T-Minus and Counting: My NASA Tweetup Experience
Almost 25 years ago, I first visited Kennedy Space Center. It had been nine months since Challenger exploded. My family and I traveled to Florida visiting my cousin Monk (far-right) and partake in the usual tourist attractions the state had to offer. Disney World and EPCOT were awesome, but my trip to Kennedy Space Center enflamed my burgeoning love of science-fiction and brought it to reality. At age 13, I was blown away.
Fast-forward twenty-five years…
I didn’t know that one day, I’d be setting foot into places where our future lies.
I don’t really recall seeing the word “tweetup”, but it didn’t really cross my sights until I came across news that NASA’s fleet of shuttles were being retired in 2011. I had always dreamed of space, traveling there someday in the not-so-distant future. Hopes were dimmed, but at least there was a way to watch a launch coinciding with my vacation to Florida, wife and kids in tow. Shuttle Atlantis’s final flight would end an era in human spaceflight on July 8, 2011.
Another time, perhaps, I will relay the events of that week which, of course, culminated in a view of a spectacular, albeit distant (15 miles South on the E. Merritt Island Bridge), launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis. This log entry is dedicated to my first, and most hopefully not my last, NASA Tweetup (now NASA Social) involving the launch of the Juno spacecraft, currently en route to Jupiter as I type.
Upon learning that there is limited space in a Tweetup tent and that Tweeps were not allowed to bring guests, much less multiple guests, I decided to forgo registering. I was hoping to land a spot in the Tweetup for STS-135, but I didn’t want to miss the experience with my kids. STS-135 would be their first and, sadly, last shuttle launch they may experience in their lives. As successful as tweetups are and NASA needing a boost to keep itself in the public spotlight, I knew this wouldn’t be their last attempt.
The day came when @NASATweetup announced there would be a Tweetup for the Juno spacecraft, I set a reminder, OK, reminders, so I would not miss the registration window. If there was anything I did religiously in my life, it was following this twitter account. Fervently typing in all my information, I hoped I wasn’t on some watch-list that would keep me from getting security clearance, should I be selected as an honorary Tweep.
Days of agonizing torment, much like sitting through a Twilight movie, (fine, they’re not bad, just…ugh), I received a confirmation e-mail stating I’d been selected to attend the NASA Juno Tweetup at Kennedy Space Center. Wo0t! I couldn’t believe my first time out of the gate. I was chosen out of 1200 entrants. Then the big OMG hits. I have to start planning a trip, scheduling time off, packing, arranging suitable transportation, lodging, etc. I even thought about what I would have to wear. Cargo pants…yep, need cargo pants. Of course, with the many Tweetups that have happened in the past, Shannon Moore (@ageekmom), came up with a fantastic list of what to carry.
Rather than go further into details about checking my emails every 10 minutes for the next few weeks, draining my cellphone battery, causing lag across servers, we’ll skip ahead to leaving for Florida, kids with in-laws, wife riding along, beginning the trek to Daytona Beach at 11:30PM on August 3, 2011.
Several stops later with breakfast in Georgia at Cracker Barrel, we make it to the NASA Press Registration building by 9:30 AM. Inside, Stephanie Schierholz (@Schierholz) and Trent Perrotto (@TrentPerrotto), are handling registration, badges and passing out an awesome bag of cool swag.
Back in the car to head back to Daytona readying myself for the event of a lifetime.
August 4, 2011: 5:30 AM.
Cellphone alarm goes off. I feel like I’m late already. By 6:30 AM, I’m in the van headed south to Kennedy Space Center, giddy, but nervous as hell with all my gear in tow. Tending to over-think things, all sorts of questions start popping into my head. Did I bring enough stuff to record everything? Do you have your badge? Where’s my badge? Phew! There it is. Why won’t this person just GET OUT OF MY WAY? Do they KNOW where I have to be at a certain time? What if I’m the only weird one there? My wife already answered that question, with a resounding NO, but I’m cool with it.
