Thursday, May 20, 2010

Atlantis STS-132 Launch NASA Tweetup

NASA Tweetup tent
Last week I was lucky enough to participate in the STS-132 NASA Tweetup for the last Atlantis launch. Less than a week before the launch on May 14 I was still not sure whether I'll be able to go for various reasons. I finally had all my ducks in a row - NASA confirmation, airline tickets, hotel and car - only a few days before the launch.

While waiting in Denver for my delayed flight to Florida I met Mike Petrone, a former Phantom pilot who took his wife and grandson to see the launch. In the early 1970s, Mike went through preliminary astronaut training including, among other things, parabolic flights. Suffice to say that the nick-name Vomit-Comet given to airplanes performing parabolic flights seems more apt than before. He eventually didn't make it into the astronaut core but his interest in space remained.


"1 Days to Launch" sign
After sleeping an hour and a half thanks to a delay in my flight I drove from Orlando to the NASA badge office next to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center. To cut a long story short, I can probably get a medal for being the first foreign tweep to get the badge and the last to actually get to the tweetup site about three hours later. Between these two events I experienced how the best intentions can't expedite bureaucracy.

Back to the Moon?
After what was left from the morning sessions I ate at the cafeteria and hopped on a bus that took us on a private tour of KSC - the 40th anniversary Apollo experience, Saturn V and the ISS building (where I may have cost the tax payer millions due to taking a flash photograph and found a somewhat outdated sticker, see photo).

In the air with Atlantis
The icing on the cake for that day was to see the Rotational Service Structure (RSS) being opened up. I've never been so close to a space shuttle before, and next time I will be that close will probably be at one of the museums lucky enough to hold one of the shuttles after they are retired (not upright and ready to go as Atlantis proudly stood that day). As tired as I was at that point, seeing the Atlantis up close and personal, realizing that in less than 24 hours I'll see it soaring to the sky made me, well, soar to the sky, at least for a few feet and seconds...

The next day was of course the day of the launch. Unlike the day before, the press site was now buzzing with TV and online reporters, among them Miles O'Brien and the SpaceVidCast crew, all covering the event, interviewing astronauts and other NASA people. All the while, TV screens in the tent and the press center showed the preparations - astronauts being strapped in, closing of the hatch, the planned pause at 9 minutes, and the count down from that.

Chris Meinert, closeout crew
After watching the Astrovan drive by we had the pleasure of meeting several people from NASA, which were all very happy to meet this group of space-geeks and share their experience. Most moving was Chris Meinert from the closeout crew. I asked him how it felt to be so close to the shuttle but not in it in anticipation for a glimpse into the interaction with the astronauts right before they go up to orbit, and I inadvertently brought up memories about the Columbia disaster. There was a moment of silence in the tweetup tent as Chris reflected about the fallen and those last moments before that launch without landing.

Throughout the day before the launch I found myself walking around, getting pictures of newscasters, the famous clock, the press center and having a hard time sitting down and relaxing. The scene and the location, with all the media, all the people and all the known space monuments (count-down clock, VAB, launch pad three miles away) were simply electrifying.

With the count-down clock and Atlantis 3 miles awayAstro David Wolf, Miles O'Brien and Astro Leroy Chiao

At about ten minutes before the launch, I took my spot, right next to the Miles O'Brien tent, where I was looking at the famous count-down clock and right above it the shuttle, waiting to be launched. As this was the first time I saw a launch, I decided to take video and pictures in a way that would only minimally take time from watching the launch with my own eyes rather than through camera screens and lenses, a hard decision for a photo-nut such as myself.

STS-132 Atlantis launch

Viewing the launch was a unique experience. Unlike watching it on TV, the launch starts with the silence of the clock reaching -2 seconds and smoke starting to come from the shuttle main engines. 2 seconds later, at 0, still at silence, more smoke, this time on the other side, as the SRBs start going and lift-off is accomplished. It takes about 15 seconds for the sound to reach the press site. And when it does, the visuals of the shuttle get complimented with the vibrations and roar, unlike anything that gets recorded through a microphone and comes out of speakers - straight from the shuttle soaring up to me with nothing in between. It is definitely a unique experience.

Optical illusion - Atlantis is curving its trajectory towards orbit, 2 minutes into the launch
Here's my own video. I took the advise of watching the launch with my own eyes and I'm happy I did, eve though it means my video won't win any awards. Yet, this video recorded my initial reactions, which I treasure.

The Tweeps
NASA Tweetup tent and tweeps
The crowd at the tweetup was a composition of 150 different people - some couples, many individuals, about  ten foreigners such as myself, from space industries and unrelated and with two unifying traits - being space enthusiasts and living in the twitter universe, where 140 characters are all the attention span you get. I greatly enjoyed meeting everyone and was blown away by the amicable atmosphere at the tweetup tent and outside. I came back to a heads-down last stages of a software launch at Webroot (my day-job, now more of a day and night job), but still enjoy the stream of consciousness coming out of that group of people. Special thanks have to go to all the good people at NASA that made this event possible and so rich beyond just viewing the launch, headed by Stephanie. I can honestly say I would try and go to the JSC tweetup as well, but that would mean my wife and boss competing for who kills me first...

In two launches, all signs point to the shuttle becoming a piece of history. What will the future bring? If it were up to me - warp drive, replicators and transporters. The more likely (down to Earth?) dream of inhabiting other planets and using space resources such as asteroids lives on, and it will be built on whatever the scientists at NASA and private space will come up with in the upcoming years.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post! We so thrilled you survived badging to make it to the STS-132 tweetup and launch experience. Nothing can ever compare to the thrill of feeling the roar of Shuttle engines from the inside out as your body shakes with lift-off from three miles away. Can you imagine how it feels INside the orbiter. Next stop? Warp-drive! Agreed. :-D