Seven Minutes of Terror

I’m taking advantage of my column this month to talk about something that seems completely unrelated to EI2, but I promise to connect it back in the last few paragraphs. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the story!

On the evening of Sunday, August 5th, a crowd started gathering in the Hodges Room on the 3rd floor of Centergy. By 6:00 pm, we had 20 people. By the official kickoff at 7:00, we had over 100 people. Within a few hours, we had over 200 people — wedged into the Hodges Room, the pre-function area, the Dublin Room across the hall, and the hallway in between. Over the course of the evening, we gave away over 300 wristbands!


Because of this video:

Seven Minutes of Terror

I’ve always been disappointed in NASA’s marketing and PR capabilities. To echo an old phrase, “If NASA were selling sushi, they’d market it as ‘cold dead fish.'” But, with the impending landing of the Mars Science Laboratory (nicknamed “Curiosity”), someone at NASA got it right. JPL released the “Seven Minuues” video with great production values, a compelling story, and just the right amount of hype. It started spreading all over the Internet through social media channels.

(Most people now call this “going viral,” but they’re wrong. That’s a different blog post for a different audience.)

Suddenly, people were excited about an unmanned NASA science mission!

Part of it was the inherent coolness of putting a nuclear-powered laser-armed robot tank on another planet, complete with HDTV cameras.

Part of it was the compelling narrative: from the toaster-sized Sojourner rover in 1997, to the plucky twins Spirit and Opportunity (landed in 2004 with a planned ninety-day design lifetime, but Opportunity is still going, seven years later!), to the newest MSL rover, which is the size of my car. Surely this was all building up to a human mission someday?

And part of the fascination was the preposterous James-Bond-like landing sequence, where the parachutes are cut loose and the rover descends the last few feet to the surface dangling by cables from a rocket-powered “skycrane.”

People started paying attention. On the West Coast, various NASA centers started scheduling “landing parties” to watch the show. “Shared pain is lessened, shared joy is increased” — win or lose, this was something that should be experienced in a group.

Celestial mechanics doesn’t respect puny human time zones… so landing was scheduled for 10:30 pm Pacific Time (mission control is at JPL in Pasadena). Not so bad for the West Coasters, but that’s 1:30 in the wee hours of Monday morning, August 6th for us on the East Coast. Ouch.

Enter the Atlanta Science Tavern. The Tavern is a floating set of meetings, field trips, and social outings in the Atlanta area to make science accessible to non-professionals. Marc Merlin decided to use the MSL landing as the hook for a Planetary Science Symposium… bring together a handful of live speakers doing research on planetary science (not just Mars), then switch to the JPL live feed for the landing.

Cissa and I attend the Atlanta Science Tavern meetups frequently, and I’ve been a speaker there twice. Marc asked me to help him find speakers from Georgia Tech, and mentioned he was having trouble finding a venue that would be open until 3:00 am on a Monday night. He was afraid he might have to use someone’s home, and limit attendance to 40 or so people.

I offered the Hodges Room.

After coming over to check out the facilities and the A/V, Marc put the event on their website. and the registrations started rolling in. We were hoping for 100 people, but blew past that in the first day. By the time we passed 200 (the Hodges Room seats 120), we decided to open up the brand-new Dublin Room for overflow.

Fast-forward through a lot of prep work by Johanna Kaiser and Matt Hummell, and the A/V team started showing up mid-afternoon on Sunday. (Four projection screens, including the pre-function room and the Dublin Room, plus livestreaming to the world.) Guests started showing up early, and the crowd became pretty constant for the next eight hours!

Mars Landing Party at Georgia Tech


The live speakers were great:

Irena Mamajanov
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Center for Chemical Evolution, Georgia Tech

In the Beginning: The origin of life on Earth and elsewhere

Carol Paty
Assistant Professor, School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Tech

The future of outer solar system exploration lies with JUICE (JUpiter ICy-moon Explorer)

Thomas Orlando
Associate Dean in the College of Sciences, Professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Adjunct Professor in the School of Physics, Georgia Tech

The Moon and Mercury: Water, water everywhere?

James Wray
Assistant Professor, School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Tech

Mars exploration from the 17th century through tonight

Ginny Mauldin-Kinney
NASA-JPL Solar System Ambassador, Graduate Student, Department of Geosciences, Georgia State University

The Mars Curiosity Rover – Assessing the conditions for life on the Red Planet

(Yes, Georgia Tech was a little over-represented. That’s a feature, not a bug!)

Lectures and Q&A took an hour apiece, which got us to midnight. Lots of good questions from the audience… and it appears that people in over a dozen countries were watching the simulcast! Then it was time to switch to the NASA JPL feed.


Some people had had to go home because of babysitters or Monday morning work requirements, but we still had nearly 200 people at 1:00 am. Then people started holding their breath for the Seven Minutes of Terror.

(For those of us on Twitter, it was more like Five-and-a-Half Minutes of Terror, since NASA TV was running about ninety seconds behind the real-time Twitter feed. So we had seen “Touchdown!” tweeted many times before the TV stream caught up and the room broke out in cheers… Kind of an odd experience.)

A few minutes later, MSL sent back a grainy black-and-white photo of one of its wheels on a gravel surface, and the room exploded again… That was evidence that enough subsystems had survived undamaged that MSL would be able to at least start delivering science. (Of course, as we discovered over the next few days, the news was even better than that, and MSL has already started rolling across the Martian surface.)

Touchdown celebration for MSL

And the party stared breaking up. Marc had arranged for volunteers to take out the trash, and to escort single guests to their cars. By breakfast-time, you’d never know we were there.

So the Mars Landing Party was a resounding success. I suspect it’s the largest event ever held in the Hodges Room, and it gave us a great chance to showcase our facility as well as the work of four Georgia Tech researchers. Most of the attendees had no connection to Georgia Tech — several said it was the first time they’d ever been on campus! — so it was nice to put our best foot forward.

And although not usually as exciting as a Mars landing, we host lots of meetings. Last year, we hosted nearly 300 meetings, and over 15,000 people attended events in EI2’s meeting rooms. (There’s some double-counting in there, but still, it’s a lot of people!)

Johanna and Matt do a lot of work to keep these events flowing smoothly. We charge a little bit for the use of our rooms… barely enough to cover our costs. (You can see the price list here.) It’s an important but underappreciated part of our service mission, and I wanted to use the Mars party to highlight a great example of outreach to the community.

We refreshed the Hodges Room last year, and the completely-rebuilt Dublin Room comes online next month. These are a great asset for our clients, partners, and friends… please recommend them when people are looking for meeting space!



Video credit: NASA JPL
Photos courtesy of and © 2012 by Lorikay Photography at Studioplex