I still remember the moment I found out I was selected to attend the GRAIL launch NASA Tweetup. While driving home from the annual meeting of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, I found myself getting a little tired so I decided to stop off and grab a shot of sugar via a strawberry milkshake. As I sipped down my pink goo, I passed the time by reading my latest emails. That’s when I first saw the email inviting me to the Kennedy Space Center to participate in a NASA Tweetup! Naturally, my response was to tweet the news.
NASA Tweetups are outreach events in which the space agency invites selected twitter users to attend special events such as shuttle launches and festivities. The upcoming tweetup will be held the 25th hosted by NASA. To be selected all you need is an active twitter account and the ability to attend the scheduled events. If you satisfy these simple criteria, you can throw your name into a hat and hope it’s randomly picked. For the GRAIL tweetup there were over 825 entries, 150 of which were selected for attendance.
During a typical tweetup participants are given behind the scenes tours of facilities, in addition to formal and informal talks by mission scientists, engineers, and NASA officials. Some tweetups are as short as a few hours, while the longest last for a week in the case of the STS 133 shuttle launch tweetup.
Before a few days ago I couldn’t comment too much as to what the GRAIL tweetup would entail, mostly because the details hadn’t yet been finalized. Then, last Thursday we got our orders. The planned list of activities looks absolutely awesome. Before, I was excited just to be invited, now I’m absolutely ecstatic.
The GRAIL NASA Tweetup is a two day event. It starts first thing Wednesday morning (Sep 7) with tours of Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. After lunch we’ll be treated to talks by:
- Jim Adams — deputy director, Planetary Division, Science Mission Directorate
- Charles Bolden — NASA Administrator
- Sami Asmar — GRAIL deputy project scientist, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
- Maria Zuber — GRAIL principal investigator
- Neil de Grasse Tyson — Frederick P. Rose director at the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History
And that’s just the first day, pre-launch activities. Day 2 starts with a trip to the causeway for viewing of the Delta II rocket launch that will carry the twin GRAIL satellites into space. After a successful launch (al fingers crossed here) we’ll head to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex for talks by Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Nichelle Nichols (Lt Uhura from the original Star Trek series).
That’s it for the official GRAIL launch NASA Tweetup. However, that’s not the end of the fun. The second day will only be considered complete after the tweetup tradition of the Endless BBQ held at the Cocoa Beach Brewing Company.
Tomorrow marks the first launch window for the Juno mission, NASA’s latest New Frontiers space probe. After a five year trip through the inner Solar System, including an Earth flyby in 2013, Juno will arrive at Jupiter in 2016. While there the spacecraft will measure properties related to the planet’s atmosphere, magnetic field, and gravitational field. Ideally this information will lead to a more complete picture of how Jupiter formed, which in turn helps astronomers understand the Solar System formation as a whole.
Besides a multitude of instruments, the mission will also carry three very special stowaways, LEGO minifigures of the Roman god Jupiter, his sister/wife Juno, and the famous astronomer Galileo Galilei.
As the story goes, NASA scientists are big fans of LEGO and so they approached the company about doing something special for the mission. In response LEGO came up with these three, one of a kind minfigures. What makes these minifigs special is that while they’re the same size as normal LEGO figurines, these ones are made of aluminum so they won’t interfere with the instruments. The reported cost for each minifig, $5000 which was taken care by the LEGO corporation. Don’t worry American tax payers, NASA didn’t pay for these.
If LEGO stowaways aren’t cool enough, the final maneuver for the Juno mission is to plummet into Jupiter. This means that the final resting place for our three fearless minifigs will be in the belly of the king of gods.
The official NASA story, Juno Spacecraft to Carry Three Figurines to Jupiter Orbit.
It happened. It actually happened despite only a 30% chance of success due to weather. The final space shuttle mission ever began with a successful launch of Atlantis earlier today.
Thirty-six hours ago I never thought I would have the opportunity to witness this historic launch live, but after a sequence of events, a lot of help from my wife, my boys and I made an unexpected trip to watch the STS 135 launch.
Having never seen a shuttle in person before I had no idea what to expect. The day started out rough with a 2:45 am alarm sounding after only two hours of sleep. This was followed by a freezing cold, three hour bus ride from Orlando to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The trip took three times longer than normal because of the obnoxious amount of traffic flowing into Kennedy.
