I have to say that my own personal
success was largely due to my prior experience in the commercial sector
before coming to JPL. Startup companies can be vicious, but nothing prepares
you better to work under tight budgetary constraints. In many ways the whole
Pathfinder project felt like a well-funded Silicon Valley startup company.
There were only 50 people on the project. Everyone knew their job and did
Matthew Ragas is Business Development Manager
for PM Media, Inc., producers of three Internet talk radio shows. They include
"Happy Puppy Radio", "Net Market Radio: An Insider's Guide
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at OnlinePress.com each week. His writing has also appeared in NetGuide,
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him online at firstname.lastname@example.org.