These NASA superfans won a chance to watch a rocket take off for the moon

September 6, 2013
The Minotaur V rocket that will be carry LADEE to the Moon. (Andrea Peterson/Washington Post)
The Minotaur V rocket that will be carry LADEE to the Moon. (Andrea Peterson/Washington Post)

Do you love space? Great. Do you want to go to a rocket launch? Great. NASA has a program for that, at least if you're active on social media.

In the NASA Social program, online followers can apply to attend NASA events and nerd out with their fellow space fans. The program started with a Tweet-up hosted by the Jet Propulsion Lab in 2009 and is now on its 71st event  At some events, they also accredit select members from NASA's social media community as members of the traditional press media, embedding them in news conferences and tours so they "can share in covering the mission as citizen journalists," according to NASA Deputy Social Media Manager Jason Townsend.

Townsend is leading the NASA Social program surrounding the launch of NASA's Lunar Atmosphere Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. He says the program brings in space fans from all walks of life who are united by an interest in NASA's mission to explore the universe and learn more about our home planet.

"We're able to go behind the scenes and really share unique experiences with everyone", Townsend says, "From for example today, the rocket launch where we're getting ready to go do science on the moon to a variety of other things like the space station, astronaut training and deep space missions going to outer planets, and everything in between."

Attendees to NASA  social events must arrange their own travel and accommodations. But NASA tries to make it worth their while. At the LADEE launch, NASA Social participants were taken on exclusive tours of the Wallops Flight Facility, had a chance to talk with the people behind the mission, and, of course, will have front-row seats for the launch.

The whole thing seems like a good strategic PR choice for NASA. The NASA Social program empowers the biggest NASA fans to become unofficial ambassadors for the agency. And I'll admit that many of them were far better informed about the space program than I am. So just who are these people?

Here's a small sample of the 50 accepted attendees for the LADEE launch.

Kim Alix in front of a LADEE replica (Andrea Peterson/Washington Post)
Kim Alix in front of a LADEE replica. (Andrea Peterson/The Washington Post)

Kim Alix, elementary school science teacher from Charlotte, N.C.

Kim Alix just happened to see a Tweet about the LADEE launch, and now she's at her first NASA Social event. She's always been a stargazer and says she was just blown away by the opportunity to be involved with the space program in a personal way.

"I feel like a small little part of something huge and it's hard to even put that in perspective," Alix explained, "I'm just one little speck on this planet and now I'm part of this launch — I'm going to be standing there looking at this rocket. I'm not taking that for granted at all.

She's also impressed at the level of collaboration she's hearing about from NASA employees, because that's one of the things Alix tries to teach her students. Speaking of her students, they love watching the videos from astronauts on the ISS about everyday life in space. Some of her students even sent along questions for her to ask, including how to build a rocket to win their local Science Olympiad competition or why the moon can't support plant life.

Constance Rodenbarger in front of the rocket that will carry LADEE (Andrea Peterson/Washington Post)
Constance Rodenbarger in front of the rocket that will carry LADEE aloft. (Andrea Peterson/The Washington Post)

Constance Rodenbarger, fine arts student from Bloomington, Ind.

Constance Rodenbarger loves space. She was born a few weeks after the first space shuttle launch and has been dreaming about being an astronaut since she was 3 years old. Rodenbarger is now a fine arts student who incorporates science into her art, including a recent piece that was an iron pour based on her reading of a technical report from the 1970s, NASA SP-313 "Space For Mankind's Benefit" which talks about the social and political benefits of the space program.

She believes there's a real appreciation for diversity in the science community, including at NASA Social. "There are so many different kinds of people here, and I'm very much a different kind of person," she laughs, noting how she's seen people tweeting things about that girl with purple hair on NASA TV. "In my past, being the girl with the purple hair has been kind of a liability to me, but here today nobody cares — we're just all here for the moon."

Nick Hlavacek in front of a LADEE replica (Andrea Peterson/Washington Post)
Nick Hlavacek in front of a LADEE replica (Andrea Peterson/The Washington Post)

Nick Hlavacek, computer programmer from Charlotte, N.C.

Nick Hlavacek has a degree in space physics, but doesn't currently work in the field. The LADEE launch is his second NASA Social event, his first one was a year and a half ago watching the SpaceX Falcon 9 dragon capsule launch. For him, going to NASA Social events has been a way to reconnect with something he cares about, and share what he learns.

"It's interesting for people like me who have always been inspired by NASA but don't have any other way to connect with it," Hlavacek says. "It gives us a chance to interact and talk to people, then to share that with my social network, who at least get that experience second-hand."

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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