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Space – It’s not just for Astronauts: Personal reflections from a NASATweetup

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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What do a crane operator, a seamstress, and a cook have in common? They help make the space program successful… and they aren’t scientists or astronauts.

The #GRAIL #NASATweetup seemed more real when I received my credentials. Photo: Karyn Traphagen

That was one of my big take-aways at a recent NASATweetup held at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I was fortunate to be included in a group of 150 Twitter users treated to a behind-the-scenes peak at the GRAIL (Gravity Recovery And Internal Laboratory) mission to the moon—including special access tours of the Kennedy Space Center and a terrific view of the Delta II rocket launch that sent the spaceships on their way to their lunar destination. If you want to learn more about the GRAIL mission, the science behind it, and the GRAIL NASATweetup, you can begin by checking out our #GRAIL #NASATweetup wiki.

This was the 25th tweetup hosted by NASA. Their purpose is simple: use social media and “regular” people who are excited about space to get the word out that space exploration & NASA are not finished. Many people who heard I attended a NASA launch in September exclaimed, “But I thought they weren’t doing any more launches!” Well, the Space Shuttle program has indeed successfully finished its illustrious 30-year career but there are many other projects and missions waiting in the pipeline to continue our exploration of space.

We weren’t the only ones tweeting the Delta II launch of the GRAIL spaceships. Photo: Karyn Traphagen

But let’s get back to the crane operator, seamstress, and cook. While I was thrilled to meet astronauts like Charlie Duke (who was the 10th person to walk on the moon during the Apollo 16 mission), to hear the inspiring NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, and to be educated by the GRAIL Principal Investigator, Dr. Maria T. Zuber, I was most impressed by the massive number of “everyday” people and careers that it took to support the mission.

Astronaut Charlie Duke, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, GRAIL Principal Investigator, Maria Zuber. Photos: Courtesy Budi Prasetya

Sure it is exciting to meet the superstars, but somehow I had previously missed the connection that there are thousands of jobs, many not specifically science related, that are critical to the NASA projects. Do we tell this to young students? We should! If you are intrigued by space, you don’t necessarily need to be a scientist or engineer to be involved! You can be like the crane operator who worked with detailed precision to lower the space shuttle orbiter onto its rocket boosters. Or the people who sew specialized material, or radio operators, or mechanics… the list goes on and on. That may be one of my next projects—to research and highlight the types of jobs (and the people behind those jobs) that power the NASA mission. It really doesn’t matter what your expertise, training or job is. If you can say, “I work at NASA” then you are a part of an amazing team.

The Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) was a special stop on our tour. This is where the shuttles were prepped for their voyages to space. One wall holds a tribute to the people who have worked during the past 30 years on the Shuttle Program. Here are their signatures testifying to the thousands of dedicated lives invested in this work. Photo: Karyn Traphagen

“Everyday” jobs and people may make NASA projects happen, but NASA also gives back by using the technology and discoveries of space exploration to improve our “everyday” lives. Don’t believe that NASA affects your life? Peruse the NASA Spinoff website for a bit and you’ll be amazed!

My second big take-away from the NASATweetup was reaffirming the critical importance of science communication. While science communication and education is a part of my professional life, it was encouraging to hear attendees who are outside the formal science community express their desire to have more accessible information (in other words, get rid of the jargon, but keep content rich and available).

This kind of communication was modeled by two other speakers at the NASATweetup: Neil deGrasse Tyson and Nichelle Nichols. Although Neil is a brilliant astrophysicist, he chose to emphasize that while scientists are important, it is even more important that we become a nation of people that has a science outlook and is informed about science. In his role as science communicator/educator, he doesn’t always train the next generation of astrophysicists (even though he could!), most of the time he is helping people to better understand and appreciate the world around them (both terrestrial and celestial). Neil was very personable, and recorded this short video for the students of one of the NASATweetup attendees. It highlights the importance of science literacy.

Similarly, Nichelle uses her Star Trek celebrity (as the original Lt. Uhura) to emphasize the fact that science should be open to everyone. The 150 people in the GRAIL NASATweetup were quite a diverse group—in age, education, career, ethnicity, and even politics. Most were not engineers or in science fields. But, we were united in one thing: an interest in space. It will take this kind of variety of people learning, supporting, and communicating to continue our exploration of space (both with NASA and with commercial endeavors).

Proudly wearing my "I am a Scientific American" space button. Photo: Karyn Traphagen

To get involved with NASA yourself, you can start by following @NASA and @NASATweetup on Twitter. For other ways to connect see: http://www.nasa.gov/connect

Bottom line: You don’t need to be an astronaut to be involved with space exploration and you don’t need to be a scientist to be a scientific American.

Karyn Traphagen About the Author: Karyn Traphagen is a former physics instructor, currently focusing on science pedagogy and science communication. She helps teach an online course on Physics Pedagogy as part of the University of Virginia Physics Departments Masters program for high school physics teachers. Karyn is the Twitter voice (@lifeandscience) for the Museum of Life and Science (Durham, NC), where she also helps out in the Animal Department. She helps promote and organize aspects of the annual ScienceOnline conference (NC Triangle area). She blogs at Boulders2bits.com and tweets at @ktraphagen. Google+ profile. Follow on Twitter @ktraphagen.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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