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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

#NASATweetup, Day 1, Part 1: The Twent

The fun actually started the night before, as we arrived at the Orlando La Quinta UCF, redesignated “Aquarius House” for the event. A number of us got together and headed out for dinner together. As you might expect from a group that found its way to the event via Twitter, we had a bit of a mutual smartphone problem…

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Tuesday morning arrived with a 5 am meetup time to hit the road, so not a lot of sleep was had.  We arrived to find a large sign pointing our way, and our very own air-conditioned Tweetup tent, or as the Tweeps called it, the “Twent.”

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Our morning started with all 150 Tweetup participants introducing themselves. The variety of participants was impressive: a planetary scientist, PhD game researcher, comic artist, movie composer, actor, game website editor (cough), meteorologists, TEDx organizers, and all kinds of other interesting careers. Here’s @lartist, @celticfeminist, and @mituk, AKA the other riders in the carpool we designated #NerdForceOne.

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Our morning program started with a star-studded program of amazingly interesting NASA folks, including Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. At around 11:30, they started broadcasting the Tweetup on NASA TV, and our special guests arrived: Astronauts Mike Massimino (@Astro_Mike) and Douglas Wheelock (@Astro_Wheels). I got a chance to shake hands with @Astro_Mike before the program started. There is apparently no longer a height limit for astronauts. (I’m just under 5’11”)

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Massimino and Wheelock were joined on stage by Sesame Street’s Elmo for a question-and-answer session. (Here’s a portion of it on YouTube.) It was hilarious and a bit surreal. The questions were a mix of space queries for the astronauts as well as more down-to-earth queries for Elmo. My favorite line, after a question to the astronauts about the taste of space food, was when Elmo replied “Elmo really loves wasabi. That’s why Elmo has no eyelids.”

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Alas, Elmo and Massimino had to leave after the Q&A was complete, but Doug Wheelock was able to stay for an additional Q&A session that included some of the most vivid descriptions of spaceflight that I’ve heard yet. I was able to ask him what the reentry experience was like. (And apparently friends saw me on NASA TV doing so.) You often hear of the violence of launch, but I’d never heard a good description of what it’s like to return to Earth. Listening to Wheels describe it was fascinating. He’s a truly inspirational speaker, and I commented after the event that if they’d just force Congress to sit down and listen to him, they’d fund weekly manned launches just to go up themselves.

We found out after we returned that we were lucky to have Wheels there at all. He’s an active-duty Colonel in the Army, and with the Shuttle program winding down, he’s going back on duty in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Luckily for us, a paperwork issue caused his deployment to be delayed, and he was able to be there for the launch. For once, we can be thankful for bureaucracy.

But the truly lucky one was a little boy who was there to see the launch. The following photo and story comes from @Astro_Wheels’ Twitter feed. I’m copying it here in case TwitPic ever purges it. I’ll let it speak for itself.

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Are you the one? You never know when you’ll encounter an angel. I was at the Banana Creek viewing area to watch the launch last Friday, and was signing pictures and hats and shirts…and answering questions. A little boy stood patiently beside me, held my hand tightly for several minutes, and when it was his turn I knelt to talk with him. He only said a few words but for several minutes he felt my hair, and mapped the contours of my face with his little fingers. He looked at every detail of the patches on my flight suit, and drew the lines of each patch as if he were memorizing the design. Then he just gave me a hug and wouldn’t let go. One of those moments that blesses my life and touches my soul.

I found out yesterday that this little guy was sent to Florida through ‘Make-A-Wish’, a wonderful organization that makes dreams come true for children with life-threatening medical conditions. This little boy’s wish was to meet an Astronaut and watch a Space Shuttle launch. So…you just never know…

Ever told your child, We’ll do it tomorrow?
And in your haste, Not see his sorrow?
Ever lost touch, Let a good friendship die…Cause you never had time?
You’d better slow down. Don’t dance so fast.
Time is short. The music won’t last.

When you run so fast to get somewhere…You miss half the fun of getting there.
When you worry and hurry through your day,
It is like an unopened gift…Thrown away.
Life is not a race. Do take it slower…
Hear the music…Before the song is over.

— Douglas H. Wheelock, @Astro_Wheels

How YOU Can Participate in #NASATweetup

In just two days I’ll be enjoying one of the best birthday presents a guy like me could dream of: A backstage tour of Kennedy Space Center, a chance to meet key players in the Space Shuttle and ISS programs, Q&A sessions with Space Shuttle astronauts Mike Massimino (@Astro_Mike), Douglas H. Wheelock (@Astro_Wheels), and Robert Crippen, and much more. And weather-willing, the trip will be capped by a chance to see the final flight of the Space Shuttle program as I and 153 other lucky #NASATweetup selectees watch the launch from the closest possible site, the press area a mere three miles from the launchpad.

Mike Massimino
@Astro_Mike

Amusingly, our program also includes a visit from Elmo of @SesameStreet fame, as everyone’s favorite toddler Muppet interacts with @Astro_Mike as part of an educational program that’s being filmed during the Tweetup.

 How to “Watch” the Tweetup

I feel honored an amazingly lucky to have been (randomly!) selected from over 5,500 applicants to attend the STS-135 #NASATweetup. As excited as I am about this, I’m of course sad that this is the last chance anyone will get to view a Shuttle launch. But even if you weren’t selected for the Tweetup, you can still share in the behind-the-scenes fun in a number of ways.

A portion of the Tweetup will be televised on Thursday morning on NASA TV, which you can watch over the Internet at http://www.ustream.tv/nasahdtv and http://www.ustream.tv/nasatelevision. Starting at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, July 7, 2011, you’ll be able to view the Tweetup participants talking with NASA’s Bill Gerstenmaier, followed by Elmo interviewing STS-109/STS-125 Astronaut Mike Massimino. And of course, you can also use that link to view the actual launch at 11:26 am EDT on Friday, July 8.

And as you’d expect from a Tweetup, you’ll find tons of impressions, fun facts, pictures, and videos on Twitter! Here are some resources to follow: 

  • @dennya – That’s me!
  • STS-135 Launch – You can view all the posts from the 154 #NASATweetup selectees.
  • @NasaTweetup – the official NASATweetup Twitter feed, where you can also find out about future Tweetup opportunities for unmanned launches, lab tours, and more!

In addition to this blog, a number of other attendees will be blogging about the event as well. You view the full list at the NasaTweet.com Wiki.

Finally, If you’re an Xbox 360 owner, you can get primed for the launch by checking out the “Celebrate the Space Shuttle” experience in the Spotlight channel on Xbox LIVE. Check out my blog entry over on Xbox.com for details!