First a caveat for my regular readers – this is a longer and more personal posting than you usually see from me here. I hope you enjoy it and the insight it brings to myself and this experience.
I have started and stopped this post several times over the course of the last week. I am not sure if it is writers block or just finding the right words to put down on paper, ok the web, about what I and 149 others experienced last week at the STS-132 NASA Tweetup held at Kennedy Space Center.
Now I can not speak for the 149 others and many of them have put their words down already describing their own unique viewpoints on the two day event. I spoke with many of them and shared in the excitement and discovery during these two days last week so I have a pretty good fell for the fact that it was a tremendous experience for them as well.
I spent my early childhood growing up in Central Florida and have distinct memories of watching the rocket launches in those days as they climbed into the sky as well as on TV. I always seemed to have a pencil drawing of the Solar System or some other space related thing on my wall. I think I even built a Solar System Mobile or two. So the fascination started at an early age.
Flash forward to six years ago and I find myself living back in Florida thanks to the United States Navy. We live South of Jacksonville, Florida and typically can see Shuttle launches from our house. Fascination starts to build again and the desire and opportunity to see a launch up close becomes apparent.
Just seeing the launch from our house or at work is an amazing thing – that equipment, that space craft, that powerful combination of Shuttle engines and solid rocket boosters that propel human beings into space. Real people too – I had the chance to see and feel that during this Tweetup as well – more to follow on that.
So through a series of launch scrubs my wife and I found ourselves in Orlando on 8 and 9 Sep 2006 with an opportunity to head over to Titusville and watch the launch of Orbiter Vehicle 104 – the Space Shuttle Atlantis – on STS-115. This is what we call our first live launch from up close. We go to SpaceView Park to watch and I recommend it if you have never been there. It is a terrific location and a great group of people always go there for launches. Part of watching a launch up close is about the community and people your standing there experiencing it with.
Little did I know that I was watching the same shuttle that I would also watch on her last launch ever just 3 1/2 years later.
The experience of watching Atlantis on that day was also quite indescribable – the national pride I felt – the amazement at such a feat – just wow. Yes – I shed tears that day.
The NASA Tweetup
Now flash forward to April 2010 and NASA announcing that they will hold a get together for Twitter users called a Tweetup. So I signed up. Well so did over 1,000 other space enthusiasts and Twitterers I learned later.
Just four days later without it even on my mind I logged into email and found the message that I had been selected to attend this two day event. I have never confirmed my participation in anything as fast as I did that email :-)
I also said a prayer of thanks for the graciousness of this opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream – seeing a launch from Kennedy Space Center. He is good to us in so many ways.
With that done all that was left was to wait. I then started to connect with others on Twitter who had also been given invites and that started a crest of excitement that did not wear down – I still think it is still peaking out there even over a week later.
Finally we arrive at just a day before the event and I have packed up the Harley Davidson with my Day 1 gear and my other bag is packed and ready for Margo to bring down in the car to the hotel we were staying at.
I barely got to sleep that Wednesday night. It must have been close to 1 AM before I dozed off. I had two alarms set to wake me up at 3:30 AM for my 4:30 AM departure.
NASA Tweetup Day 1
I put the last items on the bike, geared up and started out under a clear cool night sky with stars as far as I could see. So with a prayer of thanks and safety I started the 2 1/2 hours ride to Kennedy Space Center.
Best part of the ride was having the sun slowly rise on my left as I headed South on I-95.
I arrived at the NASA badging office and along with other participants gathered our credentials and goodie bags to head into the space center. This is also when I got to meet Mark, otherwise known as @Oblivion on Twitter. He approached me because I had spoke about riding the Harley to this event and I of course was on the bike. This would be the beginning of us hanging out together over the two days of the Tweetup, sharing the experience and taking photos for each other. He is a terrific guy so do not be fooled by his Twitter avatar :-)
This was our home away from home for two days and the folks at @NASATweetup had done it right. AC, power, WiFi and big monitors for us to watch the events as they unfolded on NASA-TV.
If you turned to your left from this viewpoint you see the historic count down clock and flag that are familiar to anyone who has ever watched a launch on TV.
Looking off in the distance, about 3 miles away, you would see the silhouette of Atlantis on Launch Pad 39A awaiting her chance to light up the sky.
If you turned to the left again you would then see the Vehicle Assembly Building or VAB. This is where they stack all the components of the space shuttle to create the launch vehicle that includes the orbiter, solid rocket boosters and external tank.
Another turn to your left gives you a view of what I will call press row. Walter Cronkite sat in that CBS building and announced the first launch of men into space on their way to the moon.
