As rover’s launch nears, ‘space geeks’ are all a-Twitter
The spacetweeps were full of Thai food and beer when they finally rolled back to Gale House, nearing the end of a pretty good day on Earth.
There had been bonding. There had been tweeting. There had been space, lots and lots of space.
"#spacetweeps and #NASAtweetup headed back to #GaleHouse now,” they tweeted. “ETA 10 mins. If you’re there we’ll be there soon.”
Seven women and two men, most in their 20s and 30s, were sharing this three-bedroom vacation rental overlooking a canal on Merritt Island some 15 minutes south of the Kennedy Space Center. The house came fully equipped: pool, hot tub, tiki bar, wi-fi.
It was Jersey Shore, Space Coast-style. The only difference was that these people were smart, nice, modestly dressed and all got along. And they were obsessed with space.
There had come for Saturday’s scheduled launch of the Mars Science Laboratory, brought together by one of NASA’s newer marketing efforts: the NASA Tweetup.
“It’s like a birthday party full of space geeks,” said Randy Braa, who came to the Tweetup from Arizona, where he owns a small computer company.
Since 2009, the space agency has been holding drawings among its Twitter followers for invitations to its launches and special events. Those who win — the self-described spacetweeps — are given VIP treatment: behind-the-scenes tours, access to top NASA scientists and preferential seating for launches.
One hundred fifty people were selected in October for the Mars launch, the 31st NASA Tweetup. They came to Cape Canaveral from 37 states and 10 countries. They included a librarian, a graphic designer, a picture framer, a speech pathologist and at least two budding science fiction writers. Most paid their own way, although some had corporate support. NASA doesn’t pay for airfare or accommodations.
The launch was originally scheduled for Friday but delayed to replace a battery. NASA said there was a 30% chance of Saturday’s launch being postponed again, primarily because of the threat of a low cloud cover.
The Tweetups were born at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge in January 2009.
JPL’s Veronica McGregor had developed one of Twitter’s largest followings during the Mars Phoenix mission, posting updates and answering questions from the public in the voice of the Phoenix. On June 20, 2008, she helped put Twitter on the map with this post: “Are you ready to celebrate? Well, get ready: We have ICE!!!!! Yes, ICE, *WATER ICE* on Mars! w00t!!! Best day ever!!”
McGregor said the experience demonstrated the power of direct engagement with the public. When the mission ended, JPL decided to invite 150 of the Twitter followers to tour the lab’s campus. That was Tweetup #1.
The events have succeeded, in a modest way, in fulfilling their primary goal: improving NASA’s public profile. This is no small matter for an agency that lives in perpetual fear of cuts in congressional funding and whose glory days are widely perceived to be over.
What no one could have predicted is the degree to which the Tweetups have also created a close-knit and enduring community, building bonds among people who share a love of space exploration. In some cases, the gatherings have transformed lives.
For the Mars launch, the attendees began organizing almost immediately after receiving e-mails Oct. 12 telling them they had won the drawing. Karyn Traphagen (@ktraphagen), a Tweetup veteran and science educator from Durham, N.C., started a private Facebook page for the group. There, participants introduced themselves and began making arrangements: shared places to stay — including the Gale House — meals, cars, side trips to amusement parks, plans for Thanksgiving dinner.
They created a group logo — essentially, a picture of the Curiosity rover — and had pins and patches made.
By the time they had their first face-to-face meeting as a group, at a seafood restaurant in Titusville, Fla., on Tuesday, some had already met on past Tweetups, and those who hadn’t felt they already knew one another.
The formal part of the event began Friday, when attendees gathered in a giant tent at the Space Center to hear presentations from NASA scientists (and tweet), then take a tour (and tweet). On Saturday, the group was getting prime seating for the launch (lots of tweeting!) and meeting some celebrity space geeks: Bill Nye, TV’s Science Guy, and will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas.
All of it is heaven on Earth — or, perhaps, Mars on Earth — for people like Danny Sussman (@thesuss), a Tweetup veteran who made arrangements for the rental that would be dubbed Gale House. The name comes from the Gale Crater, the target of the Curiosity rover.
His is a common story among spacetweeps. Sussman is 36, a webmaster for the University of Minnesota extension in Minneapolis. NASA’s Twitter feed helped him rediscover a childhood passion for space exploration.
“As you get older, you get involved in college and you get a job, and it kind of falls away,” he said. “And all of a sudden, hey, here’s a whole community of people who have the same common interests and the same passion.”
Andy Rechenberg has attended three previous Tweetups this year. He didn’t get a slot this time, but came anyway, and was staying with his new friends at Gale House. He was going to watch the launch from outside the Space Center.
“I didn’t know any of these people a year ago,” said Rechenberg, sitting at a dinner table one night with the Gale House crew. “And now I consider them family.”
Rechenberg’s shaved head, chin patch and earrings don’t exactly scream “space nerd.” Neither does his sideline as a disc jockey, which is reflected in his Twitter handle, @therealdjflux (as in: the Real DJ Flux).
As with Sussman, however, his discovery of the NASA Twitter feed in 2009 helped rekindle his childhood fascination with space. His Tweetup friends influenced him to re-enroll in college.
Now Rechenberg, 40, who works in information technology for a financial company, said he plans to finish his undergraduate work in mechanical engineering and enroll in a master’s program in aerospace engineering.
“And then,” he said, “I want to become an astronaut.”
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.