Reaching the security gate on Kennedy Parkway North, displayed my badge to security and was allowed entry. To me, this was hallowed ground, where landmarks in our history of spaceflight had been made (and still are). Just a little ways on the right, one of the signs noting 1 day to lift-off with an image of an Atlas V rocket instilled further confirmation that I have arrived.
It wasn’t too hard to find the Tweetup tent. It certainly wasn’t hard to find the Vehicle Assembly Building. Standing 526 ft (163 m) tall, it can be seen for miles around. Making a right onto the Saturn Causeway, I made my way to the Complex 39 Site Press Parking area with the Tweetup tent off to the right in a grassy area.
Parked, with everything I have to document this experience for NASA to the general public, myself included, I go looking for a spot to sit. I managed to find a cool table with
@THEMooCowMama, @porkchopnet, @MuseumofFlight, @fritztr, @priesett. A bit crowded, but we managed.
I’m not one for talking about “feeling” energy, but there really was this vibe. It was a fresh change to be around people that were enthusiastic about the universe, space exploration, and promoting humankind’s greatest endeavor. Traveling among the stars and improving the quality of life for humanity and the Earth is certainly a noble goal.
Introductions by each Tweetup attendee was followed up with a short break before scientists involved with the Juno spacecraft would appear on stage to discuss the machinations that would ultimately lead to the launch the following day. Jim Adams, Deputy Director of Planetary Science at NASA elaborated on what Juno’s mission is: study the origins of not only Jupiter’s atmosphere, core and more, but help answer the question: Why are we here? It’s also going to be the first spacecraft to be powered by solar power, rather than nuclear power. Everything on Juno has been designed to optimize power consumption to complete its mission. I won’t go into much detail regarding Juno, the mission, or anything else that can easily be found online at http://www.nasa.gov and http://missionjuno.swri.edu.
What can be experienced at a Tweetup sponsored by NASA? The tremendous amount of passion and dedication put into Juno. Fifteen years of passion and dedication, to be exact. Pouring out from the individuals on stage, eager to share every detail and answer any question. Jim Adams (@NASAJim), Scott Bolton, Steve Levin, Toby Owen, Fran Bagenal, Dave Stevenson, Steve Matousek (@stevematousek) Jan Chodas, and Chris Brosious and the hundreds of other scientists, engineers, and administrators deserve every ounce of recognition and respect for the outstanding job they’ve done.
It was time to break for lunch and I had come prepared with some sandwiches, drinks, and snacks. Stephanie Smith (@stephist), one of the Tweetup organizers, said that Tweeps could dine in the NASA Cafeteria. Not one to pass this opportunity up for sampling the finest cuisine available, I decided to partake. Granted, it was similar to eating at your school cafeteria, but it was the NASA Cafeteria. Can you imagine sitting in the same eating area where other astronauts, engineers, and scientists have eaten their grub? (Angelic music plays in the background) I ate the most awesome chicken salad sandwich, bag o’ chips, strawberry shortcake (conveniently encapsulated for possible space travel), and a drink. Yes, I had to take a picture of my lunch pre-digested.
As if the first part of the Juno Tweetup wasn’t fantastic, nothing prepared us for the tour of the complex, which included a bus ride down to Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, Atlas Space Operations Center, a drive by of LP 39B, culminating with an inside look of the Vehicle Assembly Building, holding a surprise inside. It was the biggest box of Cracker Jacks, you’d ever see.
On the way, crossing the causeway, Liberty and Freedom, NASA’s two recovery ships that retrieve the SRBs of the now retired shuttles, were docked. Maybe they’ll see use again when the Orion SLS is commissioned to launch.
Our bus driver, a retired NASA employee, continued through what looked like an abandoned city of beige metal buildings, patched with rust. A smattering of vehicles that carry employees of the base to and from work, reinforced the decline of the space program NASA works so hard to keep moving forward. A few minutes later, the hiss of the brakes signaled it was time to disembark.
