Kelleytastic recently attended a NASA Tweetup at Kennedy Space Center for the GRAIL mission launch. What happens when 150 space geeks get together for two days?
I recently had the incredible opportunity to attend a NASA Tweetup at Kennedy Space Center for the Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission launch.
Invariably, any time I say that, the first question I get is always the same: “What’s a tweetup?”
I sigh and wonder how so many people that I physically interact with on a daily basis survive without Twitter in their lives. Then I explain:
A tweetup is a clever name for an in-real-life meet-up of people who know each other via Twitter. During a NASA Tweetup, the space agency invites select @NASA followers for a behind-the-scenes look at its facilities during a high profile event (such as a launch) as well as meet and speak with some of the great minds behind NASA’s various projects.
A shorter explanation is that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to let your inner space geek run wild.
My love affair with the stars started when I was in pre-school. I don’t remember a time before I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. I learned to recite the planets in the solar system the same way other children my age learned to recite their ABC’s.
While my commitment to the rigorous training required of astronauts waned before I even hit puberty, my love of our fantastic universe did not.
The first NASA Tweetup was held at JPL in January 2009. I was just a wee lass on Twitter back then so I wasn’t in the know, but by the first KSC Tweetup that fall (STS-129) I was all about it. It would be nearly two years before I would finally be chosen to attend.
Which brings us full circle. The GRAIL Tweetup was held September 7-8, 2011, although the launch was held until September 10, 2011 due to weather conditions. NASA received more than 825 registrations for the GRAIL Tweetup, but the final group only included about 150 selected attendees. Members of the group came from as far away as Australia. Canada, the United Kingdom, and Spain were also represented. It’s hard to explain how a group of strangers could come together so briefly and walk away as fast friends, but I can testify that it happened.
Each event varies and is customized according to the event that it is commemorating. For our tweetup, the first day was spent meeting other attendees, touring Kennedy Space Center, and listening to various speakers. Our tour included sites on both KSC as well as Cape Canaveral Air Force Station: the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB); the KSC press site and the iconic countdown clock; and launch pads 39A, 41, and 17. Speakers for the event included several notable NASA professionals such as Jim Adams and Doug Ellison, Dr. Maria Zuber of MIT, representatives from Sally Ride Science, Nichelle Nichols (“Uhura” of Star Trek fame), and renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
And all of that was just a warm-up act for the star of the show, a Delta II Heavy rocket carrying the twin GRAIL satellites to lunar orbit.
GRAIL-A is scheduled to reach the moon on New Year’s Eve 2011, while GRAIL-B will arrive New Year’s Day 2012. The two solar-powered spacecraft will fly in tandem orbits around the moon to measure its gravity field. GRAIL will answer longstanding questions about the moon and give scientists a better understanding of how Earth and other rocky planets in the solar system formed.
The spacecrafts will also be carrying a digital video imaging system called MoonKAM. This will offer middle-school students the chance to request photography of lunar targets for classroom study. The MoonKAM project is being headed by Sally Ride, the first woman in space.
The straight-line distance from Earth to the moon is approximately 250,000 miles (402,336 kilometers). NASA’s Apollo moon crews needed approximately three days to cover that distance. However, each spacecraft will take approximately 3.5 months and cover more than 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) to arrive. This low-energy trajectory results in the longer travel time. The size of the launch vehicle allows more time for spacecraft check-out and time to update plans for lunar operations. The science collection phase for GRAIL is expected to last 82 days.
“If there was ever any doubt that Florida’s Space Coast would continue to be open for business, that thought was drowned out by the roar of today’s GRAIL launch,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a statement on September 10, 2011. “GRAIL and many other exciting upcoming missions make clear that NASA is taking its next big leap into deep space exploration, and the space industry continues to provide the jobs and workers needed to support this critical effort.”
In a Q&A session at the tweetup on September 7, 2011, I had the opportunity to ask Bolden about the role of space geeks in the future of funding for NASA programs. “The most important thing you can do,” Bolden said, “is to talk to people about the space program. Keep the message going.”
You can’t stop the signal.