Space Shuttle Launch #NASATweetUps, Past and Present

Space Shuttle Atlantis is poised to launch to the International Space Station, and NASA is hosting a Twitter meet-up, or tweet-up, at the launch.

If you’re one of the 150 lucky invitees attending the shuttle launch as guests of NASA, I can tell you from personal experience that you are in for a huge treat. This is only the second time that NASA has opened the gates of Kennedy Space Center to space tweeps for a shuttle launch. By very good fortune, I was there for the first.

NASA Tweet-Up Sign

The confirmation email arrived while I was at work. I could hardly believe it; in fact I briefly entertained the thought that it was a prank on the part of some of my colleagues. But it was official: I was invited to attend the launch of STS-129. In no time at all I went from “hmmm, it’s a long way to go” (I live in Christchurch, New Zealand) to arranging leave and airline tickets. It was the chance of a lifetime, and as my very understanding partner explained it, “Don’t be an idiot, of course you have to go!”

100 New Friends

On the first day of the Tweet-Up we all met in the parking lot outside the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s complex. I spotted the first of the other space tweeps while walking from my rental car to the registration table, and we quickly fell into conversation. One of the neatest things about the whole two day event was that whoever you talked to, you made a friend. The space tweeps were some of the most genuinely friendly people I have had occasion to meet. They came from all walks of life – teachers, IT people, an astrophysicist or two, a film-maker, even a couple of NASA employees. But no matter who you talked to, you had an instant common interest. By the end of the first day, when some 30 or 40 of us descended en masse on an unsuspecting Titusville restaurant, I felt like I had made 100 new friends.

One thing I didn’t do that I later regretted was to make up some contact detail cards to give out to the people I met. I had thought about it, but ran out of time before I traveled. Others had not only thought about it, but done it, and it proved to be a great way to swap contact details. Photographing people’s NASA-issued ID badges (with their permission, of course) was another good way of remembering faces, names and twitter handles.

The Kennedy Space Center Rocket Garden

Once we were registered on that first day, we had about half an hour to kill before the official kickoff at the Kurt H Debus Conference Facility. That was just as well, because the first thing you see as you walk toward the visitor complex is a tantalizing view of the rocket garden. After a quick reconnoiter of Titans and Atlases and a Saturn 1B, I discovered that the conference facility itself hosts the Early Space Exploration exhibit, which is well worth taking some time over. Not only does it have Neil Armstrong’s Apollo space-suit, but Gemini and Mercury capsules, and a lot more, including the original Mercury mission control consoles. Standing next to the space capsules, you really get an appreciation of how small and cramped they are. Frank Borman and Jim Lovell spent two weeks in orbit wedged shoulder to shoulder in a Gemini capsule, to prove that people could survive in space for the length of time it would take to get to the Moon and back. How they did it and stayed sane, I will never know. It’s a cliché to talk about the courage and endurance of astronauts, but it’s become a cliché because it’s the truth. I could have spent a lot longer looking through the exhibits (and did a couple of days later after the tweetup), but it was time for the day’s main event.

Frozen Smoke: Aerogel from the Stardust mission
A piece of ‘frozen smoke’ – Part of the aerogel particle collector from the Stardust mission

We were all ushered into the conference room, which was set up with a number of round tables, so that we all sat in groups, and a small stage at the front for the speakers. Each table had an unusual object on it, some stranger than others, and we were invited to guess what they were. My table’s object was pretty easy – a Space Shuttle thermal protection tile. We all passed it round and felt how light it was. I’m still amazed at the thought that I got to hold a piece of the shuttle in my hand. Another table had one of the hold-down bolts that pins each shuttle solid rocket booster to the pad before lift-off. Probably the coolest one was a piece of aerogel, a small blue-ish cube of quite literally the lightest solid material imaginable. Aerogel is often referred to as ‘frozen smoke’, as it is 99 percent empty space. What made this particular sample so cool is that it was part of the particle collector from the Stardust space mission – it had traveled several million miles away from the Earth, collected samples of interstellar dust, and returned in its unmanned probe, and NASA was letting us hold a piece of it!

The twitterfall
The ‘twitter-fall’ of of real-time tweets from #NASATweetUp

Next up was a series of talks from NASA officials, including astronaut Mike Massimino, and Wayne Hale, a former shuttle flight director, then shuttle program manager, now deputy associate administrator for strategic partnerships. When these guys spoke, everyone listened, and the stories they told were fascinating. Of course, this was a room full of twitter users, so the way everyone listened was heads down, keyboards out, and typing furiously. A twitter-fall of all the tweets in real time was projected onto large screens at the front of the room. Occasionally, the real-time feedback to the speakers was hilarious. “Oh- ok, so I know you’re all listening, even though no-one’s looking at me, because I just saw what I was saying on the wall!” With 100 people tweeting solidly all morning, the #NASATweetUp certainly got noticed in the Twitterverse – at one point we rose to number three on the trending topics.

The lunchtime break was a great time to explore the KSC visitor complex, and many of us tried out the Shuttle Launch Experience ride. Some of us more than once :) And I suspect that the hundred of us put a noticeable blip into the gift shop’s sales figures for that day.