GRAIL, NASA’s twin spacecraft, Ebb and Flow, sat ready for launch. Two gentlemen from United Launch Alliance discussed its mission and some fascinating history about the company and the Delta II rocket that would carry GRAIL to the Moon.
You know those GPS satellites in orbit that allow you to find the nearest McDonald’s? All of them have been launched from either of the two launch pads you see. Pretty cool, huh? Time to get back on the bus, kids!
We were able to see the Command Center (no photos were allowed, but we could see it for a nanosecond in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Once was enough for me to watch that movie.) Our ASOC guides gave a brief introduction, before leading us into the hangar area. Inside, the main rocket that would later carry MSL Curiosity in November 2011, lay on its side. The Atlas V looks tiny compared to the shuttles, but being next to one, really gave you a sense of scale and craftsmanship that goes into its creation.
Instructed to stay in a certain area, we maneuvered as best we could to get some great shots of the main rocket.
If you’ve ever been to Florida, in August, you know it’s hot. One of the bus’s AC unit died and the tweeps from Bus 3 (I think) hopped on our bus to continue the tour.
Everyone on Bus 2 piled out onto the hot pavement to get a closer look at the Atlas V with Juno encapsulated on top. The rocket sat there against a backdrop of blue sky in the hot Florida sun. The huge lightning arrestors kept the rocket safe from the sudden thunderstorms that are so common during this time of year.
Again, Tweeps were only allowed to approach the complex from a safe distance, maximizing our time taking photos. In less than 24 hours, this area would be engulfed in fire, smoke and dangerously high decibel levels of sound that could deafen you, as the Atlas V begins its ascent. Cool.
We posed for a group photo, boarded the bus and proceeded to the last stop of the tour for Day 1, the Vehicle Assembly Building.
Leaving Launch Complex 41, we headed east towards the surf and the ocean-side service road that led us to the shuttle’s former launch pads. It was disheartening to know that at the time, we had no real successor to the shuttle program. The Constellation program had been shelved and the new Orion SLS system was not quite ready for an initial launch date. Seeing the pad bereft of a shuttle, where Atlantis had been there only a month before, left me with an emptiness that I shared with others.
Minutes later, the shadow cast by the VAB from the late afternoon sun brought welcome relief. My receding hairline, making my forehead prominently reddened, was glad of it.
We had been told that there may be a surprise waiting inside. Leaving the bus, you’d think everyone was in a fast-walking marathon, each one of us vying for a gold medal. The building was cool, heavy equipment lay off to the sides, banners, signed by people who worked on every shuttle mission were hanging on both sides of the internal structure. One stood out, a larger version of a mission patch, from the ill-fated STS-107, Columbia’s last flight.
As I reached the area to the back of the building, there sat Shuttle Discovery, in one of the bays. Sunlight streamed in from behind her, as smiles widened across every face. This was the closest we would ever get to a shuttle and a general giddiness set in. We each handed others our camera to have our close up with the most decorated of the shuttle fleet.
Discovery was still in the process of being decommissioned. Parts of her nose cone were covered in black plastic, the cockpit windows sealed. On display for us, were the years of experience and milestones reached. The thermal tiles pitted from bits of debris, thermal blankets, no longer white, due to reentry made Discovery more beautiful.
Not all good things last and it was time to end our tour and head back to our cars and await tomorrow’s launch.
August 5, 2011: 5:00 AM
Rising thirty minutes earlier than the previous day, I head south the 45 minutes to Kennedy Space Center, hoping that nothing would abort the launch. I couldn’t stay an extra couple of days to await another launch window. When I finally pulled up to the gate, I realized I was a bit early. Luckily, the guard said it was OK and I headed to the Saturn Causeway.
The sun hadn’t quite risen when I reached the parking lot. Grabbing my things, I began walking to the Tweetup tent, where very little life was stirring. The sun finally peaked over the horizon. Turning to see the VAB, I stopped dead in my tracks. A warmth emanated from the building, as the sun spilled light upon its surface. If ever there was some sign of good fortune, this was it.
