All roads lead to Rome. Also, all Roman roads are trying to kill you.

Napoli. Sidewalks are for the weak.

If you are considering traveling to Italy, particularly Rome, please note the following very important information before approaching the roads there on foot or in a vehicle.

  • Crossing the street in Italy is a precise timing exercise involving moving between the few cars that will stop for you and the more common cars that will swerve slightly to avoid getting your guts on their paint. Luckily, there is sophisticated training software that can prepare you for pedestrian activity in the country: The tutorial app is known as “Frogger.” Do not walk in Italy until you can consistently reach at least level 17.
  • There is evidence that Italian taxis can collapse spacetime around them to pass through openings that are actually smaller than the vehicle. The alternate theory is that the vehicles are constructed using the same technology as cats.
  • Roman vehicles are not subject to traditional physical laws, but rather they follow those normally found only in video games. The only reason the roads are not strewn with flaming wrecks is that collision detection is disabled and driving physics have been turned down to “simple.”
  • The purpose of lane markings on Italian roads has yet to be determined by scientists. So far, researchers have only proven they are under no circumstances ever used to actually separate or line up traffic.
  • In Rome, people will park anywhere. Observed last week: An SUV with its front wheels on the sidewalk. A Smart Car parked in a building’s lobby. Five two-seater cars fitting in two spots in a pattern normally only achievable in Tetris.
  • If you are considering driving yourself when visiting Rome, may we suggest instead one of the following alternate activities which are considerably safer: Removing an impacted tooth from a Komodo dragon. Spelunking in active volcano tubes. Drawing editorial cartoons featuring prophets. Dissing Lee Greenwood at a Trump rally. Live-grenade badminton.

Italian drivers don’t stop being dicks just because they’re parked.

— Denny Atkin, 4/2017

Orion: First Step to Deep Space

On December 3 and 4, I’ll be part of a lucky group of 150 people chosen from thousands of applicants to attend the NASA Social event for the first launch of Orion, NASA’s next space vehicle. On Wednesday, we’ll tour Kennedy Space Center in the morning, and from 1-3 pmoriononpad EST we’ll be the audience for a NASA TV broadcast about the upcoming launch. We’ll hear from scientists and engineers supporting the Orion program, and hopefully get a chance to see it on the launch pad. Then, on Thursday, we’ll be up during the pre-dawn hours to head out to the NASA Causeway, where if all goes well we’ll be able to witness the launch from the press area just a couple of miles away. I’ll be covering the launch on this blog, and tweeting live at @dennya on Twitter.

Orion-moon-config

What is Orion?

Orion is a new space capsule that’s a component in NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System, the crewed successor to the Space Shuttle program that will be used to travel to the moon, asteroids, or even Mars. Orion resembles the Apollo Command Modules of the 60s and 70s, but with room for four to six astronauts, and modern 21st century technology inside. Like the Apollo capsules, Orion will return to Earth via parachutes, and will splash down in the ocean for recovery.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KyZqSWWKmHQ]

Orion will be protected during reentry by a huge 16.5-foot diameter heat shield on the bottom of the capsule, as well as 970 Space Shuttle-style tiles surrounding the upper portion. As with Apollo, an escape rocket will be mounted above Orion to pull the astronauts to safety should something go wrong during launch.

Though NASA is promoting Orion as the first step towards Mars, the capsule isn’t roomy enough to support a trip of that length. By itself, it can support a crew of four for up to 21 days in space, so it would be paired with a habitat module that could allow for longer trips, and possibly a crew of up to six. (And hopefully a lander as well, if they’re going that far!) Current proposed initial crewed flights for Orion include a possible test flight around the moon (with no landing) and an asteroid recovery mission. The asteroid mission is particularly ambitious: a robotic tug will fly out to the asteroid belt, snag a small asteroid, and bring it back into orbit around the Moon. Then astronauts will fly to the asteroid on Orion to do scientific investigation.