It is no wonder the site is designated as a National Historic Site. That is where we spent the majority of our two days while participating in the NASA Tweetup. I ended up pinching myself several times to know it was real.
We had several people scheduled to speak and I must say this about everyone who stood on that stage and talked with us – they are passionate about what they do – a passion that oozes out of them as they speak about the things NASA has done and will do. Yes I said will do despite the beliefs of many with the end of our current human spaceflight capabilities with the closure of the Space Shuttle Program.
We heard from NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun, Jon Cowart (@Rocky_Sci), Stephanie Stiltson Space Shuttle Discovery’s Flow Manager, Astronaut Janice Voss and Ron Woods who is an equipment specialist and has been a space suit designer since the Mercury program in the 1960’s.
The best quote I can give you from listening to these folks, and there were many, is this from @Rocky_Sci and it really sums up what it is that NASA does on an everyday basis:
What NASA does isn’t magic but it is magical.
How true. NASA is not about the flashy stuff you see on TV – they are not unlike a command in the US Navy – it is always about the people who have the passion and make things happen. Yeah sometimes it looks like magic – but it is really just magical.
I find it hard to believe that people consider things like a Shuttle launch or the ISS being in orbit as routine or every day occurrence – it is not by an stretch of the imagination. Just go see one of the last two from anywhere around the Kennedy Space Center and you will never think that way again – I promise. Even take the opportunity to watch the ISS pass over head, bright as the planet Venus, and think there are 6 people living, breathing and working on that point of light. How an you not be in awe of something like that.
The second half of Day 1 was the tour. We were loaded into four busses and scattered across Kennedy Space Center. Of course Bus 4 was the best of them all :-)
We went out to the Apollo/Saturn V Center to spend some time looking at one of the engineering marvels of the 20th century – an unused Saturn V rocket. It was actually going to be a launch vehicle but the program was scrapped before it did. Historically this Saturn V used to sit outside on display at the VAB. It was refurbished and brought into this awesome facility to be shown off.
After the obligatory souvenir purchases we once again boarded our bus and headed for a drive by visit to the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF). This is where the orbiter lands when they complete a mission.
On our way out of the facility we slowed down to pay our respects at the hangar where Columbia was brought back to after she disintegrated during re-entry over Texas following STS-107 which resulted in the tragic loss of her crew. There is no doubt that spaceflight is a dangerous undertaking and every one of the people involved in this program know it and feel it. It is the reason they strive for learning after each event, launch and mission.
We then headed over to the International Space Station Processing Facility (ISSPF).
This is a live working facility. The hardware behind the thick glass are items that have been and will be in space. The picture above shows two Italian technicians working on the Multi Purpose Logistics Module named Leonardo. This module has been in space seven times. They were modifying it and reinforcing its outer skin so that it can become a permanent part of the ISS.
We then headed out to the highlight of our day 1 activities and tour – a visit to Launch Pad 39A and the Space Shuttle Atlantis. We were going to be within 600 yards or so of the pad while the Rotating Service Structure (RSS) was being retracted. The RSS is used while the shuttle is on the pad to protect her from the elements while she awaits launch day.
Here she is completely covered by the RSS.
After about 20 minutes of retraction she is displayed for all to see.
Of course two mandatory pictures had to be taken while we were out there. The first one was the I was there picture:
The other one was our group picture of all 150 of us Twitterers,our NASA hosts and of course Space Shuttle Atlantis:
With that we wrapped up day 1 and all went our separate ways for the night to contemplate what we had seen and felt throughout the day. I loaded up the Harley as it sat in front of the VAB and headed West towards the sunset and our hotel.
NASA Tweetup Day 2
Suffice it to say that I barely got to sleep again on Thursday night but exhaustion did finally takeover and I got a few hours sleep before I re-loaded the bike, with a much lighter backpack since I removed some hardware and gadgets I did not need, and I now rode into the sunrise heading East towards the Kennedy Space Center.
A highlight of the ride was the two Black Otters that scurried across SR-46 at one point. By the way, if you ever get the chance to drive SR-46 from Sanford towards the East then you should – it is a beautiful ride.
As I approached Kennedy you could tell today was different than other days. Traffic was heavier, security was tighter and control points were in place to control what traffic got into the space center.
One of the first things you noticed at the press site is that Atlantis’ flag was flying below the American Flag on the count down clocks flag pole. There was also a buzz that was not around the day before. The press area had grown in population and there were just a lot more people around with a purpose to their step – it was launch day.
Panorama of the Launch Complex 39 Press Site.