Some call it the Space Cathedral. You can certainly see why. Of all the photos I took of the event, this remains my favorite.
Stuff unpacked, I waited as others filed in to sit down and get ready for the final countdown. Over the course of the morning, we listened to Andrew Aldrin, son of the great Buzz Aldrin, NASA’s Chief Scientist Waleed Abdalati, and NASA Administrator, Charlie Bolden. Hearing these men talk about where we’re going, what we’re going to do in relation to spaceflight was truly amazing.
After a whirlwind of talks, groups of us took turns heading over to the NASA Press Conference room for a delightful presentation of NASA’s Eye on the Solar System by Doug Ellison at JPL. It’s definitely worth the download and being able to tour our solar system with optional 3-D glasses (red/blue acetate).
Back in the tent, there were various people involved with the Juno mission showing various parts of the actual spacecraft and discussing details of what Juno will be analyzing and how. Fascinating, but to top off all that’s happened in the past few days was a special guest, Bill Nye, the Science Guy.
After an impassioned speech impressing the need to continue exploring with a ravenous curiosity, while passing this to the next generation, we had the opportunity to get an autograph and a photo op. In a short while, we’d be outside watching the Atlas V hurl Juno into space. (Check out The Planetary Society)
When watching a rocket launch, there are certain things you expect, even if you’ve never seen it up close. The roaring sounds, the rumbling ground, and the smoke billowing from the launch pad.
There were a few times that my heart sank and I was fearful that we’d miss the launch window. There was a slight malfunction with the rocket system, that took almost an hour to resolve pushing the official launch time to 12:25PM EST (You can read about it here.).
Everyone was out by the turning basin, a small set of metal bleachers for us to sit. All manner of cameras, video cameras, and phones were out ready to record the launch. You could barely see the tips of the lightning arrestors above the tree line where Juno sat, but you knew she was there. At T-minus 20 seconds, my heart was about to burst from excitement.
T-minus 10 seconds, 9, 8, 7, 6 , 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1! Lift off! Screams of joy and excitement filled the air, as the nose cone of the Atlas V cleared the tree line and the bright light of the boosters momentarily blinded you. Juno was in the air for several seconds before the roar of the engines pummeled our chests and shook the ground.
Watching an actual launch is a much more personal experience. One that stays with you a lifetime. As I reflect back over the past few days, I realize that everything we’ve just seen has been the culmination of 15 years of effort by a multitude of scientists, engineers, coordinators and more. I liken ignition to the birth of a child, watching it grow into adolescence, along the way nursing the scrapes and bruises with tenderness and love. Then all of a sudden they’re an adult, going away to college, getting married, having kids. You just hope all will be OK and they come back to visit often. It moves you to tears.
Everyone stayed long enough until the rocket was just a dim point of light in the mid-day sky. Back in the tent, monitors were continually tracking the mission’s progress. Everything was going well, as I began to pack my things. As I left the tent, I took my time. I meandered over the grass to the infamous countdown clock. Tim Fritz was getting a few last minute shots in and I figured I’d better do the same.
The blue paint was faded and chipped from years of abuse under the Florida sun. Countdown numbers no longer displayed. Only the minus symbol was illuminated. Silently, it sits, waiting for the next mission where we head back to the heavens once more.
I had been given a special opportunity by NASA to experience something few people ever will, something that shouldn’t be wasted. I gazed toward the parking lot, the VAB behind it. For once in my life, I was firmly in the present, with only one thought on my mind:
“I don’t want to go.”
NOTE: This post was written across the span of 2.5 years since the event. Memories of some things may be a bit cloudy, but if you can fill in details or find something amiss, please feel free contact me at info @ studio929.com.
A special thanks to all the awesome people I met and the wonderful people at NASA and JPL that make these dreams possible.