The STS-132 Space Shuttle Atlantis #NASATweetup – Day L-1

One full week has passed since my return from the Space Shuttle Atlantis, STS-132, launch tweetup at Kennedy Space Center.  I think everyone knows what a tweetup is at this point and time, and those who don’t soon will.  Now NASA is not new to the tweetup business, and they have been doing this for just over a year and a half now.  But when they throw a bash, they really know how to do it, and a lot can be learned from their efforts.

So I will do my best to keep my buzz on the activities at hand, and to post some relevant info about the event and its impacts on me.  Not that I have ever taken a simple blog entry and turned it into a novel.

The night before the tweetup, I could barely sleep.  I was about to go and sit in the very spot that the press has been going to cover NASA launches for nearly half a century.  The very spot where the history of human spaceflight had been recorded as our space program had evolved from unmanned orbiters, sending manned missions to the moon, and the era of the space shuttles and the International Space Station.  I would watch the third to last shuttle flight launch from that very historic spot.

Three hours of sleep following that thought, the alarm went off, and I popped out of bed, and the adrenaline carried me for another three days!  Wow, I was really going to do this.  Time to venture to Merritt Island for the very first time in my life, where countless astronauts, engineers, technicians, administrators, and other folks who make the space program operate drive on many days of their lives.  A routine drive for them, and adventure for me.

Arriving a bit early at the press accreditation site, the spacetweeps started to pour into the parking lot.  A few of the folks I had met at prior events were running a bit late, and I really wanted to wait for them. So I sat back and watched the people roll into the parking lot, and head off to the line where they would be given their badge, instructions, and of course a NASA swag bag.  I didn’t know very many of  these 150 people that were pouring into the parking lot, but I would soon at a minimum get to know most of them, and befriend many of them.  For the next two days, everything I experienced would be with these great folks, and they would help make the experience.

This would be my first launch experience.  14,600 days and thousands of launches had occurred in my life.  I had never made it a priority to chase a single launch, despite the fact that I have watched hundreds of launches and dozens of shuttle landings on NASA TV and other media sources throughout my life. The fact that this experience would be done amongst the largest collection of space geeks ever assembled on the East Coast was just invigorating!  🙂

All of my friends arrived and we all received our credentials and swag.  Now it was time for the second big moment of the event.  Time to drive into Kennedy Space Center.  Full on access to the press site area.  From a distance of about 4-6 miles, we could see the Vehicle Assembly Building, and it started to become larger and larger.  A dream coming true with each moment forward.

Heading toward the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), many folks had experienced the VAB on some scale in the past, but I had only seen it on television, and normally only parts of it due to its size.  It is the largest building in the world with respect to relative size and the usable volume inside it.  Standing about a quarter mile away from it, I felt like teeny-wheeny ant, and that was from a quarter mile away.  A lot of history has rolled out of this building, and a lot of firsts in human existence happened within its walls.  And here I was standing like an insignificant insect, about a quarter mile away.  Wow, I lost my breathe.  And just to think just how many times I would lose my breathe in two days time.

In Front of the VAB

In Front of the VAB

Now an interesting thing I have observed with people and myself.  Some folks when they become overwhelmed with an experience, they jump around like childish fools in joy.  Others, they just get hyper to the point where they can’t function.  Some folks scream without any ability to contain.  The vast majority of people have some combination of the above.  However, when I reach that point of sensory overload, I reach a wonderful peaceful state, that is most likely viewed by those around me as, well, a lack of higher (or lower for that matter) brain function.  The VAB was just the first of these many moments in this amazing venture.

Looking around trying to get oriented, with the VAB as the primary navigational land mark, the next thing I spotted was the “twent”  The twent is called so because it is the tent which holds the tweeps which are attending the tweetup.  Now to call this temporary structure a tent rather than a twent would just not be any fun at all.  So “twent” it is.  And heading over to the twent to get settled in, there she was.  Off in the distance, about 3 miles away, across the waters known as Turning Basin, sitting majestically atop her launchpad, was the space shuttle Atlantis all ready for her STS-132 mission.  Angels sang, the lighting changed, and I slipped into sensory overload, again.

