NASA astronaut hopes to Twitter from space

Shuttle mission specialist tweets about training and wants to blog from on board Atlantis

A NASA astronaut is hoping to Twitter from space when he flies on the space shuttle Atlantis next month on a mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

Mission specialist Mike Massimino has been using Twitter for a little more than a week now, posting updates on his mission training, along with a few insights into his home life. With only 26 updates under his microblogging belt, the astronaut already has more than 41,600 followers.

"I had not signed up as a Twitter person before, so this is new to me," said Massimino, noting that NASA's public relations team first suggested Twittering about his training. "It's really quick. I can just fire off a message. And the responses have been fun. We go through training and work hard. Sometimes we forget that a lot of people really think what we do is cool. I do more memorable things in one day now than I used to do in two or three years."

Massimino, whose Twitter username is "Astro_Mike," is training for the mission aboard the space shuttle Atlantis, which is set to launch on May 12. Massimino is slated to make a spacewalk during the mission.

NASA noted that this will be Massimino's second trip into space. In 2002, he flew on the STS-109 mission, which also traveled to the Hubble Space Telescope. He made two spacewalks during that mission, the space agency said.

While training for the latest mission, Massimino has been Twittering about practicing the shuttle's rendezvous with the Hubble telescope, training to replace a communications box on the orbiter and, in a personal note, firing up his family's barbecue.

Will he be able to actually Twitter from space? Well, that's still up in the air, so to speak.

In an interview with Computerworld, Massimino said that NASA is trying to figure out technical details that would enable him to Twitter from space. The agency is also working to make sure that the use of Twitter won't affect from Massimino's work schedule on the shuttle.

"We hope to, but we're not sure," he said, adding, "I'm hopeful."

The astronaut also said that NASA hasn't limited what he can say in his tweets. "They pretty much foolishly trust me," he said. "I don't mean to embarrass anyone. I hope I haven't done that. It's an open program we run here. The taxpayers are footing the bill on this. We are the lucky few who get to benefit and participate in the space program and fly in a rocket."

Right now, Massimino is trying to Twitter once or twice a day but says that may fall off a bit as the launch date nears and training intensifies.

Atlantis is expected to spend 11 days in space, with astronauts making a total of five spacewalks to repair and upgrade the telescope.

Last fall, a failed computer in Hubble forced NASA to remotely switch the orbiter over to an onboard backup system. NASA engineers made the switch-over from a room in the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., while the telescope hurtled along its orbit around Earth at 17,500 mph.

Atlantis had been scheduled to service the Hubble telescope last fall, but the mission was postponed because of the telescope's computer problems. It was rescheduled for May 12, when astronauts will bring up new instrumentation, along with a new camera that is designed to give the orbiter the ability to see 10 times farther and faster, according to Massimino.

Hubble's capabilities will be expanded and its lifetime extended through at least 2014 through the astronauts' visit, NASA said.

Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory last May used Twitter to send alerts to its followers about the status of the Phoenix Mars Lander as it descended and touched down on the Red Planet. Those messages were sent during what NASA has described as "seven minutes of terror" as the lander entered the Martian atmosphere and braked from 13,000 mph to 5 mph for its descent and touchdown.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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