This Week’s Flight

The launch I’m attending, Exploration Flight Test-1, is an uncrewed first test of Orion’s systems, designed to ensure that everything works as planned before the first flights with astronauts aboard. The 4.5 hour flight will include two orbits of Earth, reaching a peak altitude of 3,609 miles in order to simulate a re-entry speed similar to what will be experienced returning from the moon.

This flight will test the capsule’s systems and shielding, making sure that Orion can safely protect human passengers from the heavy radiation it will encounter passing through the Van Allen Belt around the Earth. The capsule is heavily instrumented to measure heat, radiation, and other criteria throughout the flight.

During re-entry, the Orion capsule will face temperatures of up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 80% of the 5,000-degree temperatures expected during a return from lunar orbit. A series of 11 drogue and main parachutes will slow the capsule down, culminating in the deployment of three 116-foot-diameter main chutes that lower the capsule’s speed to less than 20 mph for splashdown. As with the Apollo capsules, US Navy ships will be standing by to recover Orion from the ocean.

launch-config

Because the Space Launch System rocket – a monstrously huge craft, bigger than a Saturn V, which uses updated Space Shuttle main engines and stretched versions of the Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters – isn’t yet ready to test fly, Orion will be lofted to orbit by a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket. It will be interesting to compare the power and noise from the last launch I attended: STS-135, the final flight of the Space Shuttle program.

Next Steps

There’s some criticism that Orion doesn’t have a clear mission. But by the time Orion is ready to fly with a crew, we’ll have a new administration in office, so its first destination will likely be determined by whoever is President then. It’s an unfortunate reality of our system that, as governments change, long-term programs like Orion often get re-tasked or reset. In fact, the Orion capsule was originally designed as part of NASA’s Constellation rocket program, which President Obama canceled after taking office. We’d likely be much closer to flying to an actual destination had there not been a political reset of the Shuttle successor, and hopefully the next administration will support this existing effort to reach out past our planet’s orbit and not force similar delays and resets. Orion alone is not an interplanetary craft, but it’s the first step in developing a craft that can take humans past the moon and into a future where we’re not fully dependent upon one planet for our continued survival.

— Denny Atkin

NASA Orion page  http://www.nasa.gov/orion

Orion Press Kit with full details and timeline of the launch: http://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/files/JSC_OrionEFT-1_PressKit_accessible.pdf

 

EA Selected by Disney/Lucasfilm for Future Games

I’m excited to hear that Electronic Arts has been selected to produce the next wave of Star Wars games after the shuttering of LucasArts. The news that DICE, BioWare, and Visceral will be doing Star Wars titles should please most gamers.star-wars-logo

Now, I probably shouldn’t post this, but I just got hold of a secret document outlining EA’s 2015 gaming lineup, and I had to share the excitement!

  • Battlefield: Hoth
  • The Sims 5: Tatooine
  • Jane’s Combat Simulations: Incom T-65 X-Wing
  • Need for Landspeeder
  • Sarlacc Age: Origins
  • Blasterstorm
  • Kingdoms of Alderaan: Reckoning
  • B.A.N.T.H.A.
  • Command & Conquer 27: Corellian Dawn
  • Force Effect
  • Medal of Honor Spaceborne
  • American McGee’s Leia
  • Madden NFL 16
  • Archon III: The Light and the Dark Sides
  • Plants vs. Wookies
  • Trash Compactor Keeper
  • MySims Podrace
  • Privateer 3: Millenium Falcon
  • Rock Band Cantina

Pebble: The First Great Smartwatch

The $150 Pebble isn’t the first smartwatch, but it’s the first really good smartwatch. The category isn’t new: Microsoft had its Spot Watch, which could read sports scores, news, and other info over a data radio; Fossil had the Wrist PDA, which was essentially a Palm Pilot with a wrist strap; and there were even wrist straps to convert Apple’s iPod Mini into a big and awkward watch. All of these solutions had issues: price, size, functionality, a lack of style, etc.

pebble

The Pebble succeeds because it doesn’t try to somehow fit a full-function, color computing device on your wrist. Instead, it pairs via Bluetooth with your iOS or Android smartphone and acts as an accessory for it. It can display incoming text messages, caller ID, and notifications from applications like Facebook on its battery-friendly, Kindle-like, e-paper screen. You can also use it as a remote control for music playback, pausing or skipping songs.

