May 30, 2020

Mars Curiosity: Return of the NASATweetup!

A scale model rover and its destination.

(All photos by Author unless otherwise noted).

You could just imagine our excitement. A little more than a month ago, the email appeared informing us that we had been selected to attend the NASATweetup at the Kennedy Space Center for the launch of Mars Curiosity! Long time fans of this site will remember that we first attended one of these Twitter-based events at the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston which was the first held at the JSC, and then made a pilgrimage for the tweetup & launch of STS-132, which at the time was the last scheduled launch of space shuttle Atlantis. Since the inauguration of the concept of a NASATweetup in 2009, 31 separate events have occurred at NASA facilities across the nation, and the concept has spread internationally to Canada and Europe. What I find particularly fascinating is how the Tweetup idea has evolved. Much like many things in cyber-land, you just don’t know what wonderful and wacky places folks might take it to once you unleash it into the wild.

Much has been written about the Mars Curiosity Rover, the technology behind it, and the mission it is to perform. We’ve even blogged a bit about its nuclear-powered MMRTG and what the plutonium production stoppage means to the future of space exploration on this site. All of the speakers were outstanding; a full length video of their Friday talk the day before launch can be seen here. But a Tweetup is a personal journey, a look at what the space program means to each of us as a humble resident of planet Earth as well as NASA’s way of saying “thank you” for being such a fan. In fact, I would even say that these Tweetup events were the catalyst that reshaped me into a Twitter advocate from a skeptic who only got into Twitter as a way to “promote the blog.” This look is also for the curious, those who may have just heard of the notion of a NASATweetup and wondered what it was all about before signing on to the adventure.

Spacetweeps in on the loose…

Fortunately, Astroguyz HQ is within a 3 hour drive of the KSC, and I managed to do Day 1 of the Tweetup based from home, a luxury that many don’t have. For those driving and flying in from distant lands, “Sempre Gumbi” or being “Always Flexible” is the watch-words, as missions are at the whim of weather constraints and technical issues. To their credit, the degree of patience Spacetweeps (as in “one who tweets about space”) display in this regard is impressive; I’ve heard nary a complaint as delays have scrubbed launches, often for months… try delaying the average American’s Starbucks latte and see what happens. And yes, NASA has invited Twitter fans back, even after those month-long delays.

Endeavour & Me; the Closest I’ve Gotten So Far to Space!

As I rolled out the Astro-mobile that Black Friday morning, I stopped to glance up high toward the zenith. There was ruddy Mars in the constellation Leo, headed towards opposition in early 2012. And we were sending an embassary to land there, this weekend! That has only successfully happened 6 times previous starting with Viking 1 in 1976. Less than half a century ago, this had been largely a pipe dream. In fact, as I listened to the speakers at the Tweetup tent (or “Twent” as it has become affectionately known) I realized that this was really it; the culmination of all those early Mars missions was coming together. This was the mission that researchers had wanted to do all those years, a rolling “Viking on steroids” that combined all the previous skills learned. I remembered Carl Sagan talking about the idea of a Mars rover in his 1980 series Cosmos, and realized that we were witnessing the fulfillment of this dream.

The tour provided us with a peek into some new corners of the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral as well. We got our first-time look into the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) as well as a forlorn space shuttle Endeavour, decommissioned and awaiting its journey to the California Science Center in Los Angeles where it will be ultimately displayed. Kudos also go out to “George the Bus #3 tour guide,” a Korean War Vet and long-time member of the Crew Rescue Team during the shuttle program; watch carefully for him in the HBO miniseries From Earth to the Moon!

But the highlight of the day was to see the Atlas V rocket containing Mars Curiosity sitting on the pad, up close and personal. This is one of the cool “extras” that being part of a Tweetup provides. It’s amazing to think of the spacecraft that have departed for distant points throughout the solar system from this very installation; New Horizons, bound for a flyby of Pluto in 2015. Cassini, orbiting Saturn and its ESA probe Huygens, deposited on Titan. The Voyager spacecraft, headed out into the galactic wilderness. Mars Curiosity was spending its last night on planet Earth, bound for an 8 ˝ month transit to the Red Planet, and then on to years’ worth of scientific discovery. It would then sit silent on Mars perhaps for millions of years, unless an intrepid human explorer came to retrieve it. What would its ultimate fate be? Mars Curiosity was aptly named and headed into the unknown and taking a curious humanity with it.

Atlas V + MSL sitting on the pad.

Leaving this Tweetup was a bittersweet affair. The moving of the launch from Friday to Saturday presented us with a scheduling conflict; I secretly hoped for a slip for another day (though not aloud to any excited Spacetweeps!) but such was not to be. Mars Curiosity departed planet Earth shortly after 10 AM Eastern Time on November 26th, 2011 in a flawless launch that we witnessed from afar as its plume pointed skyward. It is scheduled for a landing at Gale Crater on August 6th, 2012. Perhaps fellow Spacetweeps will once again assemble in cyber-land as the rover descends on its bridle under its sky-crane lander in what’s sure to be a nail-biting landing.

And what did I get from the MSL NASATweetup? Well, it’s truly flattering the number of individuals that came up to thank me, both for the Twitter-feed and the blog. Everyone has their own “must meet in person” short-list, and I’m amazed at the folks who sought us out to “talk space” in their hurried schedules. Thanks, this is a huge “kick in the pants” to keep the blog and associated sites going. The breadth and depth of the knowledge of the Spacetweep community is simply amazing, and I’m humbled to be considered one of your number. It’s like a strange parallel universe, where everyone you meet is excited about space… how cool is that?

Launch! (Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech).

Also a special thanks to all at NASA, Shannon @Ageekmom & Stephanie Schierholz @Schierholz and all who organize and keep the Tweetup fires burning bright as well as those who journeyed from near and far with a passion for space. With distant rumblings of a possible SpaceX Tweetup for the launch of the Dragon spacecraft on January 7th of next year, who knows what’ll happen next?



  1. [...] currently headed towards the Red Planet at this time. Launched in November 2011 to the fanfare of a #NASATweetup, an Earth departure a few months prior to opposition assures a quick, minimal energy trajectory. [...]

  2. [...] this August, a historical event will occur. A rover launched last Thanksgiving weekend will descend via sky crane to the surface of Mars. After the first “six-minutes off terror,” the [...]

  3. [...] social media event known as a “NASATweetup” preceded the launch, which we were privileged to attend. It was amazing to see MSL encased atop its United Alliance Atlas V launch vehicle as it spent one [...]

  4. [...] on the Red Planet as Curiosity touches down in Gale Crater. We were lucky enough to attend our 3rd #NASATweetup for the launch last November, seeing off the Mars Science Laboratory enroute to Mars. And now the [...]

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