GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 5) September 9, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest, GRAILTweetup, Movies & TV, Museums & Archives, Serendipity, Space Shuttle
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One reason we continue to return to Florida’s Space Coast, whenever work schedules and finances allow, is that each trip is an opportunity to discover something that we haven’t seen before. Today’s GRAIL scrub gave rise to yet another unexpected chain of events that ultimately led Doug to the U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum (SWOF, because who doesn’t want to acronymize things related to NASA?).
[If you want to catch up with Parts 1-4 in "GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest" before you go on, click HERE.]
Located in downtown Titusville, just a few hundred feet from the water’s edge, SWOF is housed in an unassuming downtown storefront. During Doug’s visit, museum volunteers Betty Conant and Mike Vesey (pronounced like easy) were engaging and enthusiastic about their museum. SWOF previously had been located in the Sear’s Mall on Route 1, but, as Mike Vesey related to me, the rent kept going up and up, and ultimately the museum was forced to relocate. The move was also a downsizing, and parts of the collection are now kept in storage.
And what a collection it is. The bric-a-brac display has the feeling of a small, Midwestern county historical society. Just imagine the kind of museum that one could create if your county’s history encompassed the whole of the United States’ role in space exploration. This gives a rough idea of the scope and content of the museum’s collection.
SWOF is laid out by rough eras: Mercury (with a smattering of Gemini), Apollo, and Shuttle. Two wildcard collections are included: a reconstituted Atlas launch control room and a room that includes fire-and-rescue team materials and items related to Russia’s space programs.
Some rooms contain glass-covered shelving cases with regalia such as commendation plaques, manuals of various types (control room launch procedures, systems, etc.), safety hard hats with the wearer’s names, mission patches, and signed photographs. A wonderful example of the bric-a-brac in the Mercury room is the book Exploring Space with a Camera.
Tucked away in another corner of the Mercury room is one of the museum’s more unusual items: a hatch from an actual Mercury capsule. But this isn’t just any old spacecraft hatch (as if that could ever be true anyway). This hatch is the door from Mercury capsule #4, the first to attempt to fly. Mercury Atlas 1 was launched from the Cape on July 29, 1960. Fifty-eight seconds after launch, traveling at a speed of 1700 mph, a structural failure in the Atlas rocket brought the launch to an ignominious end. The museum’s hatch is appropriately charred and battered, and, as the display script points out, the titanium (an especially tough metal) looks to be torn “like tissue paper.” The display script also tells one of those tales of loss and discovery (much like the Los Alamos limousine we discuss in our “In the Footsteps” series), the sort of tale we have started to expect and yet which continues to amaze us. The museum’s spacecraft hatch was found in a scrap yard by an artist looking for materials to incorporate into his work. In a true expression of serendipity, the artist, Gene Hummel, also happened to be a mechanical engineer for McDonnell-Douglas. And he happened to have worked on the Atlas-Mercury program. And he was there for the day of the ill-fated launch; it was his first month on the job at the Cape. So one of the few people who could identify the meaning of this particular piece of scrap found it.
The museum also contains the reconstituted control consoles from Atlas Launch Complex 36 (pads 36A & 36B). Mike Vesey pointed out that NASA had donated the consoles directly to SWOF, and, although their computational innards were removed, volunteers rewired the switches and lights so that kids could enjoy playing with them. Doug would argue that the setup isn’t only suited for kids, because, after all, what space nerd doesn’t enjoy flipping switches, watching flickering lights in response, and falling into a good daydream.
Among the high points displayed in the Fire-and-Rescue and Russian materials room are the following: a photo of a rescue worker, standing before a Saturn V on a launch pad, clad in his own silvery, spacesuit like garments; a poster of the Lockheed-Martin Family of Launch Vehicles, which contains photos of the Russian Proton launch vehicles; and finally, an item that surreally (that’s our word for the week) blends the room’s two disparate themes, a Russian children’s book about firefirefighters. Like the rug in Lebowski‘s living room, the children’s book “really tied the room together.”