PebbleData

Along with displaying caller ID when your phone rings, the watch itself can vibrate as well to alert you to the incoming call. This is a very welcome feature for those of us who sometimes don’t feel the phone vibrating when it’s silenced.

The watch itself is just slightly thicker than a typical digital watch. It uses a standard 22mm watchband, so you can replace it if you want something more stylish than the black plastic strap it comes with. The 1.26-inch, 144×168 pixel monochrome e-paper display is crisp, if not particularly high-res. It’s very visible in bright sunlight, unlike the color displays used on some smartwatches. It also has a backlight which can be activated using a button, or just by flicking your wrist.

There’s a trio of built-in watchfaces, with new ones appearing on a daily basis in the Pebble forums and on the MyPebbleFaces website. Here’s my initial collection:

PebbleWatchfacesAlong with the custom watchfaces, there’s the promise of custom applications. Right now there are a few that have been created using the watch face development kit: stopwatches, Tetris, and so on. Once the full software development kit is available, there’s the promise of more sophisticated applications. The one I’m hoping for is an exercise tracker that will use the accelerometer in the watch to duplicate the functionality of the Nike+ Fuelband I’ve relegated to my right wrist, so I can stop dual-wielding devices. Pebble’s a small company, though, and the watch they projected delivering to me in September, 2012 didn’t arrive until April, 2013, so I won’t be surprised if the SDK takes a while to fully gel.

The watch comes with a magnetic USB charging cable. Battery life is rated at about a week; I just throw it on the charging cable next to my bed at night occasionally. The Pebble is rated as waterproof down to 165 feet, so no worries wearing it while showering, swimming, or snorkeling.

You can’t go out and buy a Pebble watch right now. Its development was funded using Kickstarter.com (I paid for the one I just received a few days after it was launched, in mid-2012), and as of April 2013 the company was finally almost finished shipping units to the early investors. Right now you can preorder a Pebble with planned shipping in Spring 2013. (If you really want one, you can buy one now on Amazon, but sellers are making a significant profit as of this writing.)

Some people stopped wearing watches with the advent of smartphones, because they could just look at the phone to see the time. But for the same reason I continue to wear a watch — it’s far more convenient to just glance down at your wrist than to pull out your phone and turn it on — Pebble makes info on your wrist even more attractive. It lets you keep the phone in your pocket even more often. If you get a text during a meeting, just glance at your wrist to read it. Call during the movie? Look down and see if it’s an emergency call from the babysitter or something less important.

And it even tells time.

— Denny Atkin

Oblivion: A Movie for Science Fiction Fans

Went to see Oblivion today and I was really surprised at how much I loved it. As in, one of my favorite science fiction movies in recent years.

This really felt like a much faster-paced version of an early 70s (2001 era) SF film. The clean, utopian machines and architecture, the lack of aliens lurking in the ductwork or old-west style shootouts with lasers… It’s not perfect, but science fiction fans should really dig it.

My neighbor mentioned that some of the more negative reviews he’d read cited sequences as derivative or reminiscent of other films. Perhaps, but this isn’t some sort of Frankenstein focus-group assemblage of popular sequences. With 111 years of science fiction films behind us now, it’s a bit hard to craft a completely original experience. The story is interesting, original, and not predictable.

My 10-year-old son, who would be asleep in the first 15 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, loved it as well. Halfway through he asked “Are all real science-fiction movies this good?”

I’d suggest NOT reading reviews, and avoiding trailers if you haven’t seen them, as there are some moments in the movie that are much more enjoyable if you see them unfold, without expectations as to what will happen. Just go see it. If you’ve ever enjoyed a science fiction book, I think you’ll like Oblivion.

Caveat: If you’re looking for a more typical Tom Cruise action flick, this might not be the movie for you. Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol this ain’t.

