Nerd spring break: NASA Tweetup

I have had this afternoon’s flight on my calendar for 30 years, in one form or another: I’m going to Florida to see a space shuttle launch.

I woke up absurdly early on an April morning in 1981 to watch the TV broadcast of Columbia’s liftoff. Witnessing that in person wasn’t something that a 10-year-old boy would necessarily imagine doing next, but it wasn’t too many years later that one of my best friends in grade school got to see a launch. The idea got set aside during my years of collegiate poverty, but then as other friends made the same trip and returned with photos and stories (I remember one housemate describing the launch as the loudest thing he had ever heard), it kept creeping up my to-do list. 

As the end of the shuttle program became obvious, this to-do became a must-do. But how? A few years of sketching out and then scrubbing plans made me realize that seeing a liftoff isn’t an easy thing. The schedules change, then change again–good luck selling your boss on repeated shifts in your vacation time. Just getting a good viewing spot can be tricky enough to require a 4,000-word explainer.

Fortunately, NASA provided an elegant solution to my problem: Two years ago, it began hosting Tweetups–meetups for people following its Twitter accounts. For the space agency, which has been craftier than most government organizations in telling its story through social media, they’re smart PR. For attendees, they represent a chance to gawk at some nifty, expensive hardware up close and talk to the people who make it work.

(Having attended the Tweetup NASA held at the Goddard Space Flight Center in March, I can attest that this kind of event also serves as a singularly effective nerd trap.)

A launch Tweetup brings something extra: a viewing spot about 3 miles from the pad, on the lawn by the countdown clock you’ve seen on TV. That’s about twice as close as the public can get. So when I met NASA’s social-media manager at CES, mentioned my interest and was encouraged to go to the next launch–hell yes, I needed no further invitation.

Barring a last-minute scrub, Endeavour is scheduled to lift off at 3:47 Friday afternoon. (I’m staying through Monday and could extend the trip further if necessary; as you may have heard, my calendar is a lot more open these days.) Between now and then, NASA has a full agenda for all 150 of us Tweetup attendees. Thursday, we’re spending the day touring KSC, from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the Shuttle Landing Facility, seeing a few demos and hearing various NASA types talk about their work. There are more talks Friday morning, and then what I suspect will feel like an endless wait before Endeavour takes to space.

The 10-year-old inside of me could not be much more excited about all of that.

The social-media-observer part of me, meanwhile, is fascinated at how quickly an online community has self-organized around the Tweetup. Within weeks after the confirmation e-mails went out, my fellow Tweeps were introducing themselves and cross-posting blog items on a site set up for the occasion,  sharing e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers in a Google Docs spreadsheet, renting group houses together and sending checks in the mail to complete strangers, and chatting on an increasingly busy Facebook group. It’ll be interesting to meet all these people face to face.

But not nearly as interesting as seeing Endeavour fly. Not even close!

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45 thoughts on “Nerd spring break: NASA Tweetup

  1. Hey Rob – I dunno if I ever bragged up my uncle, but his company had some tech on some early flight missions. Since you’re into the space nerd stuff…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glen_P._Robinson

    His company, Scientific-Atlanta, played an integral role in helping NASA establish ground stations for communications with astronauts during projects Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. When John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, his voice was transmitted and received by radio antennas designed with equipment built by Scientific-Atlanta.

  2. Honestly, I am quite jealous of you! I was thisclose to witnessing a launch the last time I was in Florida; I even watched as they prepared for it. However, I had to leave the day before the launch…I guess that’s what happens when you’re 10 and your parents call the shots, huh?

    Enjoy the trip!

  3. How privileged I was to know there was a launch by the rumbling of the lift off engines, the pictures in the house hanging askew, or walking out of our school building…not in response to a fire drill, disaster drill, bomb threat or such…but to view another launch from our school in Cocoa Beach. I am saddened that our involvement in the space program will not take a leading stance in the future. So are we supposed to be excited about our future partnerships, putting political bias aside? I wish you a memorable trip, the view of a safe launch and in your own way influence the fruition of future launches. Congratulations on your FP post.

  4. I fully share your enthusiasm. Although I won’t be watching the launch in the flesh, I plan to get the next best view, here , in the MCC Flight Control Room. Everyone at the Johnson Space Center where I work is holding their breath and rooting for Endeavour, and I too am hopeful that it will be a successful launch and a stellar mission.

  5. As the shuttle programme draws to a close, I envy you getting to see a launch in person. I had the potential opportunity once, but for various reasons, practical logistical issues got in the way.

    Hopefully the private “taxis” being developed to replace the shuttle will yield many more successful and memorable launches in the future!

  6. I never longed to be at the Cape live. TV was fine. What is remarkable is how the NASA budget always paid a big profit to the USA exchequer via new taxes on new industrial products (toys and tools) made and marketed. (NASA spending relative to other public and private items is now down from always-low to scarcely-visible at 0.5 % of Uncle Sam’s shopping list.) What is fascinating is what beyondanomie mentioned: the cool acceptance by (deep-in-debt) Americans of the need to let private money, and Old World money, finance space development now. All great nations come to an end. Thank-you guys and gals.

  7. I’m as fascinated by you finally fulfilling a dream as I am by the method you are fulfilling it: using social media to fuel your passion. People frequently ask me “Twitter, really?”, and now I will have another story to illustrate my answer, “Yes, really!”
    Love this – have a great trip and look forward to your follow up post. Ahem.

  8. +1
    Like your article… waiting for first manned space mission to happen here in India. And like with the space shuttle, even here in India they are not precise about launches.

    Adding this to my to do list :)

  9. Rob, what an incredible privilege to be there. I know the flight has been postponed past Monday. However, I’m glad your new schedule allows you to be there for those of us who will have to watch from home. I guess I’m a NASA Nerd too. Enjoy!

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  11. If I had known that having a Twitter account could get me an invitation to see a shuttle launch, I would have joined Twitter years ago. I still don’t get Twitter and can’t see myself spending the time reading a bunch of meaningless tweets. But knowing that the shuttle program is coming to an end, now is definitely the time to find a way to clear one’s calendar and make it down to Florida for a launch. Growing up, I had dreams of becoming an astronaut. In the 90s, during Spring Break, I went to Florida with my dad to pack up some of my Grandmother’s stuff since she had been moved to Illinois to be closer to the family. We got to a hotel the first night of our drive home and heard on the news that the shuttle had launched that afternoon. If we had known in time, we could have changed our plans and made a detour to see the launch.

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  14. I’m as fascinated by you finally fulfilling a dream as I am by the method you are fulfilling it: using social media to fuel your passion. People frequently ask me “Twitter, really?”, and now I will have another story to illustrate my answer, “Yes, really!”
    Love this – have a great trip and look forward to your follow up post. Ahem.

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