NASA's Bold Move: Elevating Its Digital Frontier with WordPress
In a remarkable digital transformation, NASA has recently unveiled its revamped flagship website, nasa.gov shedding the beta label and ushering in a new era of online exploration. What sets this development apart is the platform they chose for this monumental upgrade: WordPress. This significant shift from Drupal as the Content Management System (CMS) reflects NASA’s commitment to staying at the forefront of innovation and discovery, a tradition they’ve proudly upheld for over 65 years.
The genesis of this multimillion-dollar endeavor can be traced back to a few years ago when a confluence of events, including the IDEA Act and the End of Life for Drupal 7, provided NASA with the impetus to rethink their CMS strategy for nasa.gov. Steering this ambitious project was Lone Rock Point, a WordPress.com VIP Gold Agency Partner. They embarked on an extensive 18-month journey encompassing web development, data migration, and content creation.
The project’s early phase began with a year dedicated to User Experience (UX) design, alongside a rigorous evaluation of various enterprise CMS options. Their meticulous selection process culminated in WordPress, which now serves 456 CMS users, incorporates 68,698 migrated pages, and features 3,023 new landing pages. As part of the overhaul, NASA’s website infrastructure transitioned from an Amazon Web Services environment to WordPress.com VIP.
J.J. Toothman, President of Lone Rock Point, emphasized the significance of the Gutenberg block-based authoring approach, stating, “Content authors were vocal about wanting to break free from perceived template constraints. The block-based approach of Gutenberg fulfills this desire, as evident in the diverse landing pages created since the site’s launch.”
NASA explored both proprietary and open-source solutions but ultimately narrowed their focus to four CMS platforms: two commercial and two open source (WordPress and Drupal). They conducted high-level prototyping and user evaluations for all four finalists to inform their CMS selection process.
WordPress distinguished itself in several ways, with its vast community being a pivotal factor.
This flourishing community continually innovates, shares knowledge, and provides training resources. It’s a rich source of support that ensures NASA doesn’t face limitations seen with commercial CMS solutions, where they often have to rely solely on the original vendor.
Another standout feature was the extensive plugin ecosystem that empowered real-time content analysis, particularly in areas like SEO and accessibility, directly within the WordPress admin environment. This meant content could be thoroughly analyzed before publication, a crucial aspect for NASA.
Moreover, the user-friendly content authoring environment of WordPress played a significant role in their decision. Toothman summarized, “It’s a big win for open source, as WordPress’s capabilities were time-consuming to implement without prior work by the WordPress community.”
One notable example of this community-driven integration is the seamless connection between the NASA WordPress site and the NASA image library at images.nasa.gov. Content authors can effortlessly search for images and include them in their content, thanks to enhancements made to the WordPress media library, leveraging prior work by Human Made.
The block editor’s adaptability for authoring landing pages, enabling freedom from rigid templates, was a defining factor in NASA’s choice of WordPress as their CMS. Lone Rock Point went a step further, crafting 55 custom editor blocks to empower NASA’s website authors in sharing their groundbreaking discoveries.
With over 400 content author/editor users in NASA’s WordPress CMS, there was a wide spectrum of familiarity with WordPress and Gutenberg. The transition presented challenges in terms of learning and change management. To facilitate this shift, Lone Rock Point introduced hands-on training sessions and real-time page building with users, along with an extensive online knowledge base.
Weekly blogs and newsletters featuring in-progress pages from peers provided further encouragement for users. This dynamic environment fostered creativity, collaboration, and quality control on a grand scale, ultimately delivering a high-quality end-user experience.
Toothman shared his delight in the inventive ways content authors harnessed custom Gutenberg editor blocks, using them as design layout options beyond their original intent.
In a remarkable move, NASA plans to open-source some of its custom blocks and other project components, giving back to the WordPress community. This project stands as a testament to WordPress’s prowess as an enterprise-class CMS with exceptional adaptability for complex publishing needs.
J.J. Toothman concluded with a broader perspective on the impact of NASA’s choice: “While NASA’s selection of WordPress may not erase longstanding misconceptions, it reinforces the fact that WordPress is a true enterprise-class solution, capable of meeting the most stringent security benchmarks.” This choice signifies a significant leap for WordPress and a resounding endorsement from one of the world’s most prominent organizations.