I posted a new review over on GoodReads:

Lost in Shangri-laLost in Shangri-la by Mitchell Zuckoff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Exciting and fascinating book. Zuckoff does a brilliant job interviewing survivors and witnesses, really giving you a “you are there” feeling despite the incident happening over 60 years ago. The crash and subsequent (spoiler!) rescue are enthralling, but much of what makes this book shine is the look at the isolated New Zealand tribes that the survivors interacted with. Watching the survivor and members of a pre-technological society who had never seen outsiders interact and try to understand each other is perhaps the most interesting part of the book. An excellent read for both the adventure and anthropological aspects.

View all my reviews

NASATweetup Day 2, Part 2: Go for Launch? Really?

As we returned from the cafeteria, the skies were looking surprisingly tame. Might we actually get to see a launch today? The buzz around the Twent wasn’t consistent: Some said we were still green for launch, while others had heard there were no-go rain clouds downrange. The excitement was building, but we all tried to temper it because the official word was still a 30% chance of a launch.

With less than half an hour to go before the scheduled launch, @MituK and I headed outside to set up our cameras on our tripods. I got mine set up and started working on figuring out the exposure when Mitu reminded me that I was going to loan her my extra zoom lens. “Oh, sure, I’ll go back and grab it,” I said out loud, while thinking “But what if I trip on the way back to the tent? What if a baby alligator crawls up to my tripod and I’m not there to scare it away? What if…” But I steeled myself to step away from my carefully secured vantage point and headed back to grab the lens.

I walked in the Twent just in time to hear the end of the launch status check, as the mission controllers asking the various groups for their go/no-go calls. Not believing my ears after steeling myself for disappointment all day, I asked a guy standing near me, “Did he just say we’re go for launch?” “Yes, he did!”

I grabbed my lens and once again floated, rather than ran, back out to the camera line. I handed @MituK the lens and told her “Go for launch!” I can’t think of many things I’ve ever said to anyone that have elicited a smile that big. I looked around for the rest of the #NerdForceOne crew, but @CelticFeminist and @lartist were elsewhere in the crowd.

We were behind and to the right of the countdown clock, so we couldn’t see it and we were dependent on the folks behind us for updates. “Two minutes!” Holy Moly, they really were going to launch this thing! My camera all set, remote shutter in my hand (so I could watch the launch directly instead of through the eyepiece), I let the excitement build. It’s going up!

“Thirty seconds!” someone called. I pressed the shutter release on the Canon SD4000 pocket camera that I’d MacGuyvered to the top of my T2i DSLR to capture launch video. I grabbed a couple more shots of the last time a Space Shuttle would ever sit on Pad 39A.

And then… nothing. Soon it became clear that more than 30 seconds had passed. What was happening? Were the astronauts in danger? Was this a pad abort? Did we get that close and scrub? A wave of intense disappointment crushed down on me. I figured if anything went wrong this close to launch, we’d be in for a few days of investigation and we’d miss the launch.

Then, out of a crowd that had grown deadly quiet, someone says “The clock is moving again! Thirty seconds!” Disappointment instantly replaced by a staggering level of excitement! Just 30 seconds? Restarted the video (forgot to zoom this time, darnit), finger on the DLSR shutter release, and ready for launch!

“Ten.. Nine…Eight…” I joined in the count. After the crazy storms of Thursday, the bleak prediction for Friday weather, and the unexpected hold, getting to this point in the countdown seemed an impossible goal. But then the white smoke began to billow out from below the shuttle, and the group erupted into a roar of excitement. Atlantis began to slowly and silently rise from the behind the launchpad, riding on a pillar of fire that seemed as bright as the sun. Then, an earthquake-like vibration passed across the ground below us, and suddenly we heard and felt the roar and crackle of the engines. It’s difficult to describe the sensation that close to the pad. It’s not as if sound starts growing, it as if the sound waves are a very strong, very loud wind that rushes to and through you.Atlantis_Launch_2560x1600

Atlantis gained speed, heading towards the cloud deck. As it passed through, for a fraction of a second the clouds around Atlantis looked to be on fire as the Shuttle passed through them.