The artifacts in the Apollo room were more astronaut focused than the other collection areas. On the walls hang two training life-support system backpacks and a spacesuit. Just beneath the spacesuit is a display that, in part, answers one of the more common questions asked in the early days of space exploration: how do astronauts go to the bathroom in outer space? As in The Graduate, the answer to the big questions is “plastics.” The complete answer is plastic bags. And they’re here on display.
The room dedicated to Shuttle contains some of the more complete and intricate engineering models in the museum’s collection. On display are a complete Launch Complex 39 crawler, launching pad, rotating service structure (RSS), and shuttle stack. Continuing the theme set up by the Launch Complex 39 models, nearby are pieces of the real thing: mounts that the shuttle assemblage used to rest upon; restraining bolts, thick as an arm, that hold the solid rocket boosters onto the pad; and a 220-lb slice from the crawler’s metal track, or shoe (the entire shoe has approximately the same mass as a Mustang GT, 3500lbs).
Tomorrow, another attempt at launching GRAIL. Doug will rise at 5:00a.m., reconnoiter with the remaining GRAIL Tweetup attendees at the buses at 6:00a.m., and head over to KARS park to witness the launch. The weather is trending better. There exist two “instantaneous” launch windows tomorrow morning, meaning that each opportunity lasts for just a second. Not just a second as in hold on a minute, but exactly 1/60 of a minute. When it comes to this GRAIL launch, just a second means maybe tomorrow.
GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 4) September 8, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest, GRAILTweetup, Space Shuttle
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And now, the next installment…
Tonight, GRAIL still sits solidly on Florida’s Space Coast. Unacceptable levels of wind aloft forced the delay of today’s launch for 24 hours (or nearly 24 hours, as GRAILS’ launch window recedes by approximately 4 minutes each day). Another not launch certainly isn’t the outcome for which Doug had hoped, but it’s one with which we’ve become quite familiar in our year of chasing rockets.
With no launch to try to describe, we have a chance to continue recapping the events of the first day of the GRAIL Tweetup.
The afternoon of speakers kicked off with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. A hale-and-hearty 65-year-old, Administrator Bolden’s high-energy presentation can best be exemplified by one of his remarks: “I love my job […] because I happen to be with some of the most phenomenal people in he world.”
This time is an uneasy transition period for NASA. The end of Shuttle forces NASA to cede (perhaps happily) to the commercial operators the role of truck driver to low-earth orbit. Unfortunately, absent maintaining a human presence on the International Space Station until 2020, NASA’s own human space exploration remains inchoate, alternatively encompassing a return to Moon, an attempt to Mars, or perhaps something intermediate such as a mission to an asteroid. Given the challenges ahead, not the least of which will be the nation’s current fiscal reality, it was reassuring to Doug’s not-so-inner space nerd to see that the enthusiasm for the job, which we’ve seen in nearly every NASA employee we’ve met, extends right to the top in Charlie Bolden.
A not-so-subtle component of Bolden’s message, and one that was picked up again during Q&A, was the role of NASA in inspiring students to study math and science. This question echoes the one we’ve used on several occasions while interviewing NASA engineers, astronauts, and administrators. To his credit, Bolden sensed an opportunity and turned it back on the Tweetup attendees. Those of us witnessing and reporting 140 characters at a time have an important role to play in getting the word out. Given that Charlie is a retired Marine Corp Major General, Doug is willing to consider this a direct order. In fact, by sharing our fascination with aviation, science, and writing, Lofty Ambitions is following Bolden’s command.
After Bolden concluded, the ever-fabulous Nichelle Nichols spoke. Nichelle Nichols’s role as Uhura on Star Trek, of course, allowed her to become an advocate for a more diverse, more inclusive astronaut corps. Nichols’s talk included the inspirational message, “If you can imagine it, you can dream it, you can do it.”
Today is the 45th anniversary of the original airing of Star Trek. (See our Star Trek birthday posts HERE and HERE.) Doug celebrated that anniversary—that dream of boldy going where no one has gone before—by waiting in a long, hot line for Nichelle’s autograph. Sadly, the line was too long, and Nichelle kept to her allotted one-hour schedule. Her session ended with Doug ten people away from getting her autograph. A day of not-launch followed by not-autograph.
