In October, 2011, I was one of 150 lucky people selected to attend a NASA Tweetup! NASA Tweetups provide NASA’s Twitter followers with the opportunity to go behind-the-scenes at NASA facilities and events to speak with scientists, engineers, astronauts and managers.
Thousands can apply, and attendees are selected randomly, so it is a rare and highly coveted opportunity for those interested in space exploration. I had applied to attend three previous Tweetups, but had never been selected, so I was ecstatic when I received the good news!
This particular Tweetup would take place at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center and center around the launch of the newest Mars rover – the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), nicknamed Curiosity.
This isn’t your parents’ Mars rover
MSL Curiosity is enormous! About the size of a Mini Cooper, MSL would be the biggest rover ever to land on another planet. And I was going to get the chance to see it launch!
NASA’s on-the-ball social media team – along with some amazing alumni from previous tweetups – gave all of us newbie “space tweeps” some excellent advice on how to make the most of this opportunity. One helpful hint was to send a press release to local media announcing our selection to the tweetup. I did this, expecting perhaps a mention in a local paper at best. Soon, however, I found myself in the middle of a Canadian media frenzy! OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration…but I certainly found the response to be overwhelming!
My story received coverage in four local newspapers, on the local CBC radio program “Ottawa Morning”, and on Canada AM – a national TV morning show ( TV recording available here)!
While it was certainly a thrill to get this kind of attention, it made me happier to know that I was playing at least a small part in “getting the word out” about this amazing event. As a professional communicator, it also reinforced to me that if you have a story about a unique event (in this case, a space mission) that also incorporates something very topical (the notion of “social media”), you can greatly improve your chances of getting the media to take notice. Also, the story tended to snowball – once one media outlet picked it up, the others quickly followed suit.
Arrival in Florida
With well wishes from friends and colleagues, some unexpected gift money from family, and the help of a very supportive wife who would be looking after our young daughter while I was away, I left for Florida on Tuesday, November 22nd.
Before leaving, I learned that the launch, and thus the main Tweetup, had been delayed by a day. This gave me one extra day to tour the Cocoa Beach area of Florida and enjoy the weather, which was *much* warmer than my hometown of Ottawa, Canada.
The first step was to pick up my badge at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
Next, I had to look through the *amazing* swag bag we received from our NASA hosts!
With my credentials and goodies in hand, it was time to return to the hotel to mentally prepare myself for the days ahead. On tomorrow’s agenda was a trip to the Kennedy Space Center to visit the public exhibits, enjoy a Thanksgiving lunch with an astronaut, and meet some fellow space tweeps! But first, it was time to relax at the beach…
Thanksgiving at the Kennedy Space Center
Thanksgiving was a “free” day in the Tweetup schedule, so many of us took advantage of a complimentary one-day admission pass to the Kennedy Space Center visitor center courtesy of NASA.
We would get a special tour of the space center the following day, but for now we were on our own to spend as much time as we pleased in the public portion of the area. I took full advantage! I started by visiting NASA’s “Rocket Garden”, where I was able to see examples of the Redstone, Atlas and Titan rockets that first put NASA astronauts in space.
The following day, we would be taken to see the original Apollo launch control room, but a replica of the earlier Gemini control room was on display right at the visitor center.
Before long, it was time to enjoy a special feature at the Kennedy Space Center: Lunch with an Astronaut. For a small fee, you could have a meal with other space fans and meet a veteran member of the astronaut corps. On the day I was there, which happened to be Thanksgiving, we heard from retired Space Shuttle astronaut John O. Creighton. He flew on three Space Shuttle missions – including the 1991 mission that deployed the UARS satellite which crashed back to Earth in late September of this year.
Creighton gave us a first-hand account of what it was like to live and work in space. I tweeted:
I also took a quick video with my iPhone:
Accompanied by another space tweep I’d met while touring the center, I then visited the Space Shuttle Launch Experience exhibit/ride. It was a simulator-type ride that gave us the feeling of what it would be like to experience the sound and shaking of a Space Shuttle launch from inside the Shuttle. It was very fun! As for its accuracy, I’ll report back after I’ve made my first real trip to space…
When you leave the simulator, you travel down a spiral ramp that lists each and every Space Shuttle mission that flew during the Shuttle program, which ran from 1981-2011. When you reach the bottom, you’re met with a whiteboard full of autographs from actual astronauts that have ridden the very simulator you just experienced!
What a list! We’re talking people that walked on the Moon, like Buzz Aldrin and Eugene Cernan, and Shuttle legends like Story Musgrave who repaired the Hubble Space Telescope and is the only astronaut ever to fly on each Space Shuttle (Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis & Endevaour).
My new space tweep friend Mathew and I then decided to check out the Astronaut Hall of Fame which is part of the Kennedy Space Center but offsite.
The Hall of Fame houses a lot of historical astronaut/human space flight artifacts and memorabilia including one of the first space suits ever worn in space by an American astronaut:
One of the neatest things was Science on a Sphere – a video projection made onto a globe in the middle of the room that delivered an amazing, 3D representation of Earth and the planets:
There was also a small Mars exhibit that featured a 3D model of Valles Marineris, an enormous canyon on Mars. The model compared the size of this Martian valley to that of the Grand Canyon in the southern US. Hint: the Mars canyon is the big one on top! That little squiggle in the inset square is the Grand Canyon.
After visiting the gift shop and realizing that I could blow most of my life savings there, it was time to go.
Meet the Tweeps
When I returned to my hotel, I learned that a big group of NASA Tweetup attendees would be meeting up at the Cracker Barrel restaurant in Titusville for Thanksgiving dinner. We ended up taking over an entire side of the restaurant, giving rise to the Twitter hashtag #occupycrackerbarrel.
This was my first chance to meet a large group of fellow Tweetup attendees and I was amazed at how quickly we bonded. In “real life” I rarely meet people who share the same passion as I do for space flight or astronomy, but here I found myself surrounded by them! Our shared understanding and language sparked good conversation, and the excitement about what we were all about to experience over the next two days was palpable.
While everyone I encountered considered him or herself as a “space tweep”, they were certainly not one-dimensional. These were real people with multiple interests, a variety of careers and range of backgrounds. The conversation was anything but dry. It was filled with laughter and jokes – geeky jokes, mostly – but jokes nonetheless😉
Later, after the Tweetup was long over, one of the space tweeps posted a message on Twitter that summed it up completely:
*For the non-space nerds reading this, SETI stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
I was already having the time of my life and yet the main events – the Tweetup in which we would meet the mission scientists, learn about the MSL rover, and visit the launch pad up close – and the actual *launch* had not even started!
Stay tuned for two future blog posts in which I will detail those events and more! (Update: Part II: Tweetup & NASA Tour, is live!)