LaunchCollage

The applause and cheers, which hadn’t abated since launch, reached a new crescendo as the Shuttle passed out of sight. We took some pictures around the exhaust pillar, the only indication remaining that a Space Shuttle had left the launch pad for the very last time, and then started heading inside to watch NASA TV to confirm SRB separation and a successful orbit.

Seeing a launch from such a close distance, literally feeling the ship leave our planet, and experiencing it with the people who make it happen was truly a moving experience. I felt energized, proud, and just gobsmacked by what the what NASA’s accomplishment. A Space Shuttle launch has never been “routine,” and seeing the people, equipment, and professionalism necessary to make this enormous rocket leave the planet drives that home even further.

As I headed back to the Twent to take a look at my launch pictures and reflect on what I’d seen, I saw my new friends reacting in every possible way. Some were talking at a million miles an hour about what they’d just seen. Some were reflecting quietly. More than a few were moved to tears. I think it’s impossible to see something like that and not be affected by it.

IMG_1041

And as Atlantis heads into its final 12-day mission, over 150 people who were already space enthusiasts were moved to become space activists. You can’t watch that amazing space ship head into orbit and imagine that it’s the last time we’ll accomplish something so significant. You can’t see the wonder of a crewed, winged ship that can launch an enormous space station into orbit and be satisfied with a future that limits us to 1960s earth-orbiting space capsules. You can’t look at the accomplishments of the Space Shuttle, the ISS, Hubble, and the other amazing orbiting and planetary satellites and sit back silently while Congress throws away billions of dollars already invested, and universe-changing scientific potential, for short-term saving by canceling the Webb Space Telescope.

The Tweeps are already writing and calling reps about the Webb Telescope. Whether or not we can save it, we have to try. And we’re discussing getting together again, not just because we had a fantastic time with a bunch of like-minded people who feel that humanity has to continue to reach past the sky to achieve its full potential, but also because our geographically diverse group, with experience ranging from planetary science to marketing to construction to beer company social media, can spread our enthusiasm to an an enormous and varied audience. We’re organizing, and while some Tweeps will return to their day-to-day lives with a vivid memory of the end of an era of amazing accomplishment, others are going to do what we can to help make sure that, whatever our problems are at home, we don’t let those stop us from continuing to expand our knowledge and reach for the skies.

An enormous thanks to @schierholz, @bethbeck, @nasatweetup, and the rest of the #NASATweetup crew. I’ve never seen a team so perfectly harness social media, and create such a smooth-running event. I’m still amazed it’s not even their primary job responsibility. Like every NASA employee we met, you can sense the passion in what they do. As the space program enters a time of transition, it’s heartening to know that folks like this are helping keep the excitement and wonder in the public eye.

NASATweetup Day 2, Part 1: Ground Control to @Astro_Ron

On Friday, July 8, #NerdForceOne hit the road at 2:15 am to get to Kennedy Space Center before the roads clogged with cars for the 11:26 am launch. We weren’t allowed through the KSC gate until 5 am, so we met up with other Tweeps in the parking lot at the Press Accreditation Center. When we arrived around 3:30 am, there was already an Atlantis launch tailgate party in full force. The awesome @lartist decorated our car for the event.

NASATweetup Day 2 - Atlantis Launch 2011-07-08 005-crop

When we arrived at KSC, I remembered seeing a row of tripods already lined up along the water the day before, so @MituK and I decided we should hurry straight to the countdown clock and grab a spot first thing. When we got to the waterline, we were greeted by a beautiful view of Atlantis poised for launch.

NASATweetup Day 2 - Atlantis Launch 2011-07-08 035-resized

NASATweetup Day 2 - Atlantis Launch 2011-07-08 043-resized

The morning program started at 6:30 am with a demonstration of the robotic refueling experiment planned to take place during the Atlantis mission, as well as a talk by Bob Crippen, who flew on STS-1, the very first Space Shuttle launch. I got a chance to ask Crippen about the ejection seats on the initial Shuttle test flights. It turns out that they would have only been useful had there been a problem during landing. An ejection during launch would likely have resulted in the astronauts passing through the solid rocket booster exhaust, which wouldn’t have been… pleasant. (Trivia: Two of the reusable SRB segments on the final Space Shuttle launch were actually used on STS-1.)

