NASA’s Orion Spacecraft Visits Social Media Followers on Its Way to Space

It may be decades before men and women walk on Mars, but America's space agency is giving the public a glimpse of the future through its innovative social media program, NASA Social.

It may be decades before men and women walk on Mars, but America’s space agency is giving the public a glimpse of the future through its innovative social media program, NASA Social.

On Thursday, August 15, NASA and U.S. Navy personnel hauled a bus full of 30 civilians armed with smartphones and tablets into Naval Station Norfolk to document the NASA Orion Stationary Recovery Test: the latest in a series of tests to see if the Orion spacecraft, like its predecessor Apollo, can safely carry astronauts into deep space.

Selected at random from a pool of applicants who follow NASA on social media, these self-proclaimed “Space Tweeps” — who were a mix of school teachers, social media marketers, bloggers, one meteorologist, and other space enthusiasts — had followed NASA to Virginia on their own dime to witness a moment in the history of space travel and share it with their followers. For the last several years, NASA has been hosting these Socials, which used to be called Tweetups, in an effort to bring the excitement of space travel of the 1960’s into the 21st century.

In this case, we were there to witness a simulation of Exploration Flight Test-1: an uncrewed mission scheduled for 2014 that will take Orion 3,600 miles above Earth (the farthest of any human spacecraft in more than 40 years) before dropping the part of the spaceship that would normally contain the crew back into Earth’s atmosphere at 20,000 miles per hour for a water landing in the Pacific Ocean. If all goes as planned, the spacecraft will one day carry actual crew members to visit asteroids, the Moon, and maybe even Mars.

We had to imagine the big splash, as this test only covered the recovery of the crew module. When we arrived, the vessel was spinning benignly in the protected area of the harbor with its bags inflated as though it had already landed.

We watched from a set of folding chairs under a tent as the crew circled the floating capsule in smaller boats. Underneath, divers would attach tending lines to hold the capsule in place. From there, the crew coaxed Orion into the belly of the USS Arlington: a great ship that was docked at the Naval base. Navy personnel who were standing one level above the well deck tugged at the lines until the vessel was safely inside.

NASA manager of production operations Scott Wilson, who held a Q&A for the assembled group of television reporters and bloggers, explained that NASA had conducted the recovery of the crew module in calm waters to see how effective the equipment and procedures were before they repeated the process at sea, where wind and waves would make the process more challenging.

Asked about the splash, NASA director of recovery Louie Garcia said he didn’t know how long it would take for the capsule to resurface after splashdown or how big the ripple effect would be once it hit the water. When the real thing happens, he said, the crew members in boats will be waiting between 15 – 30 minutes away from the target, ready to ride in after the astronauts inside the vessel have made sure that no hazardous materials have leaked.

While the bloggers flooded the internet with their comments and pictures, NASA’s communications team moderated the #NASASocial hashtag to curate the best reactions as well catch all of the insightful questions that poured in from people who were following the test on Twitter. They might not have been rocket scientists themselves, but the Space Tweeps were actually given a more thorough briefing than most of the news reporters.

Before we ever set foot on the Naval base, all of the participants took a tour of the NASA Langley Research facility in Hampton, where the rest of the research and testing for this project and many others had taken place. Over the course of two days, we had visited the Virginia Air and Space Center, where an Orion crew module was on display next to an Apollo crew module; the National Transonic Facility, where we learned how a supersonic wind tunnel can provide aeronautical data on commercial as well as military projects; the Hydro Impact Basin where the Orion test article was dropped; and the Structures and Materials Lab, which was filled with space habitats and robotic cranes that will help extend life on Earth to other planets. After all that preparation, if we didn’t go into the simulation knowing exactly what we were looking at, we were probably dummies.

Actual NASA crash test dummies.

The knowledge we gained was both exciting and sobering: although Americans could theoretically see an outer space colony within our lifetime, that doesn’t mean we will. For one thing, people who go into deep space are likely to come back with cancer, which is why the Structures and Materials Lab held a number of prototypes for radiation-blocking suits and sleeping compartments. Even under perfect conditions, missions can fail and entire programs can be scrapped when government budgets are tight. In that sense, NASA operates in a gift economy.

Boxes filled with food surround the coffin-like bed to absorb the radiation.

But NASA personnel seem to understand something that policymakers may overlook: people are profoundly fascinated with the idea of putting on a space helmet and going to Mars. They would happily climb into that little capsule and fly to the Red Planet even if it does take two-and-a-half years to get there and back; some would do it even do it even if coming back wasn’t an option.

In-person meetups give regular people the chance to match these fantasies with the reality of modern science: a long process of trial and error that can take humankind to great distances, but one step at a time. Through its social media efforts, NASA has put a human face on space exploration that is, in many ways, the most important step in putting humans into space.