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!