What I thought would be the pre-launch highlight was the chance to go out to the road near the VAB and wave at the astronauts as the passed by in the Astrovan on the way to the launch pad. It was awesome to wave at people who would be in space a few hours later, but little did I know an even bigger pre-launch thrill was coming up soon.

The morning fun continued with @SethGreen introducing a music theme for Atlantis created by Battlestar Galactica composer @BearMcCreary. We also got a chance to listen to astronaut Tony Antonelli, pilot of Atlantis’ previous flight, STS-132. A stark reminder of the next few years of America’s manned space program: Antonelli is currently learning Russian in hopes of being able to return to the ISS on a Soyuz rocket.

Around two hours before launch, there was a break in the program and they announced that they’d be escorting groups to the NASA cafeteria. I headed outside and ran into NASA’s @bethbeck and asked if the group milling around outside of the Twent was waiting to go to the cafeteria. “No,” she said, “they’re talking to @Astro_Ron.”

“Ron Garan?” I said, noticing folks standing in a circle across from me passing around a typical everyday iPhone 3GS in a flower-covered case, “but, isn’t he on the Space Station?” Beth smiled. “Yes.”

I immediately and enthusiastically stepped into the circle as fellow tweeps excitedly talked to Ron. As the phone started heading my direction, the person handing it off said “He said he’s got about one more minute.” Panic! Will I come thisclose to talking to space? Just before the phone reached him, I grabbed the camera from the guy standing next to me and said “I’ll take a picture of you talking to space, but make it quick!” Being awesome like every person I met this week, he said “sure.” He talked for about 25 seconds, I took his pic, and he handed me the phone.

Having spent a couple of decades as a journalist, I don’t typically get starstruck. I’ve interviewed some of the very best game designers, well-known actors, talented special effects artists, and respected scientists. I have great respect for what they do, but when you talk with them, you realize that even folks who’ve made great accomplishments are people like you and me, so no need to be nervous.

But this time, I had to really focus not to stammer or drop into raving fanboy mode. Astronauts are already the folks who are most likely to make me starstruck. But this astronaut was about to talk to me from the bleeding International Space Station. Over 200 miles up. And it wasn’t just any astronaut (like you can use the phrase “just any astronaut”), this was Ron Garan. Ron is one of the founders of fragileoasis.org, an awesome web site that uses the experience of viewing Earth from space to promote actively working to protect the future of the planet below.

An absolutely terrible picture of me, but I don't care, because I'm talking on the phone to an astronaut on the International Space Station!

An absolutely terrible picture of me, but I don't care, because I'm talking on the phone to an astronaut on the International Space Station!

I gathered my remaining wit as as the phone was passed to me and said quickly, “Hi Ron, this is Denny Atkin, @dennya on Twitter. Just wanted to say it’s an honor to talk to you up there, and that I’m a huge fan of fragileoasis.org.” Garan said hello, and told me he appreciated that, and how important it is to get the site’s message across. “Absolutely,” I said, “and I’ll continue to promote it whenever I can.” I than thanked him and passed the phone on to the next tweep so she’d have a chance to talk to him.

At that point, I was positively, ridiculously giddy with excitement. I’d talked to one of my astronaut heroes, and he was in space when I did it. That’s a pretty damned rare and special treat for any space fan.

As I floated on air over towards the cafeteria, someone joked to our escort that she hoped Garan didn’t have roaming charges up there. She said the call was done via Voice Over IP, and that the ISS shows up on the call as a Houston exchange.

It was surely the most “long-distance” call I’ll ever be on, and definitely the most memorable.

#NASATweetup, Day 1, Part 2: A Visit to the Launch Pad

As the presentation wrapped up, the weather was not looking good at all for launch the next day. I’ve been through two hurricanes, and those were the only times I can remember more intense rain. Lightning struck the Shuttle launchpad during this storm, and NASA TV had to shut down its coverage of the Tweetup.

