Here I sit at 11pm on September 29th 2009 in my hotel room in Columbia Maryland.Tired, restless, a bottle of Coke next to my computer, I am still trying to wind down from a crazy day. Since noon today I, along with four other MESSENGER Fellows(“master teachers” from across the US), have been tweeting about the MESSENGER spacecraft as it approached and flew by the planet Mercury. It has been an interesting experience – far different from last year’s low key flyby. But we were making history today. Never before has there been a group of teachers broadcasting live from Mission Operations Center to anyone anywhere that wanted to know about NASA’s mission to the smallest planet. Just thinking about what happened today gets my stomach going again. Here is a taste of what I experienced…
A crowded room room filled with a large center table. MESSENGER Fellows occupy that table looking at their laptops. People surrounding them eating and talking with each other. The Fellows are introduced to everyone as they come in – and their role in this event is explained.”To broadcast to the world what is happening here at the flyby.” It is interesting watching the reactions of the people and listening to their comments – especially when the word “Twitter” was mentioned. There is the knowing half-smile/smirk and a quick comment. Never outright negative, comments like these are made by people who don’t yet see the big picture. Some begin to see it when the Fellows ask questions and then furiously type their answers to the Twitterverse. You see, no one truly appreciates the power of these social media outlets yet. Even a lot of the people using them. NASA wanted us broadcasting however, and so we broadcast. We answer questions from students and others interested in space science. We let everyone know what is happening as it happens.
The power of what we are doing was intense. The chuckles die down as people watch us answer question after question. They watch over our shoulders as the time of the flyby grows near. They wonder who we are talking to. Our room is packed with people. As the time of the flyby grows near, the volume in the room becomes deafening. Suddenly though I realize the room has grown deathly quiet. I have been so absorbed in writing online, that I have not noticed that almost all the scientists have left. Up on the video screen it shows many of them in the actual ops center centered around a computer. I look up at the live doppler data and see that it has disappeared. Something has happened and it is not good.
I tweet throughout this. Several minutes after the drop in signal, MESSENGER goes behind Mercury. For the next 51 minutes there is no way to hear or talk to MESSENGER. People are nervously, and quietly talking to each other. A few minutes into the occultation of the spacecraft Sean Solomon,PI for MESSENGER, walks slowly into our room and tells us that the science team thinks that MESSENGER may have switched antennae for some reason, but the team did not want to try anything before the known blackout. We have to wait. Sean does not have the great smile on that he did a little while earlier. it is obvious that he was nervous. The Fellows tweet to the world what we are watching. A swollen lump in our stomaches replacing the excited butterflies that we have had all day.
7pm comes way too slowly and suddenly we see that the Live Doppler Shift video suddenly has a signal. No scientists are in the room. they are all in the ops room. we can see them on the tv screen. The fellows are all speculating “Is that it? Do we have a signal?” Sean comes in this time with a quicker step and says “Yes” we have signal. The room suddenly springs a leak as it is filled with the sound of many people letting out their collective breaths. A small cheer goes up. Then furious typing as we tell the world. “YAY we have contact with MESSENGER!!!” I tweet to the world. The part of the world that follows me hears this great news.
Later we find that we lost some of the Doppler data that would have given us more information on Mercury’s gravity. Also that MESSENGER, for some reason, was not in its normal operating mode. the data link is slow and scientists are not sure what is happening. What is known is that data download will be delayed.More will be known tomorrow.
This is science.
This is real life.
I am a teacher who was there and witnessed it.
I will tell the world.
My students will be better for this.
Update: Corrected Sean Solomon’s name. I incorrectly named him last nite since I was so tired.