Internet rumors had been flying around before we tweeps even arrived in Pasadena for the Curiosity Rover landing that “surprises” were in store for us. Somehow we all intuitively knew that this meant a celebrity or two would be stopping by. The two names that I remember being passed around the rumor mill most were the seemingly ubiquitous (lately) Wil Wheaton, and possibly William Shatner. By sunset on the evening of August 5th, the night of the Entry, Descent, and Landing event (EDL), rumors began to circulate on the JPL campus that the VIP gate had been busy. Hearing such tidbits through the grapevine at JPL only added to the illusion of having become somewhat of an insider. We were specifically asked not to tweet any names until we had clear confirmation of a celebrity’s appearance, which made sense to me. Why dull genuine excitement with confusion? Meanwhile I thought for sure Spock, or Sulu, or Captain Priceline would be beaming in any second. Love long and perspire.
Celebrities are like magnets. There is no way around it. On the few occasions I’ve met famous people I’ve tried maintaining a certain level of respectful indifference to their presence. Not overly so, not to seem rude, but I’ve respected their space in public. Also, to some degree I disdain unwarranted worship. Real heroes risk their lives rescuing children or something. Mostly celebrities are simply well known. Sure they can be quite charitable and I appreciate that, but I also expect it. Anyway, this lofty attitude on my part doesn’t change the fact that the energy of the room is focused like laser spectroscopy when he or she comes through that door. Even if you don’t stare, you are constantly glancing. Cameras are flashing away. As they move through the room the energy follows them, as does a small trail of their associates, a remnant of their entourage or so I imagine.
Although famous people obviously raise the news-worthiness of an event, and guarantee top billing for the moment, a concurrent issue seemed to outweigh the PR value of these particular visitors. These celebrities are genuine space science enthusiasts just like me. They signed on because they love space exploration and therefore have a stake in its promotion. We were told they were coming into the media center to talk to us tweeps specifically, and that’s certainly how it felt to me. We were seated in the very front row. There were chairs set up for the celebs right in front of us, not up on the stage, but on our level and only a few feet away.
The celebrities were added to our mix one at a time, each one first giving a short talk, some Q&A, and then each was presented with one of our mission patches and lapel pin. Susan Bell presented them with the patch from one side and then I gave them a pin from the other. It was like we were inducting them as honorary tweeps.
Shortly after celebrity fest began, the front of the room where we were stationed needed to be set up and otherwise prepared for the pending EDL and the celebrities and tweeps were all moved off to the side in an even more intimate arrangement. The celebrities focused on us. They looked us in the eyes, asked us questions, and answered our questions. They patiently allowed tweep after tweep to join them for some of those “look who I’m next to” photos. There were several celeb-tweep group photos arranged as well. And meanwhile, unquestionably each of these folks was excited about the pending EDL of the Mars Curiosity Rover.
will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas was first on deck. He arrived with his close friend, astronaut Leland Melvin, a mission specialist on STS-122, and on STS-129. Melvin was also named the NASA Associate Administrator for Education. These gentlemen are both active advocates of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education. will.i.am talked at length about STEM school programs that he is personally involved with. He especially favors programs that provide tangible practical results in the short run, as an engaging incentive to the students. For example he told anecdotes about one such program that produces next generation transportation technology (smart cars) and the students see real prototypes produced during their tenure with the program.
Alex Trebek of Jeopardy fame talked quite a bit about the inspiration generated by high profile adventures like Curiosity/MSL. He went into depth about his own experience as a youngster, especially being inspired by the Apollo program.
Nichelle Nichols, Lt. Uhura of Star Trek, was so adorable and I told her so. I whispered it to her as I was giving her our mission pin and was rewarded with a hug and a peck on the cheek, which is awesome. That was the most fan boy star struck I felt the whole night, or ever, I’ll face it. Nichelle talked a long time about the effort to recruit women and minorities into NASA, which is a program NASA formally launched and invited her to participate in decades ago. She became involved whole heartedly. She testified before congress about the need to encourage young students to take math and science. She said at one point NASA told her they were going to be hiring a lot more women and minority engineers and she told them they had better or she was going to sue them! Nichelle told lots of stories, including from her Star Trek days. It was a fascinating presentation, an experience unto itself.
June Lockhart, as in Lassie’s mom, Lost in Space June Lockhart! She sat down and asked “So I just talk and you guys…?” she wriggled her fingers like she was typing on an invisible keyboard. We laughed and nodded and of course that’s exactly what transpired. June talked about Apollo including details about her interview with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin back when she hosted the Pasadena Rose Parade. She even talked a bit about Petticoat Junction, of which I just happen to be a big fan. I know, but I am so shut up.
