NASA followers gather for tweetup

With the Smithsonian (@ReliveApollo11) tweeting the 40th anniversary of the Apollo11 mission and current space shuttle mission commander Mark Polansky (@Astro_127) tweeting the crew’s work on the International Space Station, no space nut these days can operate without a twitter account. Today NASA took the experiment one step further and held a tweetup. Part of the growing twitter lexicon this term refers to a real-life meetup for tweople (people on twitter, I’m led to believe). Usually this means a dozen or so people in a bar, but in the case of NASA followers, which broke 100,000 today, the auditorium at NASA headquarters did the trick today. A lucky 150 or so people flew in from as far away as Arizona, Vancouver, and even (wow!) Spain, crowded in, turned on their iPhones and laptops, and were treated to a good two hours with the crew of the STS-125 shuttle mission to make repairs to rejuvenate the Hubble space telescope.

We’ve come a long way since the first TV transmission from space, just 40 years ago yesterday; the entire STS-125 mission was webcast on NASA TV. Viewers watched on tenterhooks as the astronauts, equipped with cameras on their helmets, removed tiny screws from the telescope’s housing and replaced batteries the size of a baby grand piano. And during it all, astronaut Mike Massimino was tweeting. The public loved it; Massimino, or @Astro_Mike as he’s known on twitter, has 692,564 followers and counting. His tweets were 140-character haikus from earth orbit—funny, thoughtful, and quietly profound:

Night pass over Australia, the city lights give stunning signs of life on our planet within the darkness of nighttime

Hard to sleep last night after my spacewalk, images of the work and the views still vivid in my mind.

Eating chocolates in space, floating then in front of me then floating and eating them like I am a fish.

When the seven astronauts walked on stage in their identical blue polos, one woman shouted, “We love you, Mike!” The astronauts talked about the grueling back-to-back spacewalks they underwent to complete the repairs and how they felt when the mission was delayed in October. They played clips from the mission video and gave a sort of live “director’s commentary” on scenes such as a tour of the shuttle toilet and the extra days they spent in microgravity waiting “doing astronaut tricks,” as mission specialist Megan McArthur put it, while waiting for permission to head home. And they fielded questions about everything from how stars look without the atmosphere in the way (brighter, more colorful, and not twinkling, apparently) to what the crew members were like in middle school.

“My favorite subject was physical education,” said mission pilot Greg Johnson. The crowd laughed. “I was always interested in math and science but I was very interested in fun.”

My personal favorite question was about why fizzy drinks don’t make it into space. Besides the fact that soda easily becomes foamy mass in free-fall, the simple act of burping can have a disastrous outcome, we were told.
“One of the most dangerous things to do in space is the burp reflex,” said commander Scott “Scooter” Altman. “Here on earth gravity makes the liquid stay at the bottom and gas go to the top. In space, well, you have to watch out.”

All in all, the astronauts were “very, very down to earth, warm, friendly, and really funny,” said Kathleen Forden, a technology project manager at the University of Phoenix who’d flown in with a co-worker for the event. (“I’m an uber-geek,” she explained.) “They seem like they could be their own comedy club based on a space theme.”

“I feel like I’d always thought of them as being some strange remote aliens,” admitted twerson Andria Schwortz (@aschwortz)with a laugh. “It was hard to think of them as humans, and then i see them up there on the stage not only as humans, but humorous. They’re funny, they’ve got a sense of humor, they’re cracking jokes at us.”
Throughout the tweetup, a screen behind them showed the constant stream of tweets from the audience. (You can look through them by checking out the #Nasatweetup trending topic.)
“The experience of watching everybody tweeting and interacting with each other is also interesting, getting to see what everybody thought was cool rather just than what I thought was cool,” said Schwortz, who teaches physics and astronomy at a community college in Massachusetts. She added that she’ll be using twitter in the fall with her online and face-to-face classes for discussions, questions, and to facilitate study groups. She said she’s part of a growing number of teachers who are using social networking tools to add an extra dimension to learning.
“One of the main uses I’ve heard of is people with really large lecture classrooms,” Schwortz said. “They tell people to bring their laptops and follow along with the conversation. These people who couldn’t ask questions in a huge lecture group can still interact with each other through twitter.”

@Astro_Mike and @PhysicsCentral: Guess who’s the astronaut?
Mike Massimino, who calls himself NASA’s twitter “guinea pig,” said putting life in space into 140 characters was “a great way to share” his experience.
“It’s the greatest job in the world, but we can’t take all of our friends and family with us, they just can’t fit in there!” he said. “So it’s nice to be able to try to share it.”
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