NASATweetup Day 1 - KSC Tour 2011-07-07 018

A bit after noon, the weather cleared up a bit, and we broke for lunch. On our way back from the KSC Cafeteria, we encountered NASA’s “Tertiary Security System” in one of the drainage ditches near the Vehicle Assembly Building parking lot.

NASATweetup Day 1 - KSC Tour 2011-07-07 019

Next up, we boarded a group of our buses to begin our behind-the-scenes tour of Kennedy Space Center. We had heard that previous Tweetup had been able to see the Rotating Service Structure being rolled back to unveil the Shuttle before launch. And sure enough, our first stop was the fence just outside of the Shuttle launch pad perimeter! We were mere hundreds of feet from Atlantis. The space geek excitement was palpable.

However, what we could see was the launch pad, the external tank and solid rocket boosters, and the RSS wrapped securely around Atlantis.

NASATweetup Day 1 - KSC Tour 2011-07-07 026

The original scheduled time for the RSS retraction was 2 pm, and we’d arrived around 2:40. The weather and lightning strike had delayed the RSS retraction, and we were worried we were going to miss the chance to see the Space Shuttle up close. Would it retract before we had to roll at 3:15? After some excruciatingly subtle movements, the RSS started moving quickly, swinging around to unveil the Space Shuttle Atlantis!

NASATweetup Day 1 - KSC Tour 2011-07-07 069NASATweetup Day 1 - KSC Tour 2011-07-07 067 - closeup

It’s awesome that the retired shuttles will be on display in museums, but it’s a shame nobody will ever see the full “stack” with the tank and SRBs, because I gotta tell you, it’s impressive. At 184 feet tall, the Shuttle stack is more than 30 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. Seeing it in person, it seemed inconceivable that that huge assembly was about to go straight up at thousands of miles an hour.

Everyone was passing around cameras shooting Facebook profile pictures with the Space Shuttle in the background—even though most of us were quite a sight with the 90+ degree weather and 90%+ humidity. After a group shot, we boarded the buses and hit the road.

Denny_ShuttleSTS-135 Tweetup

As we drove away from the pad, we stopped briefly to get a great look at the shuttle from another vantage point.

NASATweetup Day 1 - KSC Tour 2011-07-07 088b

The next stop was the Saturn V Center, where Americans can pay tribute to how our government saves money: Spend hundreds of millions of dollars building moon rockets, and then save tens of millions by not actually launching them! Actually, though hearing Apollo 18-20 were cancelled when I was in second grade may have been the first time I ever got annoyed with our government, I have to admit I’m glad to have gotten the chance to see a Saturn V in person. At double the height of the Space Shuttle stack, it’s an amazing feat of engineering. If you’re ever at Kennedy Space Center, don’t just go to the Visitor’s Center, be sure to take the tour to see this amazing rocket. You’ll also get the chance to touch a moon rock, view a space suit that walked on the moon, and much more.

NASATweetup Day 1 - KSC Tour 2011-07-07 111NASATweetup Day 1 - KSC Tour 2011-07-07 168

Our final stop of the day was another special one: the Vehicle Assembly Building, the amazing structure where the Saturn V rockets were assembled, and where the Space Shuttle was stacked onto its boosters. It used to be the world’s largest building by volume (now eclipsed by the Boeing factory in my current home state), but it’s still the largest “one-story” building in the world, and is a breathtaking structure. Click here for a 360-degree panorama I shot with my iPhone.

IMG_1015NASATweetup Day 1 - KSC Tour 2011-07-07 200

As the VAB tour concluded, with the weather still gloomy and a chance that the weather would be so bad that NASA would decide that not not to even fuel the shuttle, we asked our NASA guide what the plan would be for the Tweetup tomorrow if the launch was scrubbed. “If there are any schedule changes,” he said, “we’ll let you know via the @NASATweetup Twitter feed and via e-mail.” Despite the 30-percent chance of favorable launch weather, they weren’t going to use the “s” word.