Jay Ferguson of Mad Men. I’ve never actually seen Mad Men. It sounds really good but there are lots of good shows. I mostly record stuff and try to catch up on my favs when I can. I’ve pretty much maxed out on what I can handle with all the different hats I wear and irons I have in the fire. Anyway, Jay is a genuine sincere space science enthusiast and STEM education advocate and even a straight guy like me can tell he’s easy on the eyes.
Wil Wheaton, Wesley on Star Trek Next Gen, and a foil to Felicity Day’s character on The Guild. Wil is one of the friendliest, and most personable, and downright likable people I’ve ever met. It was so obvious that he liked hanging with us, and I think that in us he saw a kindred spirit. All of the celebrities seemed like they doubled as space geeks but Wil didn’t seem like he was there as a celebrity at all. It really seemed more like he was there because JPL, because MSL, because hey, forget about Star Trek, we got freakin’ NASA happening here. He did talk a little bit about how amazing it was being a young co-star flying a warp drive star ship on TV of course, but he spent much more time just conversing with us about all sorts of stuff. He asked us a lot of questions, especially about our experience at JPL. By the end it was quite clear that he really was one of us tweeps.
Bill Prady, a co-creator, writer, and producer of the hilarious hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory. What an excellent show. That’s one I definitely record and watch. You can safely accept that Bill Prady is a very funny and interesting guy. Prady talked a lot about humanity’s verifiable love of exploration and scientific discovery in general. He also talked about how he nailed it getting Jim Parsons to be Sheldon on BBT.
Seth Green, Family Guy, Austin Powers, and much more. Seth is so cool. Seth is one of those guys who seems like someone you went to school with, or met at a bar and just hit it off with. Like Wil Wheaton, he was very interactive with our group. We took phone pics of him, and he took phone pics of us. When we were finally run out of the media room so they could arrange furniture and cameras and such for the landing, Seth led us out. Then he hung out with us so long that eventually he became less noticeable, less of a focus. In fact at one point we returned to our business of working the social networks, downloading and organizing pics from our cameras, digging out snacks from our packs, talking to each other and what not. Seth sort of melted into our group and became just Seth. Yeah, that’s Seth over there. He’s cool. Want an apple? Here I brought plenty.
Abraham Benrubi, ER, Twister, and on and on, his résumé is long and impressive. He is a celebrity, a real star, but he wasn’t ushered in to talk to us as a V.I.P. like the others because he was with us from the beginning. He was chosen like all of us as a legitimate NASA Social JPL tweep. So he was with us throughout the entire JPL experience. Simply put, Abraham Benrubi is a beautiful human being. Abe is the guy I would have most wanted to talk to at length about philosophy, life, creation, consciousness, etc. There just wasn’t time for that. Ever since the event I’ve been following Mr. Benrubi’s postings and I still feel the same way.
There were rumors that other celebrities had arrived and were enjoying JPL hospitality somewhere else on the campus. I never received firm confirmation whether this was actually so. One such rumor for example, it was just a rumor so I won’t reveal his name, but his initials are Morgan Freeman.
The Star Party
Someone said “Hey, the ISS is about to pass over. Let’s go outside and look!” Whereupon a couple of dozen space geeks wandered out and began standing around on the JPL plaza looking up at stars and Mars. Among the mingling, joking, and laughing folks were Seth Green, being hilarious as I’m sure you can imagine, and Abraham Benrubi of course, and Wil Wheaton and his wife Anne. Anne Wheaton wasn’t exactly a wallflower, far from it, but she wasn’t nearly as animated as Wil and Seth. But then who is? In the time since then I’ve followed Anne on Twitter. She is so funny, witty, and delightful. Hell, she’s funnier than Wil. So click and follow her damn it. No really, follow Anne.
So there we were all in one place, a generation lost in space geekness. Cracking jokes and looking at the sky and taking pics of each other. Suddenly the ISS came over and holy cow was it bright. If you weren’t used to how satellites look and move you could easily mistake it for a big jet or something. After it went out of sight we settled back into just hanging out and talking about stuff and laughing at Seth.
Part 1: Mars Curiosity Landing (meeting NASA)
Part 2: Belly of the Beast (inside JPL)
Part 3: VIP Constellation (stars and mars)
Part 4: Safe on Mars (seven minutes of twitter)
NASA Social JPL – VIP Constellation
September 19, 2012