GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 1)

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.


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.

GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 2)

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