That’s okay. There’s no wasted time for us at Kennedy Space Center. Some of this post was written while standing in that line earlier today.
The rest of yesterday afternoon was filled with a cavalcade of scientists and engineers, many of whom were associated in some capacity with the GRAIL mission. The first of the techy speakers was Jim Adams, Deputy Director of NASA’s Planetary Division (@NASAJIM on Twitter). Although his talk wasn’t technical, it did contain some of the most interesting numbers of the day. During the Tweetup for the recent Juno mission launch, 28,000 tweets were sent. Some further analysis of the data indicated that this yielded 90.7M so-called potential impressions, which is print magazine ad-speak for you’re getting your money’s worth.
Maria Zuber, the Principal Investigator (or PI in the land of research grants), gave a fascinating overview and rationale for the GRAIL mission. (See the whole GRAIL team HERE.) The fundamental question comes down to our lack of understanding why the front and the back of the moon are so radically different. We wonder how Dr. Zuber and the rest of the GRAIL team feel right at this moment. The thought of so many years of planning and preparation being delayed by even 24 hours can’t be an easy thing to take this close to the endgame.
Sami Asmar, Deputy Project Direct of GRAIL and a JPL scientist, came next. His talk provided a overview of the basic principles and history of making planetary gravitational measurements.
Other speakers during the afternoon session in included the following: Doug Ellison (@Doug_Ellison) described the visually seductive Eyes on the Solar System (@NASA_Eyes) project, a 3D that picks up where Google Earth leaves off and heads into the farthest reaches of the universe (you’ve got to experience it for yourself). Members of the MoonKAM (Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students) team spoke about the potential uses of MoonKAM in the classroom. Vern Thorp, NASA Program Manager for United Launch Alliance, provided some technical background for the Delta II rocket that will launch the GRAIL spacecraft (After I asked him about the possibility of human-rating the Atlas family of launch vehicles, he indicated that he was all for it.). Stu Spath of Lockheed-Martin discussed the design of the GRAIL spacecraft and brought out the audience’s uber-geek side when an audio system failure led to speculation about whether or not his altered voice was that of a Cylon or a Dalek. Whew, what an afternoon!
And there was more! The day’s closing speaker was astrophysicist and a Lofty Ambitions favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson. In addition to being Stephen Colbert’s frequent guest on The Colbert Report, he’s also a passionate explicator of science and the universe around us. Dr. Tyson’s talk focused on the power of science to describe the world in a way that’s meaningful to us beyond our senses and what is sensible to us. He advocated field trips for adults, which Lofty Ambitions preaches and practices. (See video below for his take on the role of NASA for our future.)
Bright and early on Friday morning, Doug will be heading out to the causeway again. The buses load at 6:00a.m., and the first launch attempt is at 8:33:25a.m., with a second opportunity to follow at 9:12:31a.m. if the first window is a no-go for some reason (like the weather). Once again, it’s hurry and wait time at the Cape. But, it’s all a part of the game, and it’s a game that we love to play at Lofty Ambitions.
Here’s Neil deGrasse Tyson answering the question, What does NASA mean to us and our future?
To go on to Part 5 in “GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest,” click HERE!
GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 3) September 7, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Books, GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest, GRAILTweetup, Space Shuttle
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And now begins Part 3…
Contrary to some predictions, Titusville is still here. At 8:00a.m. on a weekday morning, the McDonald’s on Route 1 still has a line of cars in the drive through. And they still launch rockets on the Space Coast. Big, powerful rockets that can send satellites out of Earth’s gravitational well and on to the Moon. If the weather improves, Thursday morning at 8:37:06a.m. ET a Delta II rocket will launch the twin GRAIL satellites on their long, slow journey to map the Moon’s gravity with an accuracy never seen before.
Although Doug and his fellow Tweetup attendees have been communicating ever since they were selected to attend, the event began in earnest this morning. The ensuing day has left Doug exhausted in a way that he’s come to associate with covering NASA launches. Among its meanings, to exhaust means to consume, and these trips consume us.
