NASA's Kennedy Space Center-based public affairs team will be hard at work Thursday blogging for the world about the launch preparations for Space Shuttle Atlantis and the STS-122 mission, set to roar off into the Florida sky at 4:31 p.m. EST. The team will kick off the moment-by-moment Launch Blog about five or six hours before lift-off. The team then plans to return 11 days later to produce the shuttle Landing Blog. All on the recently updated NASA.gov. [More info from NASA about its plan for Web coverage of the Atlantis launch is here.]
Cheryl Mansfield is one of four public affairs Web writers working out of the NASA News Center (otherwise known as the Press Site) at Kennedy Space Center. The four are actually contractors rather than direct NASA employees, working directly under the Kennedy NASA Web editor, Jeanne Ryba.
The group not only covers all NASA launches and shuttle landings on the blog, but also writes features, video scripts, webcasts, Flash animation content, and curates both agency-level and Kennedy Web pages. In addition, each has a separate 'beat,' and Cheryl's is the International Space Station.
Cheryl says for each mission one of the four writers serves as "curator," meaning the writer takes the helm for both shuttle mission blogs, with other team members offering plenty of support. "Really, the blog is just one part of all we do for each mission," she says. "Since we can have multiple missions going on at the same time, having one writer designated for each keeps it all moving.
"For instance, in August we were covering the Phoenix mission, which was high profile since it was related to Mars, and STS-118 at the same time. I had Phoenix and my office-mate had STS-118. In addition to the curator, the other writers handle other parts of the coverage, like the webcast, question board, videos and photo galleries. It really takes about 10 of us to pull off all the aspects of launch-day coverage on the web." Cheryl served as chief blogger for both Launch Blog and Landing Blog for the Oct. 23 to Nov. 7, 2007 STS-120 mission (Discovery launch photo above).
Cheryl started in TV news after earning a degree in speech and journalism. She moved to public affairs fairly quickly, and relocated to Washington where she worked on Capitol Hill as a Senate staffer for eight years. Cheryl then went to work at Kennedy Space Center for almost nine years, first as a Web curator and technical writer for a software group before moving to the NASA Web team a little over three years ago. Much of our discussion took place after Discovery's launch and before its landing, and focused primarily on Launch Blog.
What is the genesis of Launch Blog? Who thought it up and what are the goals and ideas behind it?
The Launch Blog has evolved from what used to be called the Virtual Launch Control Center. The approach is similar, but since the previous name was a little vague (could have been mistaken for a Flash program describing Launch Control) we switched the name to NASA Launch Blog, thinking at this point the general public would better understand what to expect. I'm not really sure it fits what has become a traditional blog format, but our goal is to provide up-to-the-minute countdown coverage to the NASA web audience. In many ways, we mirror the NASA TV coverage and provide selected video clips along with our commentary.
The "where" and "how" both differ depending on whether it is a shuttle or ELV [expendable launch vehicle] launch. For shuttle, we blog from the press site, listening to the comm box and NASA TV. Access to the comm box gives us a heads up on what might be coming down the pike as far as how things are proceeding and any potential problems. However, until final decisions are made and official action is taken, we do not report it. Once decisions are final, both NASA TV and our blog report those to the public as quickly as possible.
For ELV missions, a writer is actually sitting in the Launch Vehicle Data Center at Cape Canaveral AFS [Air Force Station] and blogs from there. In either case, we have a great copy editor who does the QC [quality control] on the page, checking for our typos.
How many times have you blogged Shuttle launches? What are the challenges to doing that? What are the best parts?
Personally, I've done the shuttle blog twice (STS-115 and STS-120). The way it works is that one writer takes the lead on each mission, whether it is shuttle or ELV, taking care of the mission main pages leading up to launch and creating the launch-related pages. Then on launch day, the blog kicks in and all the writers have different assignments -- main page updates, video page, photo gallery, while the countdown is in progress. One of the cool things I enjoy about curating a shuttle mission is getting to write the mission overview at the end of the mission.
As for challenges -- for me personally it is listening to four channels on the comm box, NASA TV, getting instant messages and writing all at the same time, and doing it as fast and accurately as possible. When things are getting down to the final minutes, the publishing of the page can seem slow and so it's knowing how to group the information and when to hold off for that big liftoff publish.
We wait until we see the liftoff on NASA TV, publish the page, then run out the door to catch a few minutes of the ascent before dashing back inside to blog the booster separation. And you're right, in the middle of the night, it can feel less than glamorous! But I think that's true for any job, because I remember the same thing with Capitol Hill and TV news. It's really important every now and then to step back and appreciate the unique experience with a little perspective. I'll remind myself of that when my alarm goes off at 12:30 a.m. to come in for the STS-120 landing!
Were you or any of your team present and writing/blogging during the Columbia accident in 2003? And how would your blog cover a similar event today? How much detail would your blog go into?
The blog didn't yet exist in 2003 and the solo Web writer here worked just on the Kennedy pages at the time. Now we work primarily on the main shuttle site (and curate the Kennedy site as well) so times have changed.
I pray we never have to cover any kind of accident again, but in that event, we would report what we knew and probably then close the blog and post all further updates on the main shuttle page (where we do simultaneous updates anyway during launch, and JSC [Johnon Space Center] does them during landing). It would be the call of our NASA Web editor when that switch would come, but we probably would put all our efforts into updating the main shuttle page since it would be the first place the public would go for news.
Extra credit: Can I have your job?
Every now and then one of our group leaves (last one was in April) so stay in touch!
[Following the landing of Discovery, Municipalist got back to Cheryl for two follow-up questions.]
Can you contrast the challenges to writing the landing blog to writing the launch blog? Also: Have you heard from readers? What do they think of both of those blogs?
I think the main difference is that [while writing the landing blog] we don't have the visuals to describe the way we do with launch. Everything is happening "up there" and in mission control, but you don't have the visuals with the milestones. You can tell them what the "deorbit burn" is but we're not going to see it, so it's just not as colorful. But thankfully the coverage is shorter -- we go live one hour before the first scheduled time for deorbit burn, so basically two hours before touchdown, unless they wave off. Touchdown itself is exciting, but it's some time before the astronauts get off and walk around the orbiter. In fact, we've struggled with knowing when to end the blog because of that. As for feedback, we really don't have a mechanism for it. [Cheryl also produced a mission overview for STS-120. And here is a feature she did on a new launch pad imagery system.]
[UPDATES: More NASA blogs here. Next up for Municipalist: Shana Dale. NASA.gov's version 5.0 Web site update launched Dec. 1, the first major overhaul of that site in four years. It is a dramatic upgrade. NASA announcement here. Wired magazine here. New York Times here. What do you think of the new look? NASA Watch wants to know.]