Monday, February 25, 2013

NASA Gets Social: ISS Gets Chatty

It's true, it's true, the sky did fall last week! Forget about the meteorite over Russia, don't worry about the bullet burn asteroid that was 15 minutes from destroying all life on planet Earth, or even the shooting star over San Francisco; all on the same day.
The *real* neato stuff up in the sky is that three astronauts (Chris Hadfield, Tom Marshburn and Kevin Ford) on the  International Space Station (ISS) took time from their busy day to chat with a group of about 150 people at NASA's Headquarters in our nation's capitol this past Wednesday! And yes, I (along with my wife as a guest) participated!!

Before I get too ahead of myself, however, let me give you a rather quick, and incomplete idea of what a NASA Social (formerly NASA Tweetup) is all about. I promise not to digress too much nor use too may acronyms, if you promise to waddle thru with me. About four years ago the NASA Social Media Team came up with a truly brilliant idea. NASA would host a Social Media event, pick participants randomly from a pool, and give the people access to Scientists, Engineers, Admins, and (gasp!) Astronauts at various locations. This group of people would then tweet (a la Twitter) about their experience, and put the word out. Since then, NASA evolved the idea to include not just Twitter, but also Facebook, Google Plus, Flickr, and a host of other portals. See? that didn't take too long.

So, for this particular NASA Social, the goodly folks decided to host the event at HQ in DC, (oh, all travel expense is up to the participants), bring in some top notch personnel to update us, and then we had a live Q&A with astronauts on the ISS! (major #SpaceTweepSquee) In the afternoon, we traveled as a herd of turtles to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, and were given access to to a VIP Tour! I'll fill in more details later, promise. 

Typically, when NASA (usually Jason Townsend or John Yembrick, both of whom orchestrate these events so smoothly) send the email to people who are selected to attend, then a Facebook Group is created, and the fun begins! This has become a mainstay of the Socials as everyone can coordinate meals before and after, hotels, and ride sharing. The camaraderie that is gained by doing this beforehand cannot be understated! You make new friends for life, and get caught up with old friends for life, none of whom you would have met otherwise. You get to "talk the talk" of Space Exploration with a group of people that get it. As a life long space junkie, this has never happened to me before I went to my first NASA Tweetup!! 

But enough of my digression! Let's on to the Social itself, shall we? Typically, the night before the event as many as can will have a Pre Launch Fire Up together at a local eatery. This is when the intellectual, manic buzz really gets going. You get to meet these new and not so new friends, and "Increase the Awesome". The morning of the Event, whoever can, will get together for a slap dash breakfast (usually at the hotel) and try to arrive early as inevitably the waiter forgets to bring your bill and oh my gosh we'd better get going! So we walked to the lobby of NASA's Headquarters (OMG!) and register at the table with the nice folks who hand you your personalized NASA lanyard, and swag bag. You'll just have to trust me that "There's no better swag than a NASA bag". Next into the James Webb Auditorium and get settled in. This involves picking a seat, finding outlets to recharge, and bouncing greetings and jokes around the room. Oh, you did remember to clear the memory card in your camera, right? And look! Ching has four different cell phones, talk about prepared! And where's Libby with her infectious smile, and Angela with her son Aiden (who truly rocks every event!). And yea,  Serenety and Glenn kibbutz  as well. Too many great people to mention by name, so please excuse if I didn't mention you. 

The event begins with a round robin of passing the mic thru the audience for brief introductions. What an amazing group of people here today! Once again, I feel truly humbled and honored to be a part of a NASA Social. After some welcoming remarks, Don Pettit, astronaut extraordinaire told us of the rigors of drinking coffee in orbit, and recycling water.  William Gerstenmaier aka Gerst, who is in charge of Human Exploration and Operations for NASA (what a job title, huh?!) gave us an update on what's going on now, and some projections for the future. "I work for NASA so I have to have slides", he quipped. And some very uber kewl slides he shared with us!
Next was the true highlight of the day, talking with astronauts in orbit on the ISS! I was chosen to go first, presumably not because they thought I was good looking nor intelligent, but because when asked for a show of hands, mine shot in the air at the speed of light.  My question was for my young nephew, Thomas, who wondered how much time it takes the ISS to move out of the way of an object. You know, like those shooting star thingies I mentioned up at the top. The astronauts were pleased to inform us that they recently upgraded the systems, and now it only takes "about six hours" to perform a Collision Avoidance Maneuver. Wow! Believe me, the ISS is about the size of two football fields placed next to each other, and has a LOT of mass to move. So about five minutes later, as I was listening to another Q&A, it hits me... I asked a question to an astronaut... in space... and he answered me! Oh... my... gawd... 

After the chat with the ISS, we also had another couple of speakers to add their particular areas of expertise, namely Tara Ruttley (ISS Program Scientist) and Marshall Porterfield (Life and Physical Sciences Director). They both gave us some very interesting, and fun stories to share.
After a nearby lunch, we walked four blocks to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum  and were further treated like VIP's with a grand tour. My group started with the backup to Skylab (America's first space station), winded our way thru various exhibits with presenters at each stop, and ended up at... yup, it just had to be... a model of the commode they use on the ISS! who says Science has no sense of humor? 
Our day finally winds down, as do we, by another great dinner together (for those that could make it) and more chatting and fun. These friendships are the kind that are sustained across many miles, and many years. The common love we all have for Space Exploration led us to this point. But our love for each other propels us forward in friendship. We stay in touch online, and anticipate the next Social that we will be honored to attend. This is truly living the dream, and then some! I will be posting pics to flickr, so watch for them there.

Oh, and many thanx to my wonderful friends and fellow #SpaceTweeps; Ching, and Eva for helping me with the links.  Please feel free to explore and find out what you can discover! Oh, and as for photos, I did take them all, but it should be noted that the photo of the shuttle against the Earth is actually a slide that Gerst used.