This week NASA announced two opportunities for behind-the-scenes tours of space launch and aeronautics research facilities on opposite coasts. The events are aimed at fans and followers of NASA's social media efforts on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. There is no cost to participate, but individuals are responsible for their own transportation and lodging and must be U.S. citizens 18 or older.
Registration is open from April 5 at noon through April 6 at noon for a unique two-day event on April 29-30 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Fifty participants will tour NASA and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) facilities and speak
with representatives from both NASA and SpaceX. The planned culmination of the event is the launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket at 12:22 p.m. EDT on April 30.
Participants will have a front row seat for SpaceX's second Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration flight, an attempt to become the first commercial company to send a spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station. The first demo flight in December 2010 went down in the history books as the first recovery of a reentering spacecraft by a commercial company.
This flight was originally planned to focus on testing launch and maneuvering and would have included only a fly by of the ISS, with another launch scheduled several months later to test rendezvous techniques with the station, similar to those used by Japanese cargo craft. Last summer NASA authorized the merging of the two missions.
These SpaceX flights have received attention worldwide as the United States moves closer to returning manned launch capability to its soil. COTS Demo Flight 2 will be the first American spacecraft to dock with the ISS since the space shuttle's retirement last year. Since then the ISS has been visited by Russian- and European-manned cargo craft several times.
This week NASA announced another event on May 4 at the agency's Dryden Flight Research Center on Edwards Air Force Base in California. 75 participants will learn more about NASA aeronautics, science and other projects as well as talk with test pilots and researchers. Opportunities to see historic aircraft such as the LLRV, M2F1, X1-E, F104, F-8 Supercritical Wing, and the SR-71 Blackbird along with experiencing a sonic boom are planned. Registration for the Dryden event opens at 11 a.m. EDT on Monday, April 9, and closes at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, April 11.
NASA has hosted 34 social media events at centers across the country. Each one is a little different. Previously the events were called "Tweetups," after the social networking site Twitter.com and were planned around manned and unmanned launches. These also included facility tours and talks by astronauts, engineers and scientists. Additionally, VIPs as varied as Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.i.am, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Star Trek's Nichelle Nichols, Sesame Street's Elmo, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and actor Seth Green have spoken with participants past events about their passion for science and math education.
Participants range from recent graduates to retirees, but all have an interest in space and/or flight in general. There is an undercurrent not only of enthusiasm for space exploration among attendees but also of promoting Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) education in our communities back home. In my experience, teachers in attendance are treated like rock stars at these events. I was fortunate to be selected to attend the Juno Tweetup last year and there was a friendly battle at the KSC employee cafeteria to buy lunch for the middle school science teacher in line behind me. I won.
Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.