LOCKPORT – When a manufacturer test-fires a rocket Tuesday that the government hopes will someday power a manned space mission to Mars, a Starpoint Central School teacher will be there.
Jeff Tracy has long been a space fan and a rocket hobbyist, but his assignment will be to man social media for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as Orbital ATK, manufacturer of a new booster for NASA, tests the equipment in a public demonstration in Promontory, Utah.
Tracy will be sharing his experiences at the site via his Twitter account, @LockportJTracy, and on Instagram, where his photos can be found at @StarpointJTracy.
The rocket, which won’t actually leave the launch pad Tuesday, is called the Space Launch System, or SLS. Described by NASA as the world’s most powerful rocket, it’s supposed to send astronauts in NASA’s Orion spacecraft to Mars or an asteroid, or robot spacecraft to Mars, Saturn or Jupiter.
The new solid-fuel rocket is to stand 321 feet high with the spacecraft on top. That’s 45 feet shorter than the liquid-fueled Saturn V rocket used on the Apollo moon missions from 1968-72, but the SLS produces far more power: the equivalent of 31 Boeing 747s, according to the company.
Because of his commitments to school – the last day was Thursday – Tracy was planning to drive to Utah and back. The travel and lodging are at his own expense.
“They want us to use our social media accounts to promote what they’re doing,” he said, “to generate some excitement like we had in the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s, even when the space shuttles first took off.”
Tracy said he’s been told to show up early on Tuesday, mainly to avoid being caught in traffic. The test blast is a public event expected to draw a sizable crowd.
Monday, he’s scheduled to attend a meet-and-greet session with Orbital ATK executives and the rest of the NASA social media corps before touring the company’s plant. In the afternoon, he’ll be part of a question-and-answer NASA social media feed.
“I’m a little worried I might be in a little bit over my head,” Tracy confessed. “I mean, I like rockets and I’ve been launching, watching social media and stuff, but I’m not an expert. Once I saw that there was this opportunity out there to be part of it, I’ve been applying and applying, and I finally got picked for something.”
Tracy is a coach in the fitness lab, which augments physical education classes for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at Regan Intermediate School.
He said he has been following NASA on social media for a while, and for the past year or so has been trying to get involved in what the space agency calls NASA Social.
The agency calls it “a program to provide opportunities for NASA’s social media followers to learn and share information about NASA’s missions, people, and programs … Formerly called NASA Tweetup, NASA Social program includes both special in-person events and social media credentials for individuals who share the news in a significant way. This program has brought thousands of people together for unique social media experiences of exploration and discovery.”
Tracy said he was on the waiting list for other events, and he was on the waiting list for the SLS test, too, until he received an email offering him a spot at the Utah blast.
“They’re going to fire it up for about 90 seconds,” he said. “This is NASA’s next generation of rockets.”
For someone who likes to fire off small rockets on Davison Road in Lockport near the Niagara County Golf Course, it is thrilling for Tracy to find himself in the big time, if only for a couple of days.
“We get our own personal viewing area. They just want us to share,” he said. “The big push I made in my application is, me being a teacher – this is a conversation I’ve had with my students – it’s possible one of them could be the first person to walk on Mars.”