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From Royal Oak to Outer Space: Tweetup @ Cape Canaveral

NASA’s innovative use of social media takes Royal Oak space buff on the trip of a lifetime

Editor’s note: Amy Parrent was a lucky participant in a NASA tweetup at Kennedy Space Center on Aug. 4­­­­­­ and 5.

A longtime space buff, with a background in writing and the arts, her imagination has always been fired up by space exploration. Even as a child she cut out newspaper photos of NASA missions and pasted them in scrapbooks.

This article is Parrent’s account of the two-day south Florida event.

Tweetup: A meetup for Twitter (and other social media) enthusiasts

The space shuttles will soon be trucked off to museums but NASA is still alive and kicking. I experienced that first-hand earlier this month on a dream trip to Cape Canaveral, Florida.

A NASA tweetup at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) took 150 astro-enthusiasts from all over the world on a behind-the-scenes look at our past, present and future in space.

It was as if all my favorite holidays were wrapped up in one, a kind of Christmas for space nerds. I got close to the good (space)ship Discovery. I watched the satellite Juno blast off for Jupiter from the KSC press site (home of the iconic countdown clock). I went to the launch pad where the GRAIL satellites will go to the moon in a month.

I visited the classified building at the Air Force station that housed Juno Mission Control (NO PICTURES!) and the Atlas booster that will launch the rover Curiosity toward Mars. I met NASA planetary scientists, shuttle techs and Bill Nye, the Science Guy.

Tweeting to the World

Leave it to NASA to be in the forefront of a new activity, using social media to cultivate its most avid fans. Since 2009, NASA has held more than two dozen tweetups of all kinds, with 150 participants chosen each time at random from thousands of applicants. The most ambitious events are multi-day affairs scheduled around launches.

My Juno “tweeps” came from Norway, Alberta and Orlando. Tucson, Texas and Spain. We paid our travel and lodging but received an experience that was priceless.

Surreal Experience 

It was a toasty 111F heat index in south Florida during the two-day event, Aug. 4 and 5. But the near-heatstroke and allergies, bugs and broken buses, wavering WiFi or failed microphones could not keep NASA and a good set of tweeps down.

Everything about being on site was slightly surreal for a space nut. I entered KSC by flashing my credentials to a guard at an employee gate. (He’s met a lot of snowbirds — asked if I was a Yooper or a Troll.)

I drove into the heart of KSC, passed the massive Vehicle Assembly Building built for the Apollo moon rockets where the shuttles were mated with the external tanks and solid rocket boosters. I parked and looked to the northeast, at shuttle launch pad 39A.

I walked past the famous countdown clock to the air-conditioned “twent.“ There the day began with a morning of talks about the importance of exploring Jupiter which one scientist called “the 800-pound gorilla of our solar system.”

Jupiter Bound

And we learned of the complexity of the craft itself. Juno is the first NASA solar-powered spacecraft to operate so far from the sun. It requires three large solar panels to generate a small amount of power for the experiments onboard. On earth, the 18,600 solar cells could produce 19,000 watts, enough to power several houses. But at Jupiter’s distance from the sun, it will produce only 450 watts, not enough for a hair dryer.

Jupiter is a planet of deadly radiation but Juno’s polar orbits will avoid some of Jupiter‘s highest regions of radiation. The 32 orbits will take a year, skimming within 3,100 miles above the planet's cloud tops.

On the Road

After a lunch break we boarded our buses for an afternoon-long glimpse behind the curtain, going places we’d never see on the regular Visitor Complex tour.

As we started out from the press site I asked someone what the free-standing structure near the VAB was. He said it was a gantry designed for the cancelled Constellation program, and joked that it’s now going to be a playground for Congress members’ kids.

Our first stops were at the adjoining Air Force Station. The gantry at Launch Complex 17 already held the rocket (minus payload section) for moon mission GRAIL (Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory). The Delta II rocket will soon be phased out but the men in charge of it are proud of its record, although they joked that this “washing-machine-sized payload” was not quite as impressive as Juno.

Back on the bus we passed Launch Complex 5 where 50 years ago Alan Shephard lifted off to become the first American in space.

Mission Control and a Very Big Booster

Next was Atlas Space Operations Center, the building housing Juno Mission Control. We assembled in a room overlooking banks of computers and a giant split-screen with a half-dozen images from the launch pad. (We weren’t allowed to take photographs yet the very same room showed up the next day in high-def on NASA TV.)

Then it was downstairs to a cool, giant hangar-like room where the impressive lower stage of the Mars mission rocket lie on the floor before us. Again, we were allowed to take pictures of only one part of it before being hustled past another forbidden section and a “clean room” and back out into the Florida heat.

A Visit to Juno

Our bus headed north to Launch Complex 41 where Juno was tucked inside the payload bay on top of an Atlas 551 rocket. As we stood at a gate just a football-field or so from the rocket, another tweep muttered in awe, “How are we even allowed to be here?”

After a long photo opportunity with the Jupiter rocket, we drove Cape Road next to the ocean. Our guide, retired NASA employee Greg Hale, told us we were not far from the Beach House where astronauts relax and visit their families in the days before a flight.

Shuttle Fever

We drew closer to the imposing hulk of shuttle pad 39A and Hale pointed to a spot along the road where astronauts and their families say their final goodbyes before launch. With this colossal launch pad before me, looking toward the ocean where the space shuttle Challenger exploded was a sobering sight.

Turning past the pad we headed toward the VAB, parallel to the gravel and dirt road the crawler-transporter drove in slo-mo to deliver shuttles to the pad. We could still see tread marks from the day in June when the final shuttle, Atlantis, arrived at 39A.

Nearby is a bunker where emergency personnel are directed stay hidden during a launch. But “they poke their heads out,” Hale said. “We have pictures showing them doing it. They want to see the launch like anybody else.” After seeing how close the bunker is to the pad, I think I’d stay inside.

A Discovery

And then we were back at the enormous VAB, 525 feet tall. The famous flag painted on its side is almost twice the size of an NBA basketball court.

We piled off the bus and made our way through the cathedral-like building toward one of the trip‘s highlights.

And there it was. The space shuttle Discovery, parked just a few feet away. Oldest and most traveled of the three remaining orbiters. The shuttle that took the space telescope Hubble into orbit, the craft that returned John Glenn to space when he was 77 years old.

Or, as another one of our guides joked, “Everyone knows this is the best shuttle.”

It was amazing and, yet, slightly sad. Behind the fence with some of its control systems removed, Discovery seemed smaller, neutered. I could imagine it wanting to break out of there and fly again.

3-2-1 ...

The next morning we were back at the press site to watch Juno start its long journey. Like some of the best holidays, the day would end with an out-of-this-world fireworks display.

Close to a rocket lifting off — we were just over three miles away — we waited for the noise to roll across the wetlands. The sound I was prepared for but not the look of the launch, the brightness of the flame. I had to shield my eyes.

At the launch I met a shuttle technician who came from a family of shuttle workers. He enjoyed giving this newbie a hard time. When I asked him what the rocket’s trajectory would be, he dryly replied, “It’s going up.”

That may have been a joke. And his shuttle program may be history. But like so many who believe in the vision of space exploration, I hope NASA will continue to make lots of stuff that goes up for many decades to come.

How to Attend a NASA tweetup

Online applications for a tweetup are taken a month before the event, often for just 24 hours. One-hundred-and-fifty participants are chosen at random from all entries. Expenses (travel, lodging, etc.) are the individual’s responsibility.

To learn about future tweetups, visit www.nasa.gov/ tweetup and follow @NASATweetup and @NASA on twitter.

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