Tour to the Launch Pad

In the afternoon we boarded buses for a tour of the space center. Where I was really hit home for me as the bus turned a corner and the iconic towering bulk of the Vertical Assembly Building came into view in the distance. The bus continued on, and the VAB grew larger – and larger – and larger. That building is huge! I’d seen it so many times in pictures and on NASA TV, and now I was actually there. I could just imagine a giant Saturn V rocket emerging slowly from one of those massively tall hangar doors. Now, it houses the shuttles as they are stacked in preparation for flight.

Nestled at the base of the VAB is the launch control center, containing the firing rooms from which the complex process of launching a shuttle is directed. The bus continued on past that, to the dock where barges bring the big orange External Tanks from their assembly facility in Michoud. From there we went past the crawler park, where the tracked crawler transporters live when they are not taking a shuttle stack out to the launch pad (or in days gone by, a Saturn V moon rocket). Just past the crawlers, we saw several as-yet-unstacked sections of the launch gantry being assesmbled for the new Ares rocket, then we were on a road running parallel to the crawlerway, out toward the launch pads. We were on our way to meet shuttle Atlantis. About half-way to the pad, we passed a gantry-like building on our right, and our tour guide explained that that was the viewing platform from which members of the public were allowed to see the shuttle at the launch pad. But our bus kept on going right past it.

Space Shuttle Atlantis on the launch pad, tucked inside the Rotating Service Structure
Shuttle Atlantis on the launch pad, mostly obscured by the rotating service structure

We got out of our buses, into a roped-off grassy viewing area, just across the road from the space shuttle on its launch pad. I stood and gaped for a while. Even mostly hidden within its rotating service structure, the shuttle stack was a thing of awe. Today it sat silent, waiting, being prepared and checked out for flight. Tomorrow its engines would roar for eight short minutes, and then it would be in space, traveling round the world at eighteen thousand miles per hour.

Launch Day

For launch day, we were all to assemble at KARS park, from which we would be bused to KSC proper and the press site where our tweet-up marquee was. We all thought the traffic would be terrible, and no one wanted to miss the buses. Consequently, we were all there far too early – some of us well over an hour – and a bit of an impromptu tailgate party ensued while we waited. Eventually the buses came, and we were taken to the press area just behind the VAB, with the grassy area in front of the countdown clock that you often see on NASA TV, and a view of the shuttle on the pad in the distance out beyond that.

Twitter Central with the Vertical Assembly Building in the background
Twitter Central with the Vertical Assembly Building in the background

We were once again well catered for, in a marquee with full wireless connectivity and streaming NASA TV on two large flatscreen displays at the front of the room. Outside, we got to mingle with all the press representatives who had come to cover the launch. Once again there were a series of talks, this time from the guys who prepare the shuttle for launch. You could tell these folks loved their jobs (and who wouldn’t). We learned all about the shuttle systems, right down to how the hatch is sealed when closing the astronauts in for the flight.

At the beginning of the day, conditions were looking iffy for launch – there was a layer of cloud, the likes of which had caused launch postponements in the past. We all told each other that it would burn off before the mid-afternoon launch time. We all hoped that we were right. Luckily, we were.

The launch of a space shuttle is a true spectacle. We were as close as you can get to the launch, without being in one of the rescue armored personnel carriers parked a little further up the crawlerway. That’s still four miles from the pad. They keep you that far away for a good reason: the energies released are gargantuan. First there is bright light, and the distant shuttle rises noiselessly and slowly into the air. It picks up speed, trailing a magnesium-bright flare of white-hot rocket exhaust atop a pillar of white smoke. Then the sound finally hits you, a rumbling, crackling roar that seems to intensify as the shuttle climbs higher and arcs over away from you, till it seems that its mighty engines are pointed right at you. Then the sound fades, you can just make out the solid rocket boosters separating, and the rapidly receding shuttle is just a bright point, well on its way to space. Then everyone is quiet, and contemplative, and you take a moment to reflect on the fact that what you just saw was a machine made by people, harnessing tamed energies equivalent to a small nuclear bomb, with courageous astronauts riding inside it, and while you’ve been thinking about that, they are already floating weightless in space. It’s a profound and amazing experience, and there aren’t really words to do it justice.

Unless you’re seriously into cameras, don’t spend the launch hiding behind a viewfinder. Put all your gadgets down at t-10 or so, and just watch, and listen, and drink in the experience. If, as the shuttle arcs skyward, you find yourself swallowing a lump in your throat, or blinking away a tear, don’t worry about it, you’ll be in good company.

Freedom star and the return of the solid rocket boosters

I’m not normally a pessimist, but I’ve followed the Shuttle long enough to know that there is no guarantee of an on-time launch. Because I was coming from so far away, I was determined that I would see the thing launch even if it were delayed, and so I planned my trip to stay in Cocoa for several days after the nominal launch date.
Perhaps because I was so well prepared for delays, it was a flawless countdown and on-time launch. Not only did it give me a chance to visit the Orlando theme parks, but it had one unexpected side benefit: On the Thursday morning after the Monday launch, the booster recovery ships returned to port, towing the two white solid rocket boosters that had lofted Atlantis for the first two minutes of her journey to orbit. To get back to the processing facility, they have to come through the lock at Port Canaveral, which is a perfect time to catch them for a photo:

The Freedom Star and a Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster
The Freedom Star and a Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster

It meant an early start on a cold morning, but sure enough, the booster recovery ship Freedom Star came gliding past, with Atlantis’ right hand solid rocket booster in tow.

[Update 5/15 – Somehow, I managed to get my wires crossed. STS-129 was Atlantis, not Discovery. Corrected]

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