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Tweeters ... in ... spaaaace!

NASA file

NASA astronaut Catherine Coleman, a.k.a. @astro_cady, uses one of the computers in the International Space Station during her six-month stay.

Has it really been two years since a NASA astronaut sent down the first Twitter update from outer space? The online world has changed since then: Every shuttle crew member will be on Twitter for Atlantis' final flight, scheduled in July — for the first (and the last) time in the 30-year space shuttle program.

But that's just one part of NASA's Twitter campaign. Thousands of Twitter users are waiting to find out if they'll be among the lucky 150 to take part in the space agency's last shuttle mission "tweetup."

The tweetup tradition dates back two years as well, to a time even before astronaut Mike Massimino sent that first tweet from orbit ("Launch was awesome!!"). The event makes it possible for Twitter users of all stripes to take part in tours and briefings at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, and then see the launch in person from the press site. More than 4,000 Twitter users applied to be on hand for Endeavour's launch last month, and although the applications for the Atlantis tweetup still have to be fully sorted, NASA says the numbers of would-be tweeters is shaping up to be higher.

NASA says it will release the list of 150 tweetup participants by June 10. The hashtag #NASAtweetup is already generating a new wave of buzz in anticipation of the mission, and the traffic will surely get heavier as the launch date approaches.

There will probably be more tweets as well from Atlantis' four crew members: commander Chris Ferguson (@Astro_Ferg), pilot Doug Hurley (@Astro_Doug), Sandy Magnus (@Astro_Sandy) and Rex Walheim (@Astro_Rex). If you want to track all the NASA astronauts at once, you can just follow @NASA_Astronauts.

Ron Garan (@Astro_Ron) is the astronaut to watch for updates from the International Space Station. But don't limit yourself to his text tweets: He's sending a steady stream of pictures from orbit via his Twitpic account as well as his Fragile Oasis website. How does he do it? Garan and other astronauts on the space station have a high-speed data connection that links their laptops in orbit to a computer desktop on Earth — which is connected in turn to the Internet. The arrangement is explained in this news release from NASA, and in this tweet from Garan himself.

It's important to remember that the space shuttle and space station crews aren't the only twitterers at NASA. In fact, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., is sponsoring its own tweetup on Monday. About 120 participants will get a tour of the lab and hear about several upcoming missions, including the Aquarius mission to monitor the world's oceans, the Grail mission to study the moon's gravity field, the Curiosity rover's upcoming trip to Mars and the Dawn probe's encounter with the asteroid Vesta.

Truth be told, NASA's tweeting robots are way ahead of the astronauts. The Phoenix Mars Lander made a huge splash three years ago, and even though the Phoenix probe has been dead for two and a half years, the mission's ghostwriters at JPL are still tweeting away — and Phoenix is followed by more than 127,000 Twitter users. That's more than 100 times as many followers as Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson has today. Will that situation change as Atlantis' launch nears? Maybe it's time for Ferguson and his crewmates to turn up the tweets ... as if they didn't have enough to do already.

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