KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FLA. — Hundreds of thousands of visitors saw NASA's space shuttle Atlantis race into the sky Friday morning on its last mission. One hundred and eighty-eight of them had a better view than most: They watched from the press site, barely three miles from Pad 39A.
They got there not with a press pass (as I did), but with an invitation to attend the "Tweetup" NASA organized for the launch.
For the uninitiated, a Tweetup is a chance for Twitter users to meet the people behind the @ usernames they've been reading on the microblogging service. It can consist of a happy hour at a bar, or it can extend to hours of activities at a company or organization's facilities — sort of a Take Your Customers To Work Day.
And sometimes, a Tweetup can involve a countdown.
NASA asked followers of its Twitter account to apply in June, then sent invitations to 150 of those 5,500-plus applicants. Most were selected randomly after an initial screening for inactive or abusive accounts, but NASA also picked a few special guests such as irrepressible tech blogger Robert Scoble. The agency next invited attendees of the last two launch Tweetups who had missed their delayed liftoffs.
(I also attended the Tweetup for Endeavour's last launch in May.)
Among the highlights of the two-day show NASA put on for its "tweeps": talks by astronauts (including Robert Crippen, who piloted the first shuttle mission in 1981), researchers and managers; a tour of KSC topped by a stop in the 526-foot-high Vehicle Assembly Building; a visit to the pad to see Atlantis up close; watching the "Astrovan" transport Atlantis' crew to the pad before launch; group pictures in front of the countdown clock.
Then there was the launch — the loudest, brightest human-engineered spectacle attendees may ever see, one that left many weeping with joy.
It should be obvious why Tweetup attendees flew or drove to Florida at their own expense, often sharing rides and houses with strangers once they got there.
For NASA, it's a different calculation. Tweetups are not expensive operations. NASA social-media manager Stephanie Schierholz wrote that the biggest cost is renting the 100-foot by 40-foot air-conditioned tent hosting attendees at the press site. But many agency staffers, Schierholz included, put in long hours outside of their day jobs.
The agency justifies Tweetups as part of its core educational mission. The publicity provided by attendees who share their experience in successive waves of web outlets — Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr, Google+, blogs — in the days after each Tweetup can also serve as a social-media antidote to traditional-media apathy. But it's unclear how far that message carries beyond space enthusiasts.
NASA has now staged 21 Tweetups since its first in January 2009, making it one of the most frequent hosts of these gatherings. Other organizations have taken notice, from baseball teams to tech-news sites. Just last week, SpaceX, one of four companies competing to transport astronauts to the International Space Station, invited people to its facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to inspect the prototype Dragon capsule it launched and recovered in December.
Between all the scheduled events and other, unofficial gatherings near Cape Canaveral, Tweetup attendees left with an eyeful and earful about space exploration. But as veterans of a launch Tweetup can report, two intense days spent with people who share the same intense interest won't just teach you about what's up there; they will also connect you to new friends down here.
Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery