In 1981, an era of human space exploration began. NASA launched its first space shuttle, Discovery, in April 1981 and -- since that historic flight -- more than 100 missions have brought hundreds of astronauts into orbit.
In 2011, 30 years after the first launch of Discovery, the shuttle program is drawing to a close and -- on April 29 -- Space Shuttle Endeavour is slated to embark on its final journey to the cosmos on Space Transportation System (STS) Mission no. 134.
Amid funding controversy and the uncertain future of the American space program, the launch of STS-134 will showcase the culmination of decades of engineering and human achievement. Notable for many reasons, Endeavour's final journey will also exemplify an extraordinary feat of the human will as Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords -- the victim of an assassination attempt in January -- will be in attendance to watch her husband and commander of STS-134, Cdr. Mark Kelly, pilot the shuttle into the history books.
Despite all of the scientific and technological accomplishment over the last three decades by NASA engineers, scientists and astronauts, though, the space program has experienced a waning level of public interest. Many question the usefulness of a space program when millions of Americans are out of work. Others may wonder why we haven't gone back to the moon, much less to Mars and beyond.
The shuttle program, however, has meant much more than simply firing human beings into orbit. In fact, without the space program, we would also find ourselves without some technologies considered 'basic' by today's standards. Medical imaging, satellite technologies, fire-retardant fabric and cordless tools all owe their birth to NASA. This facet of the space program, however, does not often reach the public. Enter, the NASA Tweetup.
Twitter has rapidly become one of the most influential social networking websites on the planet. In a single day, Twitter can spark a "celebrity death-rumor" and help facilitate a large-scale political revolution. With its short, concise messaging system, Twitter has evolved into the perfect medium for spreading information to millions of people in a short amount of time. In 2009, NASA took advantage of these features and began to host "Tweetups" (a play on the phrase 'meet up') for dedicated followers of the space program. In March, NASA received well over 4,000 applications from around the world for its most recent event centered on the final launch of Endeavour and selected only 150 lucky attendees, myself included.
These 150 'NASA Tweeters' receive a behind-the-scenes tour of the Kennedy Space Center and the opportunity to meet former NASA astronauts and engineers, as well as full press clearance and the opportunity to view the launch from miles closer than any other civilians. In exchange, NASA Tweeters, well, Tweet and blog about the event and publicize the space program in the hopes that their writing will increase the American space program's visibility among previously unreached audiences.
The NASA Tweetup for STS-134, the final launch of Endeavour, will take place on April 28 and 29, with the launch scheduled for 3:47 p.m. (15:47) EST on the 29th. You can follow my NASA Tweetup experience via my Twitter account or by following the feed located on my Huffington Post bio page. You can also see Tweets from 149 other selected Tweeters -- including Seth Green and LeVar Burton -- by searching the hash tag '#NASATweetup' on Twitter at any time over the next two days and by following NASA's official Tweetup account.