Despite such a difficult start, my boys (ages six and ten) and I arrived at the Visitor Complex in high spirits. Without a moment’s hesitation we were wandering through the rocket garden, playing with the various displays, and watching the Hubble 3D movie at the IMAX theatre. Even with all this to entertain us, we still had plenty of time for spending money in the gift shops.
Finally the time approached for the shuttle launch. Throughout the morning there seemed to be a weird feeling of trepidation floating throughout the air. In the days and even hours preceding the launch, news out of NASA was that everything was going as planned, except for the weather. The forecast for today called for rain and possible thunderstorms. The launch was only given a 30% chance of occurring as planned because of the weather.
All morning long clouds hung around, but no rain, no wind, and most importantly no lightning. Nevertheless, the weather could turn at any moment. So as we had our fun playing around at the Visitor Complex, there was always a worry about the launch being scrubbed.
Surprisingly the hour leading into the scheduled launch time flew by. Before we knew it the clock read 11:20, just a few minutes short of the 11:26 am launch time. From our viewing point, we couldn’t see the launch pad directly but there was a large, outdoor screen from which we could watch closeup views of what was occurring. The moment the engines fired up, the crowd erupted in cheers. It was such a great feeling, not unlike being at a major sporting event and witnessing a record being broken. Admittedly it brought a tear to my eye because I was able to share this moment with my boys.
Within seconds the shuttle came into view as it rose above the trees that blocked our view of the launch pad. I’ve watched plenty of shuttle launches televised online and on television before, but being there live, I noticed a few things:
- Even though we were situated over seven miles away, the glowing red hot exhaust was clearly visible.
- The speed of sound is noticeably much slower than the speed of light. It took many seconds between watching the shuttle launch and hearing the distinctly loud rumble of liftoff.
- It took very little time for the shuttle to reach an appreciable altitude. Of course, with the low lying clouds this observation is slightly skewed, but in comparing how long it takes an airplane to ascend, the shuttle took very little time to reach those clouds and to disappear high into the sky.
Seeing the shuttle successfully launch … Correct that … Seeing the last ever space shuttle launch today will be a memory I will always carry with me. More importantly, my boys enjoyed today’s events. Time will only tell if they also feel the same way as I do.
U should put the kids in the car and go see the shuttle launch.
I’ve thought about that.
I don’t think I can get tickets though.
Being an astronomer and just a general nut about science I’ve always wanted to see a shuttle launch in person. Now that we’re at the last launch EVER, I thought I had missed my opportunity.
After receiving my wife’s initial text I admittedly searched the internet trying to find out what it took to get tickets to view a shuttle launch. According to the site Space Shuttle Launch Viewing, it seems that it takes a lot of foresight and some luck (or a lot of money). Fortunately luck was on our side.
A short time after exchanging those texts messages with my wife I got a call from her, she had found tickets through the Florida Dolphin Tours, an authorized viewing tour operator. The shortcoming was that the tickets, were for viewing the launch from the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex where the launch pad is not directly viewable. From the visitor complex the shuttle can be see shortly after liftoff and it’s close enough (at 7.4 miles form the launch pad) to experience the sound of the liftoff. The visitor complex does have the advantage of entertainment for the kids (six and ten years old in our case) while we wait for the launch.
That was at 10:00 am today. We live 480 miles from Orlando, where the Florida Dolphin Tours needs to pick us up. This would mean a nine hour that afternoon into the evening. In a
rash no brainer decision we decided to go.
We showered, packed, and were on the road in less than 90 minutes. Sadly my wife was not able to accompany us because of work, nor did we have someone to watch the dog. This road trip was going to be a father and sons adventure.
A short (it actually did feel short) nine hour drive later we find ourselves in an Orlando hotel. Although we have just a few hours to sleep—we have to be at the bus pickup at 4:00 am—we’re hardly able to sleep. Everyone is excited for tomorrow.
This week saw the last launch for the shuttle Discovery. Contrary to what some people may have heard, this is not the last shuttle launch ever. Endeavor (mission STS 134) is schedule for launch on April 19 of this year. As of now, Endeavor’s launch will be the last for the space shuttle fleet.There is an outside chance that Atlantis will launch one more time but this is dependent upon approval from the White House.
For me, I’ve always known nothing but having a space shuttle program. The first shuttle launch occurred on April 12, 1981 when I was only four. I even remember watching an IMAX movie about the shuttle program when I was a wee lad. I guess it’s because there were always space shuttles I never found them as a source of inspiration in becoming a scientist. I guess it was the first sign that I was destined to become a theorist.
