At 11:36 Eastern time last night (August 5th), a $2.5 billion space mission, the most audacious landing on Mars ever, was nowhere to be seen on Twitter's list of top hashtags in the U.S., where typical Twitter meme discussions such as #WhenIWasALittleKid ruled.
And according to Twitter-tracking site Statweestics, the highest-ranking Mars topic of the day, at number 97, was the musician Bruno Mars.
By 1:45 A.M., right after the high-anxiety touchdown, "Curiosity" was at number 3, and other related terms filled out the list. And the main NASA Web site briefly went down due to overwhelming demand to see the first photo — a dim black-and-white image of the lander's wheel on the Martian service.
Around midnight, #MSL (Mars Science Laboratory) was the number two topic on social network Google+. The Curiosity Facebook page went from 71,453 likes at midnight to roughly 116,000 by 8:30 A.M. this morning, and Twitter followers jumped from about 217,000 to 568,000.
And the Internet had a new star, Mohawk Man (alternately Mohawk Guy), a Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) employee whose massive coif fought against the headset band that tried to squash it. "Dear NASA dude with Mohawk, you are hot. <3," wrote Twitter user Kym.
Mohawk Man became a star thanks to Ustream, the online video site that's increasingly become a TV news alternative. It hosted NASA's NFL-style pregame coverage from 11:30 P.M. EDT Sunday — a series of interviews with the top players on the Curiosity team — and improbably with Will I Am. The Black Eyed Peas star became a hot topic on Twitter (number 4, briefly) partly out of confusion and derision. "Space has no sound, right? Why don't we send Will.i.am to Mars," wrote Margarita Noriega.
From an audience of about 28,000 at 11:30 P.M., viewership shot up more than sevenfold to roughly 205,000 around landing time at 1:31 A.M. Eastern on Monday. That was especially impressive since the footage was largely of employees at JPL simply sitting at their stations and listening to updates. Continuing the football analogy, it was as if America tuned in to watch the support staff for the teams listening to the game on the radio.
But as enthusiasm built, fans were taking whatever news they could get. After all, Curiosity was one of the few big news stories of the past few years that didn't have a TV crew or a witness with a cellphone camera on the ground.
Jokes to that effect soon popped up on Twitter. As everyone waited for the first photo to come in, one Twitter user suggested that Curiosity was trying to decide what Instagram filter to use. Meanwhile another viewer observed that the rover was close to becoming "mayor" of Gale Crater on Foursquare.