The day started with an early registration and a brief meet-n-greet that gave Tweeple the opportunity to introduce themselves with name, hometown, Twitter handle, and something intriguing about themselves (much like way Anna’s classes began last Tuesday). While there was a heavy dose of local Floridians, the Tweetup attendees originated from an enormous range of locales: Spain, the United Kingdom, Australia, and dozens of states across this country. Many intriguing personal reveals mentioned NASA influences from an early age, including a young woman whose grandmother had been a seamstress on the original Apollo spacesuits. Doug asked her later in the day if she was familiar with the passage in Michael Collins‘s book Carrying the Fire where he thanks her grandmother (not by name) for protecting his hide. The young woman indicated that she’d been told this before but hadn’t yet read the book.
The morning was spent touring Launch Complex 41 (a launch pad dedicated to Atlas rockets and which just launched Juno to Jupiter), Launch Complex 17 (two Delta launch pads, one of which—17A—will launch GRAIL tomorrow), and the VAB (the Vehicle Assembly Building, where Apollo and Shuttle were assembled). The flow of numerical facts and figures was dizzying. When the Delta II main engine and solid rockets fire, they produce a combined thrust of just under 1.2M pounds. Just think about how much thrust that really is and what it can do. That sort of information can make Doug as deliriously happy as did the tables and specifications that he found in aviation and spaceflight books as a child.
The tour guide for Doug’s bus was a 22-year NASA veteran, and his enthusiasm for his job and NASA’s mission was obvious. Maybe NASA carefully controls which employees have direct interaction with the public, but we’ve not yet run across an unenthusiastic NASA employee. At each stop, NASA or contractor employees gave us the lowdown on the activities of their respective launch complexes. One of the speakers at the site of the GRAIL launch, Dave Grant, imparted a great deal of information about the Delta family of rockets. GRAIL will be the final launch of a Delta II at Launch Complex 17, marking the end of a history that includes 259 Delta launches beginning in 1960.
The Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) was much debated during the morning, with speculation trending towards, No, we wouldn’t visit. The will-we-or-won’t-we is another strangely consuming state we experienced during our previous visits to the Space Coast. Rumors about the VAB visit this time were based on a wide range of assumptions, usually focused on the fact that we hadn’t been told to leave laptops and phones behind. Depending on who you talk to, the shuttles pyrotechnics are either enormously sensitive to RF signals or they are plausibly sensitive. Either way, you aren’t allowed anywhere near a shuttle orbiter with a device that can broadcast an RF signal. That was our experience when we peeked around at Endeavour in the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) in July.
In the end, Tweeple were allowed into the VAB, and Doug, having seen Endeavour on the launch pad before her final mission and in the OPF recovering from that mission, saw this space shuttle in its next phase. Today, no one was concerned with spurious RF signals, as Endeavour is well on in the deprocessing phase. The OMS (Orbital Maneuvering System) pods have been removed, the RCS (Reaction Control System) bay sits empty and covered by clear plastic, and all of the pyrotechnics have been removed. In short, Endeavour is almost completely inert at this stage. Even still, the Tweetup attendees thrilled at the sight, and Endeavour is still a magnificent-looking machine.
The afternoon was a series of speakers including such luminaries as Charlie Bolden, Nichelle Nichols, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. We’ll have more to say about each of them. But the hour is late on East Coast, tomorrow’s day begins much too early for a Southern Californian, and each of the speakers, especially the science team and the spacecraft engineers, deserve their due. Follow Doug at Twitter, and check back here tomorrow!
GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 2) September 6, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest, GRAILTweetup, Physics
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Today, Doug is traveling to the Space Coast, making that cross-country SNA–MCO trip yet once again, though he’s going it alone this time. Doug will be en route for about nine hours, and Anna is booked solid with student conferences and teaching for nine hours, though these nine-hour stretches overlap so that we’ll probably be out of touch with each other for at least twelve hours. We outlined the week’s posts on Saturday and drafted this one on Sunday. Working together this week started by working ahead. How collaboration will happen tomorrow, we’re not quite sure.
