#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…

AquariusHouseDinner7-6-11

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.”

IMG_1013NASATweetup Day 1 - KSC Tour 2011-07-07 003

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.

NASATweetup Day 1 - KSC Tour 2011-07-07 007NASATweetup Day 1 - KSC Tour 2011-07-07 008NASATweetup Day 1 - KSC Tour 2011-07-07 006

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”)

NASATweetup Day 1 - KSC Tour 2011-07-07 010

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.”

NASATweetup Day 1 - KSC Tour 2011-07-07 012a

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!

There are mistakes, and there are MISTAKES…

I custom-designed a t-shirt, including my avatar and the awesome #NASATweetup logo created by the awesome artist Lar DeSouza, for next week’s Shuttle launch.

This is what I ordered:

The shirt I ordered from Zazzle.com

A #NASATweetup-appropriate shirt...

THIS is what I received:

This is what I received...

NOT a #NASATweetup-appropriate shirt.

Do I really have to mention I am not amused by this?

I’ll refrain from posting the company’s name until I see how they handle the customer service issue. If they can get me the shirts I ordered by Tuesday, hey, mistakes happen, and no need to call them out.

Let’s hope… I’d just really, really rather wear the top shirt.

Atlantis: We’re Go for Launch (Viewing)

On July 8, 2011, it’s expected that over a million people will travel to Florida’s Space Coast to watch the final launch of the Space Shuttle program. I’m super-excited to be one of them, watching not from Titusville (about 13 miles away, where my son and I watched Atlantis launch in Nov. 2009), the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex (7.5 miles away, but with no direct view of the launchpad), nor the NASA Causeway (6.7 miles away, but only a lucky few thousand were able to get tickets.)

Along with just 151 other very lucky people, I’ll be watching the launch from the Press Area at Kennedy Space Center, a mere 3-ish miles from the launch pad. We’re guests of NASA, selected from over 5,500 applicants to attend the very last Space Shuttle launch #NASATweetup. The day before the launch, our group will get a special tour of KSC, including the chance to meet some of the folks who work on the Shuttle program, and hopefully some astronauts as well. Then, on launch day, we’ll be on the lawn with the countdown clock that you see on network launch coverage.

One of these is not actually an astronaut

The STS-135 Crew, and a willing stowaway.

When NASA announced they’d be collecting names for a chance for the Tweetup, I set a reminder in my Outlook calendar to apply, but I never dreamed I’d be selected, particularly after hearing over 5,500 people had applied. So when I opened my e-mail on June 10 to see a message with “NASA Tweetup” in the title, my brain automatically filled in the “We’re sorry to inform you…” when I started to read the e-mail. But those words weren’t actually there.  Instead, I saw this:

Dear Dennis Atkin,

Congratulations, you have been selected to attend the NASA Tweetup on July 7-8 for space shuttle Atlantis’ targeted launch at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida! The event will provide you the opportunity to speak with shuttle technicians, engineers, astronauts, and managers, and to experience the launch of space shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station.

Once I caught my breath, I immediately went down the hall to inform my lead that I was going to need some unplanned vacation time! And to share my excitement with anyone who’d stand still long enough to listen.  I think the only person who could have been more excited would have been my 10-year-old self, if I could travel back in time to tell him this would be happening. (Actually, my 10-year-old self would probably glare at me and respond, “WTF? You mean I’m not an astronaut when I’m 45?”)

I can’t express how enthused I am about this, nor how much I appreciate the opportunity NASA has given me here. It’s literally the opportunity of a lifetime. That it’s the last launch is somewhat bittersweet, of course, and there’s always the chance that a flight delay could cause me to miss the actual launch. But even the chance to tour KSC and meet the people who’ve accomplished so much in our space program will more than make the trip worthwhile. Not to mention the chance to hang out with the group of seriously fun, smart, and enthused fellow space nuts I’ve met virtually through our Facebook  Tweetup planning group.

I was four years old Apollo 11 landed on the moon. It’s one of my earliest memories. I was at the babysitter’s house, and they quickly shot down my claim that I’d “seen this show before” when I tried to convince them to change the channel to a kid’s show. That was the start of my fascination with the space program, and I clearly remember raptly watching the later moon shots. Then came Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz, and then the triumphs and tragedies of the Space Shuttle program.

In 2009 I was in Florida with my then-six-year-old son when Atlantis was schedule to launch.  We decided we had to at least try to watch the launch. We found an abandoned apartment complex parking lot on the water across the street from a Krystal, bought a bag of cheeseburgers, and sat down for a few-hour wait. I spent the morning setting his expectations for a probable delay, so that he wouldn’t be disappointed. I did a good job convincing myself as well, so when the countdown continued, we were both super-excited.

Here’s our very shaky video, shot with a Canon Elph pocket camera. I made a point not to look at the camera LCD while shooting—I wanted to actually see the launch—so apologies for the quality. There’s much better footage, but I’m glad I have this just because it captures our excitement, particularly after Carter actually spotted the Shuttle in the air.

My only disappointment is that I can’t bring Carter with me to share this. But with the group that will be there, I’m certain we’ll have hundreds of photos, hours of video, and lots of impressions to share with him and the rest of the next generation of space fans.

