CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – NASA’s recent launch of the Mars Science Laboratory rover, more commonly known as “Curiosity”, became a spectacle with tours, celebrities, and activities held to mark the launch of the car-sized planetary rover. It turns out that this is not a new trend, but in the case of recent unmanned missions – it is something that helps to refocus attention on the space agency’s activities.
During the shuttle era, several movies were shot in and around Florida’s Space Coast attracting the likes of Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, and other movie stars. Hanks and Willis are both strong supporters of the space program. With NASA’s fleet of shuttle orbiters retired, it would be an easy bet that celebrities visiting NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) would cease. This, however, has not been the case.
During the launch of Juno this past August, Bill Nye “The Science Guy” presented at both the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex as well as KSC proper where he worked the crowds of the “Tweet Up” that NASA held in honor of the occasion. During the launch of the mirror-image GRAIL spacecraft, which took place approximately a month later, NASA and its retinue of contractors held similar events – the Visitor Complex, for example, had Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek: The Original Series’ “Uhura”, speak, pose for pictures and sign autographs for guests.
For Mars Science Laboratory’s (MSL) launch – all of the stops were pulled out. Bill Nye made a return visit, Black Eyed Peas’ front man Will.I.Am came to the KSC press site and conducted interviews with two-time shuttle veteran, current NASA Associate Administrator for Education and former Dallas Cowboy – Leland Melvin.
Melvin wanted to ensure that the spotlight remained on one person in particular at MSL’s launch – Clara Ma. Ma is a 14-year-old Kansas schoolgirl whose essay and suggested name for MSL would go on to be selected as the official name for the rover – Curiosity.
“The real star of this launch is the young lady who named MSL,” said Melvin. “Clara wrote an essay three years ago and out of all of the other contestants – hers was chosen. The real star of the today’s show is Clara.”
NASA used the launch of Curiosity to inform the assembled media about what the space agency was currently working on and what the public can expect to see take place in the future. Ground support systems, the Commercial Crew Development program, and other NASA projects were all highlighted during highly-coordinated tours.
For its part, the Visitor Complex worked with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to have replicas of the Sojourner, MER, and MSL rovers on display.
“The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is where the public experiences the power and majesty of where America explores the cosmos,” said the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex’s Public Relations Manager Andrea Farmer. “We have these replicas on loan from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This display will be here through March 31, 2012. We hope that anyone that can stop by and check it out at will – it really puts the size of the three generations of rovers into scale.”
Also on display were mockups of NASA’s Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV), as well as the agency’s All-Terrain Hex-Legged Extra-Terrestrial Explorer (ATHLETE).
In the waning days of the shuttle program, NASA worked to group events like this so as to better allow for dissemination of information (with all the media present it maximized the output of information). The press, for their part, appreciated this as it made gathering information much simpler. They liked it so much that the grouping of these events even garnered an unofficial name – “Shuttle-palooza.”
Curiosity launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Nov. 26. It will take the rover some eight and a half months to reach the Red Planet. If all goes according to plan, it is set to spend some 98 weeks on Mars seeking out the building blocks of life.