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STS-134 NASA Tweetup

Could my grin be any bigger??

I’ve been trying to write a post about my experiences at Kennedy Space Center in April and May, but I haven’t had the time lately to sit down and write.  I’ll try to sum it all up here.

Reader’s Digest version: Holy cow!  Longer version: click below …

The Tweetup event was two days – April 28th and 29th.  On April 28th, we got our Tweetup badges at the KSC media building and then proceeded to the massive Vehicle Assembly Building, and parked in the media parking lot between the VAB and the famous Countdown Clock.  In the press area next to the bleachers and news vans, an air-conditioned tent had been set up for the Tweeps, and round tables were scattered throughout that seated 6 to 8 people.  Power strips were all over the place and wifi was set up in the tent.

We spent the day Thursday listening to talks by NASA scientists and astronauts, and then we boarded buses and got a tour of KSC.  First stop was the VAB, where we got to go inside and stand with our mouths open marveling at it.  We could see through the wall the external tank and solid rocket boosters that would be going in STS-135 Atlantis.  I shot video of the VAB interior, but in no way does it really display the scale of this building.  It’s so voluminous that it has its own weather system; clouds and rain can form at the ceiling, and there are mechanical systems in place to prevent this.

We also go to go to the Apollo/Saturn V Center, which has now been turned into a museum, but they thankfully preserved the actual control room that the Apollo missions launched from.  They simulated a Saturn V rocket launch, and the entire room shook – quite an experience.  The rest of the building has many fascinating exhibits and relics of the Apollo program and is worth seeing. It’s part of a bus tour that you can purchase if you go to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center.

KSC lies on Merritt Island, which is a large national wildlife refuge, so it’s not uncommon to see alligators wandering around.  Our bus tour guide mentioned that recently a family visiting KSC saw an alligator, thought it was sleeping, and put their 3-year old boy on it and took photographs.  People – alligators are not toys or props, asleep or awake.  Avoid them!

We were scheduled to be driven out to Launch Pad 39A that evening to watch the retraction of the Rotating Service Structure, but a bad storm rolled in and delayed the retraction to much later in the evening.  Trey Ratcliff, an amazing photographer, was one of the Tweeps and took this incredible HDR photo of the storm rolling in.

The next day was Launch Day.  it all started off well enough; good weather and wind conditions, everything seemed to be go, and there were 750,000 people around the Titusville area.  At noon, we walked over to the side of the road in front of the VAB to wave at the Astronaut Van as it drove by en route to Pad 39-A.  First, we saw the helicopters, and then we saw the shiny silver van come.  We excitedly waved.  It stopped in front of us, then turned left into the VAB parking lot.  There was a long pause and some NASA officials standing near us said, “Huh, I’ve never seen it do that before.”  It came back out of the parking lot, and approached the road.  It stopped.  We held our breath.  Then, it turned right and went back in the same direction it came from!  We all groaned “Nooooooo!” and wildly gestured towards Launch pad 39-A.  Here’s my video of the astrovan turnaround:

About 15 minutes later we learned that the launch was scrubbed due to electrical problems.  There were many sad faces in our group.

Well, I didn’t know what I was going to do.  I didn’t know if I was going to be able to come back for the rescheduled launch, whenever it was.  The best thing I could do was go come, continue my life, and wait and see what happened.  We all had a Brewup that evening and talked about all the stuff we saw and learned, and although we were disappointed we didn’t see a launch, we:

  • got to tour the VAB – this doesn’t just happen without a lot of clearance and red tape!
  • met astronauts
  • held Aerogel
  • listened to NASA scientists talk
  • met each other!

Here’s my Picasa album from the April portion of the NASA Tweetup: http://picasaweb.google.com/kosmonaut/20110429#

STS-134 was rescheduled for May 16th.  I must be on a lucky streak, because everything aligned up right and I was able to return.  I shared a hotel room with fellow Tweepers.  On May 15th, we were driven out to Launch Pad 39-A where we were 600 yards (!!!) from Endeavour and got to watch the RSS retraction.  We spent about a hour out there taking pictures and just looking at Endeavour in wonder.  She is a beauty.

Then at 2 PM it was back to the hotel to sleep as we had to be back at KSC at 3:00 AM, wave at the astrovan at 5:15 AM, and then (hopefully) watch a launch at 8:56 AM.  I was too excited to sleep and got maybe a hour of sleep, then dragged myself out of bed and went to IHOP for a quick breakfast with my hotel mates.  There was no traffic going over the NASA Causeway, and after I parked the car, I found the other Tweeps huddled on the bleachers in the dark.  (No Twent this time.)

At 5 AM, we all lined up in front of the VAB at the side of the road to wave at the astrovan.  We weren’t taking chances this time – a few of us had “NO U-TURNS!” signs ready.

The van came by.  It stopped right in front of us.  I held my breath.  The door opened, and one of the astronauts in his orange flight suit WAVED AT US!  Then the van continued on towards the launch pad!

We went to the media briefing room and watched live TV coverage of the astronauts in the White Room getting suited up and loaded into the orbiter.  They all looked so jovial and yet so calm.

Between 7 AM and 8 AM I took a quick catnap in the car, and then joined everyone back at the countdown clock.  Finally it was time for the launch.  I found a spot behind the countdown clock, to the right of the flagpole, and waited, my eyes fixated on the shuttle.  Before I went to NASA, all my friends were wondering if I’d feel the vibrations of the shuttle launch.  I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought I’d feel it the minute it ignited.

I didn’t.  I stood there with my eyes affixed on the shuttle, which was 3.5 miles away, waiting to feel something.  Then I barely saw smoke and thought, “has it ignited yet?  It should be igniting any second now.”  I still didn’t feel anything.  And then it went up!  I grabbed my camera and turned on the video, but I still was not feeling anything.  About 15 seconds later, I started to feel a slow rumble.  The shuttle picked up speed fairly quickly.  Unfortunately, there was a low cloud ceiling that day, which meant we didn’t see a lot of the actual launch, but Trey Ratcliff of course managed to turn it into an outstanding photo.  After it got behind the clouds, the vibrations moved across the water and towards us, and then boy, did I feel it.

And then it was over.  I was riding a high all day.  I actually saw a marvel of science and engineering get shot into space.  Couldn’t stop replaying it in my head.  Back at the hotel, we tried to sleep, but we kept watching replays and mission updates on NASA TV and live-tracked Endeavour in Google Earth.

Photos of the May section of the Tweetup: https://picasaweb.google.com/kosmonaut/20110516#

I have some advice for future Tweepers:

  1. Get a Google Group.  We only had a Facebook group, and some people were slow in discovering it.  I didn’t discover it until a few weeks later, so I missed out on the opportunity to join group housing.  Facebook groups don’t let you search message archives – Google Groups do.
  2. Don’t eat in the NASA cafeteria.  The food is terrible, and you waste time walking there and back.  Stay in the Twent, bring your own lunch, and relax.
  3. Be sure to thank and show your appreciation to Stephanie Schierholz.  She works tirelessly to make these Tweetups happen, and  bent over backwards to get us access to the VAB and to Launch Pad 39-A.  She also made sure I had the accommodations I needed.
  4. Get a group messaging system like GroupMe to let each other know about social events, rides, locations, etc.
  5. They aren’t kidding when they say pack bug spray, sunscreen, and water.
  6. Have fun!