At the Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island last week, I met a bevy of astronauts, flight engineers, technologists and even the lead member of the Closeout Crew for Atlantis’ STS-132 mission. I’m still in shock that I got to witness the shuttle launch standing beside the Countdown Clock,about as close as a human is allowed to get. (I keep thinking of the lyrics from the Sound of Music, “I must have done something good” to deserve this incredible opportunity!)
I was part of a select group of NASA tweetup participants. A tweet-up is a gathering of folks who use Twitter and I won this coveted VIP spot via a random lottery. Just start following (or reading) the tweets sent out by @NASA and @NASAtweetup on Twitter to have a chance at winning a slot too.
NASA folks are actively engaged with social media. You can follow the various centers such as @KennedySC or astronauts in space. Yes – in space! They share photos and observations from quite a unique perspective! Even Lori Garver, deputy director of the agency, tweets.
Closer to home, the Kennedy Space Center offers frequent opportunities to have lunch with an astronaut and a variety of interesting tours or special events. For instance, the public is invited to attend the next induction ceremony for the Astronaut Hall of Fame on June 5. Guion S. Bluford, Jr., Kenneth D. Bowersox, Frank L. Culbertson, Jr., and Kathryn C. Thornton will be honored.
During two days of intense and informative meetings with NASA personnel at the tweetup, we heard first-hand experiences from the brave folks who fly to the International Space Station and the highly talented personnel who help them do so safely.
Space veteran David Wolf, whose easy-going manner and wry humor belies the extreme intelligence of a medical doctor and scientist with 15 patents to his name, told us about his current challenges. Not only does he train the newer astronauts in space walking techniques, he also mentors middle school students near the Kennedy Space Center.
Janice Voss, another veteran of space flight, charmed us with her stories about the importance of simple things like email from home when you’re in orbit. Dr. Voss also commented that today’s public is extremely well informed about space travel and asks detailed questions.
Most of the NASA presenters were wickedly funny. In fact, I began to wonder if humor and humility are factored into the selection process for “The Right Stuff.”
Just like the public, our tour drove by the Orbiter Processing Facility, Vehicle Assembly Building, Mobile Launcher Platforms and Crawler Transporter. Because we were special guests on the day before a launch, we were driven to a field near Launch Pad 39A where we could watch the retraction of the Rotating Service Structure, one of the final preparations for the shuttle before launch.
As a marketing communications practitioner, I enjoyed chatting with NASA team members John Yembrick, Stephanie Schierholz and Beth Beck, part of the team that leads the tweetups. Their efforts help engage scores of new people to the wonders of space.
Thanks to them and the other visionaries using Twitter, YouTube and other new communications technologies, I will always remember these two days during which I got to live vicariously and be part of NASA.
Discovery’s last launch is set for September, while Endeavor, the final shuttle flight, is scheduled for November. Launches are quite popular and the Kennedy Space Center sells tickets. But you don’t need to buy one or even win a tweetup invitation to have this type of experience. There are numerous parks and causeways where you can easily view one of the launches this coming autumn. I’ll write about those in another blog post soon.
Oh yeah, my impression of my first shuttle launch?
PRICELESS experience. Total jubilation and pride. It's been said before (but worth repeating) that NASA is an example of American ingenuity and achievement. Florida is also proud to be the home of the Kennedy Space Center.