Meanwhile, what’s this trip all about? Why are we willing to cross the bridge yet another time on this quest for GRAIL?
GRAIL is the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, which is scheduled to be launched from pad 17B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station during one of two one-second launch windows on Thursday (or sometime by October 19). GRAIL is actually two spacecraft, nearly identical twins that will travel toward the Moon for a few months, then begin orbiting. For a couple of months the two spacecraft will adjust their orbits until one is following the other in a low-altitude, near-circular path of formation flying.
Each washing-machine-sized craft contains a Gravity Ranging System that, according to NASA, keeps track of the distance between the two craft down to the diameter of a red blood cell. The laboratory aboard each craft is designed to map the Moon so that we can better understand the Moon’s history. GRAIL’s goal is to answer scientific questions about the Moon interior and thermal characteristics.
Each craft also contains MoonKAM (Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle-school students as part of Sally Ride Science) cameras because part of the GRAIL mission is to take photos for educational and public outreach purposes. The mission is part science and part fun—uh, we mean educational.
NASA’s compares GRAIL to the five-year GRACE project, which launched in 2002 and mapped the Earth. By using geodetic-quality Global Positioning System technology, accurate measurements between the two GRACE spacecraft have produced measurements and images of the Earth’s gravity fields. We can now see variations and changes within land masses, interactions between land masses and bodies of water, and characteristics of the atmosphere. We think of the globe as uniformly spherical, but GRACE reveals that we live on a lumpy planet.
GRAIL is almost ready to go take a look at the Moon and determine its lumps, bumps, and past. On August 18, the spacecraft were moved from Astrotech in Titusville to the launch pad and encapsulated for the journey on August 23. The Delta II rocket is ready to roar. This morning review meeting gave a Go! for launch (click HERE for that press release).
So Doug and the rest of the space tweeple are making their ways to the Space Coast in hopes that GRAIL launches on Thursday (or maybe Friday). Among those invited to the Tweetup is Justine McKinnon, the sole Brit and a mother of four. Several of the participants are also bloggers, some have affiliations with Kennedy Space Center or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that built GRAIL, and one is a pastor. Others are teachers or students. Eight hundred people vied for 150 spots. Seven countries and 32 states are represented.
The Tweetup schedule looks pretty amazing, including events with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and GRAIL scientists. We’re interested to compare the experiences in social media coverage with those of news media coverage. In this world of almost instantaneous sharing of information, what exactly is the difference between news coverage and 150 tweeps relaying 140-character tidbits? Who among us asks questions, and whose answers do we heed? Who now makes the distinction between an African and European swallow when asked about a swallow’s airspeed?
Guest Blog: David Stack September 5, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Biology, GRAILTweetup
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Tomorrow, Doug heads off to Kennedy Space Center for the GRAIL Tweetup. But we used to live near Goddard Space Flight Center and popped over for the monthly model-rocket launches a few times.
This week’s guest blogger had the fantastic opportunity to spend the summer at NASA Goddard. His post is especially welcome in the post-shuttle days we face, for David Stack makes it clear that NASA has been doing much, much more than the space shuttle program. Stack studied cholera. Earth sciences of all types, it turns out, benefit from what we can accomplish through space exploration.
David Stack is a graduate student at Chapman University pursuing an M.S. in Hazards, Global and Environmental Change. His main interest is in understanding how natural and human systems interact and influence each other.
MY SUMMER WITH NASA
How did I get here? I found myself thinking this question on more than one occasion this summer. Whether it was on the National Mall gazing up at the Washington Monument as the sun set in the background or driving through the gates at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, it was still hard to think I’m here. For me, this summer was a dream and a dream come true.
As one of the first students in the new degree in Hazards, Global and Environmental Change at Chapman University, I have had the opportunity to take some fascinating classes taught by amazing professors, the first of which was taught by Dr. Dimitar Ouzonov. A few days into the class, I found out that he not only worked at Chapman as a professor, but he was also a scientist at NASA. I inquired about any internship opportunities, and he forwarded me a couple of links for a few programs.