This view did change slightly during my graduate school days. My advisor and I traveled to the University of Maryland for a conference on gravitational wave astronomy. The day after the conference ended I flew home while while my advisor stayed behind to do some collaborative research. Since my flight was late in the afternoon, we decided to spend the morning at the National Mall. This was kinda funny because my advisor is Australian and I’m American. However, since I had never been to the National Mall and he had, the Australian gave the American a tour of America’s national monuments.
Of course, as two astrophysicists, one of our stops was the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. While there we had all kinds of conversations about this or that. One that always stuck with me is the conversation we had while looking at the Apollo Lunar Module. While looking over the tiny module we talked about how amazing it was that the lunar module required so little thrust to escape the Moon’s gravity in comparison to the thrust required to leave Earth. To see for yourself what we were talking about check out these videos, the first of which shows the Apollo 17′s lunar module taking off, while the second video is Discovery’s launch this past Thursday,
Visiting the National Mall with my advisor was one of the most memorable experiences I had as a graduate student. (We also visited the National Gallery of Art, which was enjoyable, but not as inspirational.) It has stuck with me for the last eight years and is still one of those inspirational moments as a scientist.
Fast forward to this week. I celebrated the last launch of the space shuttle Discovery by watching the event live in my office with a few students. It was a great moment. The oohs and aahs, along with the conversations we had about what was going on made for a special moment. The roles were now reversed. I was now the professor and I was sharing science with students. I doubt they viewed the moment on a level as I did when visiting the Air & Space Museum, but it still felt good to share this historical moment with students.
It’s these isolated special moments when I have the opportunity to share my love of science with others that makes teaching so enjoyable. Maybe one day, a few of my students will have their own opportunities to do the same with their students.
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Have you heard the really cool news? LEGO and NASA signed a Space Act Agreement. (If you’re not into all that legal mumbo-jumbo here’s the press release.) Over the next three-years these two icons of inspiration will partner together to encourage today’s youth to participate in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
The partnership is a bit of a no-brainer. NASA has inspired kids for a number of generations with their cutting edge technology, distant travels, and amazing discoveries. LEGO building blocks have been around for only slightly longer than NASA, but has played a very similar role. LEGOs have that certain appeal that originates from their seemingly endless possibilities. There is no right or wrong way to build with LEGOs.
As if the NASA/LEGO alliance wasn’t the coolest thing ever (at least it is in my world), the kickoff event includes launching LEGOs with the next shuttle launch. The crew of the STS-133 mission will carry with them two miniature space shuttles. Originally the mission was to launch at the beginning of November, but due to cracks in the shuttle’s tanks, the launch has been pushed back to mid-December at the earliest and maybe even to February of 2011. Personally I’m hoping for the current listed launch date of December 17 because I’ll be in the area on vacation. If the launch is a go, the family and I have made contingency plans to watch the liftoff in person.
Besides carrying a LEGO space shuttle onboard a real shuttle, LEGO will release four new NASA inspired products to be incorporated into the LEGO city theme next year. Some of the sets will be simple while others will be aimed more at the big kids, like me. Each kit will include educational material. I wonder if this means I can purchase these LEGO kits and consider them a tax write-off as a work expense?
If that isn’t cool enough, the STS-134 space shuttle mission (to be launched in early 2011) will carry LEGO sets to the International Space Station. The point here is to have children on terra firma build the same sets as what astronauts will build on the ISS. In the process students will realize how difficult it would be to build standard LEGO sets in a microgravity environment. I immediately have this vision of an astronaut tearing into a bag of LEGO parts and having them fly about in the interior of the space station much like Homer’s potato chips did. Actually the sets will be built inside a see-through box so that the parts don’t get lost randomly throughout the space station.
I’m very envious of the astronauts that get to build LEGOs in space. I’ve always said I wouldn’t like to travel to space because I don’t think I could mentally survive the launch, but for LEGOs, maybe I could.
If it sounds like I’m gushing for LEGOs it’s because I’m an AFOL (an Adult Fan of LEGO). In fact, we recently had an incident at my home where one of my boy’s friends came over and commented that my son has a lot of LEGOs. I had to interject and make the correction that they are my LEGOs, not my sons.
If this is something that tickles your fancy, keep an eye on LEGO’s dedicated webpage for the partnership at http://www.legospace.com/.