NASA expands the ways people can experience one of its major facilities virtually

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NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland will, for the first time, offer virtual tours, to bring and interactive experience to people at home. NASA experts will lead the online tours, and they’ll feature a live Q-and-A. Federal Drive with Tom Temin‘s Eric White spoke with Glenn Research Center’s Debbie Lockhart.

Interview transcript:

Debbie Lockhart: In normal times, we would host a public tour scheduled throughout the summer. So it typically runs April through October. And we invite guests to register and then come in and actually see one of our highlighted facilities at the center. And due to the coronavirus, the COVID situation happening right now, that’s just not possible. The center is following all of the federal mandates and state policies and that sort of thing. And just unfortunately, we’re not able to invite guests on to the installation to see these world class facilities. So our team sat down and we thought, how can we make this engaging for the public, and how can we still share NASA Glenn’s story? And so we thought, hey well why don’t we do this virtual tour program this year. So just like in past years, from April to October, we’re going to be running our tour program. However, it has changed to fit kind of how things are in today’s world. So it will be completely virtual this year, which we’re actually we’re excited about. It’s something a little bit new for us. And we’re working really closely with our facility managers to come up with a virtual experience that’s going to be really engaging and impactful for the public. And what’s really unique about this is that anyone who participates will get kind of a behind the scenes look at some of the advanced work that NASA is doing. So when you hear about these bigger ticket items, kind of like perseverance, or Artemis, this will kind of give you a chance to see what facilities and what research made those programs possible. So you’ll get to see the ins and outs of the facility where people have verified their data and evaluated the equipment to make sure that those programs would be successful.

Eric White: Yeah, that was going to be one of my first questions. Is this going to be an opportunity for you to take people to places that you wouldn’t necessarily want to bring them in person, because you don’t want to keep a leash on everybody who walks into a research laboratory. But now you have the chance to kind of show them a little bit more in depth to what kind of research is going on.

Debbie Lockhart: Yes, exactly. That’s exactly what we’re doing. So this year, for those interested, you can go to slash NASA Glenn tours and you can see the facilities that we’re offering. But this is really going to give a chance for the public to do a virtual walkthrough. And what’s unique is that we have virtual public tours that are posted on our website right now. So anyone could go to our website at slash Glenn and click on our virtual tours and kind of just poke through the facilities that we have. But the program actually gives people the opportunity to go through those virtual tours with a facility manager or a researcher. And then at the end, we’re offering a question and answer session. So people can ask whatever they whatever they come up with, and really get a personal interaction with the people working in those facilities. And so it’s gonna be a really good program. We’re excited to offer it.

Eric White: So this is more of an expansion of what you all normally do, but just trying to make it a little bit more engaging, since unfortunately, nobody can speak face to face for the foreseeable future.

Debbie Lockhart: Exactly, yeah. So this is this is our effort to kind of bring NASA Glenn into your homes and into just the public view a little bit more. So yes, I would say it’s definitely an expansion of our public tour program that we would typically run. And last year, our public tour program it kind of got just thrown off a little bit with with the coronavirus pandemic. And so, this year, we were trying to get ahead and just kind of foresee where we would be and what we can do to really engage the public.

Eric White: What was the transition like going fully virtual? I imagine you want to speak face to face with people, but since you’re not able to, were there any growing pains, so to speak, of ways that were kind of getting interrupted or things that got in the way of you all being able to do everything you wanted to do?

Debbie Lockhart: Well, yeah, I would definitely say we love being out in the public, and we love sharing Glenn’s story and the mission with with everyone face to face when we can. But you have the safety of the public and our employees and the guests that come on are really important to us. So when we started looking at how we can continue this program, there were definitely a couple of different avenues that we looked at. And ultimately we set out on this virtual tour framework, I guess you could say. Last year in 2020, it was a little different because we had geared up for an in person tour. And so we had all the facilities booked and we had the facility managers were ready to go, our buses were ready. So we had all of everything in place, and then we ended up having to cancel. So we utilize the virtual tours that our office of communication had developed. But in 2020, it was different because we we promoted our virtual tours. But there wasn’t that interaction, basically we promoted each one of the tours that we had on our schedule that year. And we asked the public to submit their questions to us, and then we posted the answers. So they got to ask questions, but it wasn’t as engaging. So we were just really looking at how we can improve. And so with that, I think comes a lot of different obstacles, you want to look at kind of everything and make sure that you’re meeting the needs of the public and you’re staying safe, and that you’re offering the best content that you can. So I think, overall, our public tour team has done a really, really great job the last couple months kind of putting these together. And we actually created a promotional video too, which is on our website that people can see as well. So again, that’s slash NASA Glenn tours. And you can kind of see that so you can get a sneak peek at what we’re offering this year.

Eric White: Have you been able to test this out on anybody yet? And if so, what kind of feedback Did you receive?

Debbie Lockhart: So we haven’t done one of these and tested it out with the public as of yet. So right now we’ve done internal testing. And as we go, we’re learning and we’re making changes as necessary. So hopefully, our first tour is scheduled for April 21. And we’re going to feature our eight by six supersonic wind tunnel with that we’re using these internal tests to kind of tweak our programming and tweak our content and how we logistically offer that to the public so that when the day comes, we should have no problems we should have just kind of a clean way forward.

Eric White: Nobody has any idea, and this might be an unfair question. But looking towards the future, what are you hearing as far as getting back to normal and allowing people to come in face to face tours?

Debbie Lockhart: Well, we definitely know that that this year, it’s going to be 100% virtual. So right now there are federal mandates in place. So all of the federal agencies, just like NASA, we have to follow all of those. And so those will be, I think, looked at again at the end of April. But as of now, we’re most of us are actually working from home remotely. And so we’re doing the best we can with what we have. And I think it’s pretty great. We’ve had a lot of success throughout the last year, even with the pandemic. So we’re hopeful that in 2022, we’ll be able to get back to a little bit more of a normal routine.

Eric White: Did you have a chance to consult with any other agencies or partners when you were coming up with this idea?

Debbie Lockhart: Oh, yeah, definitely. So NASA as an agency, we have a really close knit communications office. And so we meet weekly or monthly, depending on what group it is, whether that’s our speaker’s bureau or our public tours or just our engagement overall. And so we’re constantly talking with our partners at other centers and seeing what works best for them and how we can implement it for us. And so I would say that the synergy in NASA is very, very good. And so we’ve definitely reached out to some partners. And then we also have our visitor center at Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland. And so they’ve done some virtual programming that we’ve been involved with as well. And so just kind of learning from outside agencies and other NASA centers, we’ve been able to kind of move forward and I think we’re putting our best foot forward.


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