Atlantis on Her Perch

Atlantis on Her Perch

Settling into the twent with @genejm29, @cmilesbaker, @clearedthetower, @bethejustin, and @lizstrand at my table.  I couldn’t help myself but to start working the room.  Starting with faces I recognized and folks I had already met, and along the way met folks I had been interacting with for over a year, and had yet to meet in person.

Inside the Twent

Inside the Twent

There are five people that I attribute my rebirthed interest in spaceflight to.  These people are @genejm29, @flyingjenny, @astrogerly, @catherineq, and @clearedthetower.  There are hundreds if not thousands of awesome spacetweeps, but these five I found on my third night on twitter, and what a transformational experience that event was for me.  Their kindness, humor, willingness to share their experiences, and generally fun natured being really pulled me (as well as hundreds others) in.

I had met Gene at another event already, and so we were already like long lost buddies.  At this event, I was able to check three more names off the list.  And after each one, I felt like some mission was completed.  It was so great to meet each!  Someday, I will meet @CatherineQ as well – I just know it.  On the top five best things about the NASATweetup were all of the great people I met there!

Members from my NASATweetup Table

@kreegan99, @genejm29, @cmilesbaker, @clearedthetower

After an initial ice breaking period in the twent, we then became a “Live Twudio Audience” (twudio is a Jon Cowart phrase) for a fantastic lineup of speakers.  The speakers included NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun, Orbiter Engineering Manager Jon Cowart, Shuttle Discovery Flow Director Stephanie Stilson, NASA Astronaut Janet Voss, and NASA Equipment Specialist (i.e. space suits) and Space Artist Ron Woods.

I’m not going into a great amount of detail on the speakers, other than the fact that they were all fantastic speakers and are all amazing people.  If you are really interested in the speakers, you can watch a replay of the day 1 speakers at http://www.ustream.tv/channel/nasa-tweetup.

What I do want to focus on is that many folks are unsettled by the changes NASA is faced with.  From the speakers who had to field really hard and challenging questions, to the audience filled with space flight geeks, to the American tax payers who set expectations for delivery on a dollar spent.  Every great dynasty that has ever been has had to occasionally take a step back, redraw its plans, and start a new path forward.  And many folks are not sure they want to accept certain realities.  The major theme I heard during the speakers is that the American Space Program is entering a rebuilding phase, and this was evident of the frustration of some of spacetweeps (not all by a long shot), the NASA employees themselves, and the NASA leadership as well.  However, this topic is better left for another day and another blog post.

I for one am very optimistic about this new direction and rebuilding phase after hearing Bobby Braun, Jon Cowart, and Janet Voss speaking.  Not because they had said anything in particular that convinces me of this, but because of one simple fact.  These are amazing people who have accomplished amazing things in the past, and they will do it again…and again….and again.  What they need is a plan, a well defined mission, and the unwavering support and leadership needed during a transitionary phase.  And the people I heard speaking that day are those people.  And these people will find ways to make that plan firm up.

Jon Cowart Inspires

Jon Cowart Inspires

Regardless of the debate, most of the time polite debate, we still heard about some fantastic stuff.  Stephanie Stilson walked us through the steps of getting a shuttle ready from landing to rollout, Janet Voss told us of her many space and science missions, and shared with us her background and how she became an astronaut.  Jon Cowart inspired us as he always does..a truly amazing and inspirational speaker.  A very personable Ron Woods shared with us some history of the space program, space suits and other gear as well as his many artistic talents and works.  Simply stated, I shook the hand of the guy who helped Apollo 11 Astronauts suit up for their historic venture to the moon and back.  How freakin cool is that?  All of the speakers were approachable and class acts.

