Our hosts here at NASA have really rolled out the red carpet for the #NASASocial crew. We’ve gotten access that the press, and even members of Congress, don’t get. We were present for the live broadcast on NASA TV yesterday, when two panels of scientists and engineers spoke of their hopes for the mission and what they hoped to accomplish. This took the better part of the morning, and we also met the NASA social media team who do such an amazing job getting NASA’s message spread around the globe.
After we had lunch in the Red Planet Cafe, we were off for an afternoon of tours. First stop was a visit to one of the Curiosity models that is displayed under a tent on the main campus, and we also had a group photo taken next to the rover. Dr. Randii Wessen talked to us about the ‘why’s’ of space exploration. One of the things he said that really struck me was that our DNA and the DNA of a chimp are 97% identical. With only 3% difference, we have gone from using sticks as tools to being able to put a vehicle on another planet 35,000,000 miles away. With that in mind, it is not hard to imagine that we are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what other life-forms might be capable of.
From there we took an awesome tour of Mission Control, which is like the switchboard for all the ongoing NASA missions…and there are a lot of them. Some of the orbiters have been in space for decades, and Curiosity has been on its way to Mars since November, 2011. There are screens showing elapsed time, how the orbiters are doing, and what they are seeing as they circle the planets.
We learned that there are two distinct teams for Cruise missions (when the craft is flying) and Surface missions (for after the craft has landed). The Cruise team is currently preparing to hand off Curiosity to the Surface team sometime late Sunday night, when each team member will be have thoroughly briefed their counterpart who will take over their piece of the project after landing.
Obviously this is an incredibly complex operation from beginning to end. But when you get a behind-the-scenes description of what is actually happening, you gain a new level of respect for what these dedicated and talented NASA employees are capable of. It is a thoroughly impressive embodiment of the true American spirit of exploration, innovation and adventure. Every one of these people appears to love the work they are doing, and they have an incredible amount of knowledge of the entire operation. It’s hard to describe what it’s like because I’ve never witnessed anything quite like it.
One of the coolest things we witnessed yesterday was yet another Curiosity test model they call Scarecrow that we visited in the ‘Mars Yard’ where the little rover is housed in a garage. Outside the garage, the terrain is designed to resemble Mars…rocks and all. They put this rover model through its paces, climbing hills, navigating large rocks and trying to avoid going over cliffs. I took a video of the rover moving as it does, at a snail’s pace, and scaling a rock with the treads of its tires which can cut through rock. The app they are using to maneuver Scarecrow was created by one of their summer interns who is a student at Purdue University.
All in all, it was a great day of exploration and learning. Today we were present at the Pre-Landing press conference and after journalists from Reuters, NBC, the BBC, Times of London, LA Times and Space.com asked questions, the panel took questions from the #NASASocial group. We are being treated as every bit as important as ‘real’ reporters. In fact, we have gotten even greater access than they will have for the landing. We’ll all be together on landing night (Sunday, August 5) and it’s supposed to be a packed house. They are expecting more than 1,400 guests in addition to all NASA JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) employees to be onsite. We have also been promised some celebrities will be on hand but they are being very tight-lipped about who they might be. I heard William Shatner was in town, so we’ll have to see if Captain Kirk makes an appearance.
One thing I know for sure will happen tomorrow is that the #NASASocial group will be meeting separately with Charlie Bolden, current Administrator of NASA (head honcho), retired Major General in the USMC and former astronaut. He piloted space shuttles Columbia and Discovery, and commanded the crew of Atlantis. He apparently thought it important enough to make room in his schedule to meet and speak with our group. Like I said before, NASA is way ahead of the curve when it comes to ‘getting’ the power and reach of social media, and this is just one more bit of evidence.
So, continue to follow along tomorrow on twitter…we’re using #NASASocial and #MSL hashtags. You can watch what’s happening at JPL live several different ways, beginning at 8:3opm EST including on the big Toshiba screen in Times Square. This is a major historic event; don’t miss it! Watch for us to be passing around the peanuts tomorrow night, as they are traditionally eaten at JPL on landing days for good luck. Maybe you should stock up too for your own viewing party. Here’s to a safe landing for Curiosity on Sunday night!
You can check out all my pictures from Days 1 and 2 of #NASASocial on Facebook.