One program that looked very promising was the DEVELOP internship program at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Now you may be wondering why I would drive (yes, I drove) all the way across the country for a summer internship, but my reasoning is simple. Goddard is the largest organization of scientists and engineers dedicated to increasing knowledge of Earth, the solar system, and the universe in the United States. Why settle only for the moon when you can fly among the stars?
Driving across the country took about five days, but with the company of my brother, Jonathan, the hours flew by. Finally, we arrived in Maryland. With only one day left before starting at NASA, I decided to take it easy and visit Washington, DC. Naturally, I visited the National Air and Space Museum.
As with any job, the first day is always one of the most nerve wracking. Figuring out where to go, which papers to sign, and, most importantly, where to find lunch can be overwhelming. Luckily for me, there were six other DEVELOP interns in the same position so it was easy to make friends quickly.
Because DEVELOP is a training and development program in which students work on Earth science research projects, each of us was given a large amount of responsibility. We were mentored by science advisors from NASA and partner agencies, but the problem solving and challenges we faced were generally our own to overcome. As the team leader on our project, Connecting Environmental Observations with Cholera Outbreaks in Bangladesh, I had the opportunity to lead my other two teammates, Avery Sandborn and Paul Widmeyer, toward finished products we were all proud of.
My team was tasked with investigating the link between cholera outbreaks and environmental parameters in Bangladesh. The idea is that, by connecting observations of the diarrheal disease and space-based datasets on environmental conditions, better models of disease outbreaks can be constructed. Specifically, our study focused on satellite measurements of sea surface temperature, chlorophyll-a concentrations (an estimator for ocean algae), and rainfall in the Bay of Bengal. These observations were then analyzed with clinical and ground data using Excel and Google Earth. We put in many hours to make the project a success, and we definitely felt a sense of accomplishment at the end of the summer.
The project wasn’t the only way I occupied my time. Not only did I get to view the final shuttle launch via a live feed with hundreds of other NASA employees, but, as part of the DEVELOP internship program, I had many other opportunities. Highlights include a tour of the three-story clean room where the James Webb Space Telescope is being constructed, viewing the control room for Hubble Telescope, visiting the Center for Climate Simulation where the Discover supercomputer is housed, attending Goddard Day, and listening to lectures given by an astronaut, a Nobel prize winner, and many scientists.
Employment, even a summer internship, at NASA is hard work. Every day is filled with new challenges that require tackling creative and real-world problems. For me, this experience was incredibly rewarding. I cannot think of a better way to have spent my summer. We just started classes at Chapman University last week, and I look forward to bringing what I have learned back to my peers and professors.
Dreaming about doing something is one thing. Being given the opportunity to actually live it—well, that’s something else entirely.
GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 1) September 4, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Books, Cognitive Science, GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest, GRAILTweetup, Movies & TV, Physics
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In the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the bridgekeeper asks three questions, much like the security questions now used for credit card accounts. What is your name? Lofty Ambitions. What is your quest? GRAIL. What is your favorite colour? According to Crayola, America’s favorite color is blue. We suppose this bridgekeeper’s question calls for a separate post on color and the light spectrum.
In just a few days, Doug will head off to an event that feels like a mixture of old and new, familiar and strange, routine and unexpected. He’ll return to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for another lofty quest: GRAIL, or the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory. The two GRAIL spacecraft, identical twins, are scheduled to launch on Thursday, September 8, and Doug is covering the days surrounding the launch as part of the GRAIL Tweetup.
FOLLOW DOUG’S TWITTER FEED: http://twitter.com/#!/dougdechow
In addition to tagging this series with its title, we’ll also use the tag GRAILTweetup to make it easier to follow on Twitter.
We didn’t expect to head back to the Space Coast. At least, we didn’t expect to return this year, soon after witnessing the last-ever space shuttle launch. We are somewhat stunned that NASA finds itself unable to launch human beings into space and remains unprepared to articulate a consistent, achievable future for human space exploration. Our rational, logical selves understand how much simpler and more effective lifeless, robotic space probes are. The Voyager twins may be among humankind’s greatest achievements, whizzing out of the earth’s ecliptic plane and on to whatever cold, dark fate awaits them. They have traveled farther from the sun than Pluto, which was classified as a planet when they left Earth in 1977. But few people take notice of them. Few will mourn the passing of lifeless, robotic space probes, no matter their accomplishments.