We began our day with another group photo – this time next to the historic count down clock and flag pole. This picture was different as well – we had arrived a group of strangers the day before and now we were bonded by our common experience and the anticipation of the launch that day.
Even though we could have just shown up and watched the launch that day and been very satisfied with the experience, @NASATweetup would not let that be enough. We had the pleasure of hearing from the NASA Deputy Administrator, @Lori_Garver, Astronaut Dave Wolf, LTCOL Patrick Barrett of the Air Force 45th Space Wing Weather Squadron, Madi Sengupta (@msengupta) a robotics instructor at Johnson Space Center.
During the morning we did head over to the road which leads out to Launch Pad 39A as it is customary and considered good luck to head out and wave to the astronauts on their way to board the shuttle.
Right after this I was interviewed along with one of the other Tweetup attendees by Jon Belmont (@jbelmont) of the Associated Press about our Tweetup experience and our thoughts on the space program. I found out later that this might have been his final launch as well so let me just add best of luck Jon and thanks for the opportunity to say my piece about things.
Our final visitor of the day showed up with less than an hour to go until launch. He had been kind of busy the previous couple of hours as he was out at Pad 39A helping to strap in the crew of STS-132 since he was a member of the close out crew.
Chris Meinert has been doing crew closeout duties for 20 years. He has been up close and personal with this program, the people involved in it and feels the triumphs and tragedies as well.
When asked about his relationship with the crews as they embark on their missions he had to stop to collect himself. You see Chris was a close out crew member on STS-107, Columbia’s final fateful flight. You can see and feel the genuine passion he has for this program. It was apparent in every individual we met during these two days. Chris was just the penultimate representation of it.
When asked what is the last thing he says to a crew as they get ready to close the hatch on the orbiter Chris said it was simple – “God Bless”. I say “Amen”.
There was now only one thing left to do. Launch Atlantis and her crew off on STS-132. As the morning progressed the tension/anticipation continued to grow. About 20 minutes before launch a problem cropped up that might have been a constraint to launch. A little disappointment started to creep in however, during the Go-No Go call at the final 9 minute hold it was cleared and the final GO was given to launch Atlantis.
Throughout the morning folks had already started staking out their territory along the NASA Turn Basin to get their clear, unobstructed view of the launch.
As we came out of the 9 minute hold people got behind their cameras, took their places and focused on Atlantis out at Pad 39A as she sat waiting to take to her natural habitat in space. The calm before the storm to say the least!
As the count down went on the anticipation continued to build until we saw that first glimpse of steam at the pad and then the ignition of the SRB’s to send Atlantis and her crew into orbit. We were going to see a launch – wait – we were seeing a launch!
Liftoff of Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-132!
See two days worth of NASA Tweetup in just over 3 minutes!
The sights and sounds of launch from this close are intense. The brightness of the SRB’s and main shuttle engines are like trying to look at the Sun. It leaves an image burned in your retina for several minutes afterwards.
The sound just goes right through your body. You feel it on the ground and in the air around you. It is almost as if you could reach out and touch it. One of my the fellow attendees, @SonaFM, described it as a couple of monkey’s hanging on your back and playing the drums. Yeah- that is a great description.
While the exhaust plume was still hanging in the air I got on the phone and called my wife Margo. She had watched the launch from Sanford and I wanted to share the experience with her as well. This is when the tears flowed for me.
We had just witnessed an amazing feat of technology, ingenuity, passion and grace all rolled into one. Words just can not do it justice. You have to see a live launch for yourself and it does not have to be from 3 miles away – just get down to Florida and see one of the final two. You will be glad you did.
As we all made our way slowly back into the tent to watch the remainder of the ascent into orbit words and phrases like Wow, Incredible, Did we really just see that?, We just saw a Shuttle launch, Wow, Amazing, Whoa. Pretty much pick any adjective in the English language and you would have heard it.
As we broke up our two day gathering there were farewells, exchanges of information and hand shakes to say it was a pleasure to meet you in real life the tent that had been our home away from home slowly emptied out.
It was the end of the NASA Tweetup but the memories of these two days would live on in us forever – in that I have no doubt.
Just in case you were wondering – 470 total miles logged on the Harley Davidson between my departure 12 May from Jacksonville and my return on Saturday afternoon the 15th of May.
I would be remiss to not say one last thank you to EVERYONE at NASA who made this possible for us. You have allowed 150 strangers to have a common experience that we will never, ever lose.
For that I close with a word of thanks and in the words of Chris Meinert “God Bless.”
Jacksonville, Florida 22 May 2010