There is something of a disconnect between those who believe NASA, the U.S. space agency, to be the coolest thing since lined paper and those who find it thunderously irrelevant. In order to bridge that gap, NASA has instituted a series of Tweetups, one of which is happening now.

With the Shuttle program ending and manned flights decreasing, the organization is losing some of its primary purchase on the public imagination: human beings in space. Perhaps some direct contact and distributed reporting may help to sustain and even grow interest in NASA’s programs.

Stephanie Schierholz, NASA’s social media manager, gave us the low-down.

“We began the Tweetups as another way to reach out and share what the agency does with the nation. Our mission is to communicate the space program’s work as widely as possible, and Twitter and Tweetups are just one way we do that . . . We recognize that not everyone can experience NASA behind the scenes, but it’s much more meaningful if someone you know has experienced and shared it. In addition, as media have been getting rid of their space beat reporters, it helps us spread information easily.”

NASA is not sending all its space suits to storage, according to Schierholz, but there are going to be fewer helmets on the hatrack.

“The space shuttle missions are scheduled to end soon – STS-134 in February 2011 is the last scheduled mission. A mission after that in June 2011 has been approved by Congress but not appropriated. However, that does not mean US human spaceflight ends – we will continue to send NASA astronauts to the space station at least through 2020. In the near-term, the NASA astronauts will ride to and from the station on Soyuz.”

Not surprisingly, a NASA Tweetup has a unique element, according to Schierholz.

“Because we’re a secure government facility and they come on site, they had to go through a security check. That’s different than a Tweetup at Neiman Marcus!”

A comedian, eh? Well strap in for the astronaut-in-a-diaper joke, because I assure you, it is coming.

The program is new, though not brand-spankingly. The first Tweetup took place in January of 2009, the latest is going on now. Another is planned next week, on November 10. They have taken place at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, Johnson Space Center in Texas and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, many of them tied to launches.

The Tweetups can be pretty simple or they can be day- or days-long events replete with tours and lectures by astronauts. What does the Twitter user gain? Space-age super insight, like this from Ken Buxton’s conversation with International Space Station Astronaut Clayton Anderson.

“He remembered getting to sleep and then waking up in the middle of the night and having to go to the bathroom, which was at the other end of the Space Station, then making that long fly from one end to the other and back again. He finally decided it was easier for him to just wear a diaper to bed, and use that.”

Done and done.

The coverage is wholly dependent on the interests, experience and personality of the Twitter user, of course. Some are much more attentive to the technical details, others to the historical. But regardless, it is a way to create a pipeline directly to the pubic, whose support or lack of it can have a real effect on NASA’s mission. Access is the key, let people in, let their enthusiasms infect their friends and followers.

To follow the Tweetups in real time, NASA has created the Buzzroom. Note the list of Twittering astronauts across the top! (Neat.) Registration for the Tweetups opens on that page for followers of the NASA Twitter account.

NASA Tweetup Twitpics by Leslie Bradshow, AKA Lt. Commander Awesome!