By Steve Winter, special to wtop.com
AUSTIN, Texas — NASA has taken us to some strange and wonderful destinations.
Thanks to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, we’ve been to the moon, we’ve orbited Mars and we’ve explored the satellites and surfaces of Jupiter and Saturn.
This week, the nation’s space agency took us to a whole, new totally bizarre and alien world … populated by evolutionary-advanced and highly-innovative humanoids: Austin, for South-By-Southwest.
Through their massive “Experience NASA” exhibit on the floor of the SXSW trade show, NASA brought us one small step closer to the final frontier with a series of interactive stations that showcased many of NASA’s most exciting missions, including the Mars Rovers, the Orion space capsule, the Space Launch System and the Asteroid Grand Challenge.
Visitors to the exhibit got to touch an actual moon rock, get their photo taken with a fully-suited astronaut and talk with scientists and engineers working on the James Webb and Hubble Space Telescopes.
NASA’s social media manager John Yembrick led a panel discussion called “Live from Space! Talk with Astronauts in Orbit,” where audience members asked questions directly to astronauts Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio 250 miles away – in space.
“You don’t have to go to the movies to feel connected to human spaceflight,” Yembrick said. “Every day on social media astronauts on the International Space Station are sharing their experience with us down here on Earth. The station is not only an outstanding test bed for future space exploration, but also at providing us the human perspective of looking back at our home planet from orbit. Like never before, we can live vicariously through the eyes of the astronauts.”
Other features focused on spacecraft study of daily life on our home planet through mobile applications, interactive websites, near real-time visualizations and social media to deliver meaningful and understandable Earth science data as well as a realistic look at NASA’s planned missions to Mars.
NASA also partnered with the Kerbal Space Program at SXSW Gaming to offer the first look at the process of spearheading a still-highly conceptual effort to find all asteroid threats to human populations and develop a reactionary call to action.
“Sixty-six million years ago, the dinosaurs had a very, very bad day thanks to a really large asteroid,” said NASA Prizes and Challenges Program Executive Jennifer Gustetic. “NASA continues to spearhead a global effort with innovative solutions through participatory engagement to complete the survey of smaller, but still potentially hazardous asteroids.”
One might ask “wouldn’t such an exhibit be better suited to the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum right here in the Nation’s Capital?”
Or posed another way: “Why is NASA exhibiting at South-By-Southwest?”
“NASA is here because we want to share what we’re doing with the public. We’re doing some great things with innovation and technology, and we know such stories appeal to those who attend South By Southwest,” said Shannon Ridinger of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
“We’re building a new rocket, planning our journey to Mars and we just want everybody to know, especially this really, really great crowd, all the great things that NASA’s doing,” says Ridinger.
While some folks feel that because NASA ended its shuttle program, the agency is slowing down, but Ridinger disagrees.
“We’re continuing to build rockets and space systems, we launched Orion on a Delta 4 Heavy rocket and it had a great, great flight and we’re doing a lot of incredible things in support of all our programs, and especially our ongoing mission to the ISS,” says Ridinger.
One of the more popular attractions is a trailer-sized display devoted to life on board the space station complete with video clips and vignettes of everyday activity as well as a look at the various scientific discoveries and research produced in space.
“If you need a 3/8-inch wrench on Earth, you just run down to Home Depot and you’re all set, but if you’re out there in space, there’s no hardware store just around the corner,” said Eddie Gonzales from NASA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. “For that reason, we have a 3D printer on the ISS. Now, if you need that 3/8-inch wrench, you simple create it. That’s the objective.”
While NASA’s ongoing mission to explore the cosmos still in its relative infancy, if the size of the crowds who visited their display in Austin in any indication, they certainly appear to have taken one giant leap toward achieving their public exposure objectives.
Editors Note: Longtime trade show attendees Steve Winter and Kenny Fried are contributing reports from SXSW. In their day jobs, they are public relations professionals with Sage Communications. During SXSW they will not be reporting on any of their clients’ products or those of direct competitors.