Goodbye DirecTV, Hello Over-the-Air HDTV

In late June, 2011, I said goodbye to hundreds of TV channels as I cancelled my DirecTV account. Teaming an old-fashioned VHF/UHF TV antenna mounted on the side of the house, a PC running Windows 7’s Windows Media Center, and an Xbox 360, we’re still able to watch almost all the shows we watched before in two rooms, but with monthly expenses well under $50/month. (Netflix, Hulu Plus, and a few TV series bought on Zune.)

In the living room, we have a media center PC, as well as an Xbox 360. The Media Center PC picks up about 20 HD channels. These channels look better than cable or DirecTV, because they’re not as heavily compressed. We get all the major networks and PBS, plus some subchannels that show classic TV shows, syndicated programs, and additional PBS shows, all recorded on the Media Center PC. We can also use this to watch any PC-compatible video services, such as Amazon, iTunes, and Hulu Plus shows that are “web-only.”

Windows Media Center
Windows Media Center can act as a DVR and TV tuner, and also play back your music collection, photos, and more.

Though we could watch these services on the PC, we watch Hulu Plus and Netflix on the Xbox 360. The easy user interfaces and Kinect voice control are popular with the family. The Xbox 360 isn’t necessary here, but since we have it in the room anyway, might as well take advantage of it.

 In the bedroom, a second Xbox 360 (the under-$200 4GB model is fine for this) lets us watch everything we can watch in the living room. It acts as a Media Center extender, so we can watch all of the HD shows we record on the PC, as well as live TV. We can also listen to the music stored on the PC. Plus, of course, we have Hulu Plus and Netflix on the Xbox 360 as well.

Xbox 360 4GB
The Xbox 360 not only plays great games, it can stream live and recorded TV.

You can use an older, retired PC for recording – it doesn’t take much oomph – but I specifically built a low-power-usage PC that could handle big-screen gaming, media center duties, and Blu-ray video playback, and also act as a backup location for music, documents, and photos copied by a batch file on a regular basis from my office PC.

Also, keep in mind that you could just as easily put the Media Center PC in an office or bedroom and just use an Xbox 360 extender in your main TV room.

 With a Harmony Remote to simplify control of multiple devices, this setup is no more difficult to use than the DirecTV DVR/Xbox 360 combo we were using before. And the initial investment in hardware will be more than paid for in over $1K in savings by not paying a monthly satellite bill.

Building a Home Theater PC

I recently dropped DirecTV and switched to over-the-air HDTV, in conjunction with Hulu Plus and Netflix streaming. Of course, I still needed a DVR. Rather than opting for an HD Tivo, I built a new PC just for the purpose. It lets me stream my recordings to an Xbox 360 in the bedroom, it’s easily expandable, and it has the added benefit of letting us do stuff like watch YouTube and play games on our big living room TV.

Here’s my build, in case you’re considering doing something similar.

  • Core i3-2100 Processor ($110, 3.1GHz, amazingly fast for the price but low power usage and sips power at idle, cool so the fan’s quiet). If you want true quad-core performance, the $200 Core i5-2400S has similar power usage, but is probably overkill unless you do a lot of video transcoding.
  • Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD3H-B3 motherboard ($169 latest Intel chipset, supports swapping between onboard and PCI-E video to reduce power consumption)
  • GeForce 560 Ti ($229, plenty of oomph for 1080P, low idle power usage, quiet). If you’re not gaming, you can omit this component.
  • 8GB DDR3 RAM ($84.99)
  • 2 Samsung Spingpoint 2TB drives ($79 each; Samsung’s the only drive brand I’ve had consistently good luck with in recent years)
  • Media Center Remote ($17; mainly using this for the IR receiver as I have a Harmony)
  • HDHomeRun TV tuner. This dual-tuner external device is awesome. Any computer in your house with a fast network connection can also access it to watch live TV.
  • Memorex Blu-ray reader/DVD writer, $59 on sale at Fry’s.

GA-Z68X-UD3H-B3 Motherboard

Though components like this look intimidating, all you need to build a PC is a Phillips screwdriver.

Plus a quiet case (Antec P180; just stuck it behind the TV stand), 550W 80-plus power supply (OCZ, but they’re out of the power supply business), and my old SSD drive to speed bootup. I’m using a sadly now-discontinued MS Bluetooth media keyboard and mouse.

If you don’t want to do a full ATX board, go for an Asus or Gigabyte micro-ATX board based on the Z68 chipset. Then you can opt for a smaller case.

With this setup, the Xbox 360 in the bedroom can watch live TV and recorded shows from the HTPC, in addition to showing Netflix/Zune/Hulu+ content. Even buying 5 or 6 premium channel show subscriptions on Zune (for the shows where we don’t want to wait for the season to hit Netflix), it’s still waaaaay cheaper than a $100+/month cable/satellite bill.

Oh, like I didn’t already have enough to do.

Yes, I’m starting a blog. <troymcclure>Hi. I’m Denny. You may know me from such magazines as Computer Gaming World, OMNI, and Mississippi Catfish Farming Implements Journal.</troymcclure>

Here you’ll likely find me blogging about gadgets, writing, gaming, and other topics. Or you’ll find this blog a dusty, un-updated monument to procrastination, overcommittment, and distraction. Hopefully the former.

The goal here is to get into a regular habit of blogging, then post my first novel so I can launch my fiction-writing career, just like Scalzi. That’ll work again, right?

I guess I should start working on the novel…