NASA knows how important public relations are to an organization funded by tax dollars. They also know and remember how much they had inspired generations of engineers and scientists in the 1950s and 1960s, during the "space race" and the Apollo missions that culminated in the Moon landings.
NASA knows that this enthusiasm has to be rekindled in the nation more preoccupied with reality shows and flaky entertainment, the nation that's slowly loosing its spirit of exploration and reaching for the stars (in this case literally).
Thankfully, NASA also knows that the new social media, like Facebook and Twitter can be used very effectively to spread the news, ideas and enthusiasm across the globe, with very little effort on their side.
That's the idea behind NASA Tweetups, and the GRAIL Tweetup I attended a few weeks ago was the best example of this brilliant idea.
The initial part of the first Tweetup day was filled by a tour of the Kennedy Space Center facilities, with a real insider's look at the operations of the launch teams and various support facilities. The afternoon was filled with presentations and meetings with interesting people connected to the various aspects of the GRAIL mission itself and to the popularization of science and space exploration in general.
While the main theme was the mission itself and its details, the first to speak was NASA administrator Charles Bolden.
Bolden's main message was that of popularization of science and math in American schools. He stressed that the spirit of early space age needs to be rekindled to ensure that America remains relevant in the global technological race, and that we lead the space exploration that had put us on the edge in the first place.
The details of the GRAIL mission were explained with passion by the principal investigator, Maria Zuber.
All of the complex intricacies and information can be found at the mission home page.
After hearing from the United Launch Alliance engineers, and other scientists, we were treated to a brief, but to-the-point lecture by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, and one of the greatest advocates of science in popular media today. As he described the GRAIL mission and its main objective of "seeing" into the Moon, by measuring small gravitational anomalies, he steered our attention to one of the main ideas of modern science: our senses can't be trusted, they fail us daily, just because they evolved to do so to make us survive in a complex world. However, science gives us tools to probe the world around us and to see it as it really is: complex, not always agreeing with our expectations and hopes, and yet amazing and beautiful.
The lecture proved yet again that Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a great communicator of science and can keep his audience engaged and interested. Rightly so, he is planning on making a sequel to the groundbreaking Carl Sagan's TV series Cosmos.