NASA hosts 'Tweetups' to spread the word about its missions

Agency is giving Twitter users behind-the-scenes access to facilities and events so they can share their observations with the public.

As the space shuttle program winds down, NASA is turning to users of the social networking site Twitter to help document the last launches and to spread the word about the agency's future endeavors.

Tweetups, as they are known, bring together 15 to 150 Twitter users for a behind-the-scenes experience at NASA facilities nationwide. The two-hour to two-day events give attendees personal access to scientists, engineers, astronauts and managers. In turn, the attendees share their observations with followers, who could number in the millions. To date, NASA has hosted 15 Tweetups at six locations ranging from New York to California.

The program has "been wildly successful," said Stephanie Schierholz, NASA's social media manager. "It [gives attendees] an opportunity to interact with their space agency. . . . It's been a great way for us to engage" the public.

During the initial October 2010 launch window for the space shuttle Discovery, for instance, NASA hosted 150 Tweeters at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Their Tweets reached close to 2 million people, according to the agency.

"NASA can't accommodate hundreds of thousands at a launch," Schierholz said. "We can accommodate 150, [and] if they share with their network, it's more interesting to follow a friend, than to follow the [official] @NASA account," which has about 850,000 followers.

Prospective Tweeters register online and are selected randomly. They must pay their own way to the events and cover their own lodging and meal expenses.

Schierholz said NASA has been surprised by the high worldwide interest in the Tweetups. A man from Spain flew in to Washington in July 2009 for a two-hour event with the crew from STS-125, a mission to service the Hubble telescope. "That knocked my socks off," she said. "I had no idea people were that interested. It was a very cool surprise."

The invitation to Tweet from the Discovery shuttle launch attracted 2,700 registrants, and the150 people selected came from 35 states and six countries. A girl from the United Kingdom stayed in the United States until the actual launch, which was postponed until Feb. 24 for technical reasons; attendees from Australia and the Philippines flew back to the United States. The Australian attendee told Schierholz that she spent nearly $20,000.

As the space shuttle program winds down, attending the Discovery launch window was a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Chris Golden, co-founder of myImpact.org, a nonprofit organization using social media to advance volunteerism. Golden said he learned not only about Discovery's mission, but also the future of space exploration beyond the space shuttle and station program. The last shuttle lunch is scheduled for late June.

"The partnership between NASA and Twitter really is a perfect culmination of the history of the space shuttle program," said Golden, who shared his Tweets with 1,900 followers. "By inviting a group of Tweeters to watch the launch, we were able to essentially become reporters . . . and broadcast it out in real time."

"It had a tremendous catalytic effect, and it was purely authentic," he added. "The space program has always captured the attention and idealism of the American people. What better way to send it off than with ordinary Americans covering it and engaging in a conversation about it?"

Registration is open until March 3 for the next Tweetup: On March 16, Doug Wheelock, who was the first astronaut to check in from space on social media site Foursquare, will host an event in Washington with the agency's social media team. Those interested can register here.

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