My favorite quote from the morning was from Jon Cowart, “When we were on the moon, we were three days away from a ham sandwich.  That will not be the case when the day comes and we venture to Mars.”

After the speakers, we took a short break which allowed us to once again meet other tweeps, walk around the press area, or just sit back and take things in.  Following that break, we were treated to a VIP tour of the NASA facilities, the same basic tour the press corp gets.  We ventured around the NASA facility, driving by the many buildings and functions of the rather large and extensive facility. It was a truly impressive tour.

We visited the Apollo/Saturn V visitor center where there is an unused Saturn V rocket broken into its component parts for observation.  There are also various LEM’s and command modules laying around, and a fully recreated mission control center.  This was an awesome place to hang out and grab a quick bite to eat.  I could have spent an entire day at this facility alone!

Here I stand under a Saturn V Rocket

Here I stand under a Saturn V Rocket

We then went and visited the building where the components for the International Space Station are processed and prepared for delivery via the various shuttle’s cargo bays.  In this building there are various mockup ISS components, including a scaled mockup of the Dextre robotic arm.  It was amazing walking through these ISS modules.  There was storage everywhere in them including overhead and below our feet.  Of course in space, overhead is a very relative term. These modules had the phrase contingency and practicality written all over them.

Technicians prepare MPLM Leaonardi for Permanent Fixture on ISS

Technicians prepare MPLM Leaonardi for Permanent Fixture on ISS

Then we were able to walk through and see the area where they process the ISS modules for launch.  They were actively working on the Leonardo Multi Purpose Logistics Module.  Leonardo as an MPLM was first used in 2001 to deliver materials to the station, and has been used 7 times since then for that purpose.  It will be used for the MPLM purpose one more time on STS-133, and then it will become a full pressurized module on the ISS.  The work we saw being performed was preparing the module for pressurized existence.

Following the bus tour, we returned to the twent area for another quick break, and then we headed off for something not very many get to do. After loading the bus, we began to drive down a road that followed the crawler pathway all the way to launchpad 39A which housed the Shuttle Atlantis.  On the way, we could see all the way into the VAB, observe a crawler sitting on the pathway, view a future shuttle pad without a crawler under it or shuttle on it, see the actual tread marks left by the crawler as it carried Atlantis to the pad, and then finally, we pulled up within a few hundred feet of the Atlantis orbiter and Launchpad 39A.  Again sensory overload occurred, and I became still as i was absorbing the moment.  WOW.  How cool is that?

The buses parked, and we unloaded into an observing field looking at the erected shuttle form the side.  Of course the real press had dibs on the frontal view.  When we first arrived, the shuttle had the Rotating Service Structure (RSS) attached which obstructed a clear view of the shuttle.  This structure is in place to help people working and preparing the shuttle for launch.  After being there for only a few minutes, the retracting of the RSS began.  And slowly it spun to reveal the Space Shuttle Atlantis in her glory.  Wow!  What a beautiful site.  Among all of the people there observing, I am guessing that nearly 250,000 photographs were taken in under an hour’s time.  About 200 were taken by me alone 🙂  That is how awe inspiring it is to be standing that close to a real, ready to launch space shuttle.  A memory that will last forever!

Here I'm standing in front of Shuttle Atlantis - RSS Complete.

Here I'm standing in front of Shuttle Atlantis - RSS Complete.

It took a while to round up all the spacetweeps to get them back in the bus, and then we headed back to the twent area.  A few of us hung out for a while after most had left, and we took photographs of each other standing in front of the countdown clock.  Yet another historical landmark with that sensory overload to it.

The Countdown Clock!

The Countdown Clock!

After leaving KSC for the day, about 20 of us later hooked up once again for a dinner before retiring for the evening and heading back to try and get some rest for the next day when the launch would occur.  I couldn’t believe when I finally put my head to a pillow, that the following day was going to be better than this day!

For the whole photo gallery – check this link out – http://www.flickr.com/photos/kreegan99/sets/72157623959903201/

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