We owe a lot to NASA. Maybe that’s why our thoughts about the space program are not always completely rational and logical. Doug’s first memory in and of life is watching Apollo on television as a tyke. His first job out of college was as an abstractor and indexer at NASA’s Center for AeroSpace Information, a job that helped keep us fed, clothed, and adequately lodged for three of the most invigorating years of our lives together. Doug’s job at NASA coincided with us striking out alone together, far from our families and homes and into the cultural-political fray that is the metropolitan D.C. area.
Over the past whirlwind year, NASA employees have guided us to understand and interact with the world in new ways. News Center flacks like Allard Beutel, security guards like Omar Izquierdo, volunteers like Matthew Baker, and engineers like Stephanie Stilson (see our interview with Stilson HERE) have been some of the most competent and conscientious professionals with which we’ve ever dealt. They’ve helped us become more eager journalists (two posts on that subject are HERE and HERE), more informed bloggers, and more interesting people.
We’ve traveled enough in the past year that we now think of airport codes—MCO—instead of stopover and destination cities. Three years ago, when we were just settling into our new life in Southern California, if a soothsayer had foretold of our year cycling between SNA and MCO, we might have stared at each other blankly, wondering how and why we’d end up working for The Mouse. After three years, when we mention that we haven’t yet been to either Disney theme park, others stare blankly or get embarrassed for us. Even Mike Coats, the Director of Johnson Space Center, chastised Anna for never having experienced the pixie dust (see that interview HERE). But it hasn’t yet made our list of things to do. It can wait.
Six weeks ago, GRAIL wasn’t on our list of things to do. Then, NASA sent out a call to Twitter users, and Doug was chosen to participate in the meet-and-greet that is the next NASA Tweetup. NASA has become avid about social media. The Tweetup tents for the last three launches were air-conditioned and had separate high-speed wireless that worked better in the hour after launch than that for the press. Two NASA websites won Webby Awards this year, and Astronaut Doug Wheelock won a Shorty Award for an image of the Moon he tweeted. If you don’t follow Astro_Mike, you’re not getting the most space geek out of your social networking. Mike Massimino has more than 1.2 million followers on Twitter.
For a while, people lamented that the rise of video games and personal computers would make us all more isolated from each other. Each of us would be holed up in our offices and our homes, interacting only with an individual machine. While Nicholas Carr in The Shallows and others point to cognitive changes that remain disconcerting, Facebook and Twiiter and all the rest of social media have connected us in ways we couldn’t imagine ten years ago. Social networking allows us to stay in touch with friends we haven’t seen in years, and it invites people who might otherwise never encounter one another into larger social networks—perhaps not friends in the traditional sense, but far from isolated. Fears that technology would further distance people from each other physically and emotionally seem to have been unfounded.
Plenty of people go about their days without Facebook or Twitter. Some people don’t bother with the internet at all and get along just fine, though they’re missing a chance to read this post. When Anna’s mom invested in an iPad, scrolled through photos right away (this weekend, she’s reliving the national Elvis impersonator semi-finals), played virtual solitaire for hours, and even started sending email messages, we knew her world had changed. NASA is all in too, and space geeks are using Facebook pages, a wiki, Google docs, and a variety of social media to share information about GRAIL instantly. And the virtual interaction supports the in-person gathering, including a barbeque, that will be this coming week’s Tweetup.
This trip to the Space Coast, therefore, will be different because Doug will view the events through the lens of the Tweetup. He’ll be busy looking for Nichelle Nichols and Neil deGrasse Tyson. This trip will also be different because Anna is staying home, working with her graduate and undergraduate students to create together a (private) cross-course blog about poetry. Together, we will negotiate, for the first time, how to co-write posts while separated by 3000 miles. We plan to post every day this week! Check back to see how we manage.