Two Days of Tweetness: Witnessing a Shuttle Launch

by Jason Major on July 17, 2011

Space Tweeps Unite! NASA Tweetup participants gather at the launch clock on Friday, July 8, 2011. © NASA HQ Photo

It’s been over a week since the NASA Tweetup and I’m still thinking about it. For good reason, of course… it was awesome.

Over the course of two days I saw a capsule that had been to space and back, talked with five astronauts (one currently in orbit!), toured Kennedy Space Center, met a muppet, touched a piece of the Moon, made dozens of new friends and, of course, watched, heard and felt the launch of the last space shuttle to leave Earth. (And managed to talk my way into a delicious barbecue sandwich inside the Vehicle Assembly Building.) All with less than six hours of sleep.

Not too shabby. ;)

Tweeting in the Twent

I have to say, I was very impressed with the organization by the people at NASA. From directions to getting our badges to the lovingly air-conditioned, internet-supplied and somewhat rainproof Tweetup tent (or “twent”, as it’s called) to the guest speakers and tours of Kennedy Space Center, they all did a fantastic job at making the 150 Tweetup participants (er, “tweeps”… yes, there’s a definite lingo here) feel like genuine VIPs. We had access to places that most people don’t get to see, and got to watch Atlantis launch from a location reserved for members of the press. The twent was located on the edge of the press lawn, just to the right of the big countdown clock and between the Lockheed-Martin and Boeing tents. Seeing the shuttle on the pad was as easy as stepping outside the twent and looking across the pond… we were literally closer than all the major media representatives! (And I believe we were visited first by Elmo.)

Atlantis ignites! © Jason Major

What’s it like to watch a shuttle launch from the press site? In a word: amazing!!! (Really, what did you think??) When the smoke and steam started billowing up from the pad, a gasp was heard from all present, followed by a cheer and then the simultaneous clicking of hundreds of cameras. This, of course, was only audible until the sound of the shuttle’s rockets crossed the 3.1 miles between the pad and the press site and quickly filled the air with a growing rumble that culminated in a deep, flapping roar that you could feel as much as hear. It was all I could do to keep my hands steady to take photos – luckily I had pre-focused and set my camera so all I had to do was adjust zoom and keep the shutter going. Every now and then I made sure I looked at what was happening with my own eyes as I didn’t want to experience the launch only through the viewfinder of a camera. Still, the actual launch happened so quickly and the shuttle passed through the clouds so soon, I only got a couple of glimpses of it as it soared upwards. But the memories of it are burned in my mind.

And, of course, I do have lots of photos.

I opted for photos rather than video because I wanted something I could print at a decent size, perhaps even on photo canvas, and I figured there’d be plenty of videos out there of the launch anyway. (And there are.)

I did shoot some video during the Tweetup, of the chat between Elmo and astronauts Mike Massimino and Doug Wheelock in the twent, of the inside of the Vehicle Assembly Building and of the retraction of the Rotating Service Structure from the shuttle – during which we were lucky enough to be in the adjacent viewing lawn!

Me talking with Doug Wheelock. Credit: Patty Cleveland @scienceesl

I’m not sure how to sum up the Tweetup as a cohesive story, other than that it was an experience like I’ve never had before. Being around so many other people who share one’s excitement about spaceflight and astronomy and who are all fixated on one event taking place is quite a feeling. Meeting astronauts in person is an awesome experience as well. Col. Wheelock was especially gracious to all of us, giving a first-hand account of his time aboard the space shuttle and International Space Station and informing us of what happens in the minutes before, during and after a launch, and was more than happy to take time to sign autographs and pose for photos. I got a photo with him, got his signature in my autograph book and even let him use my back as a signing table! He seemed like a genuinely nice guy, who loves what he does, and was a pleasure to meet. I also got a chance to talk with Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who was also very nice, as well as Garrett Reisman (who now works for SpaceX developing rockets), Mike Massimino (briefly) and Expedition 29 astronaut Ron Garan via iPhone while he passed overhead aboard the ISS! Very cool.

Atlantis on the pad before dawn, July 8 2011. © Jason Major

Ultimately luck was on our side on Friday, as Atlantis launched despite a 70% chance that the weather would not cooperate. The day before brought torrential rain and thunderstorms and the word around the site was that it wasn’t looking good for launch, but NASA seemed extra-determined to make the final flight of the shuttle program happen on time. For some reason, once I saw Atlantis lit up by those powerful spotlights early Friday morning, glowing in the distance like a holy temple of space travel – which, in a way, it was – I had a feeling it was going to take off that day. Which it did, thankfully, only two minutes later than planned at 11:29 am.

(See above for what that was like.)

Yeah. :)

Here’s some other random thoughts I have regarding the Two Days of Tweetness:

  • They don’t mess around with security at Kennedy Space Center. They know what’s going on, everywhere, as well as what time it is. If tweeps aren’t allowed in the gate until 5am, they aren’t going to let you in at 4:35am. And don’t speed in KSC. They will pull you over.
  • The VAB is HUGE. Way huge. Picture the biggest building you have ever been in. It’s bigger than that.

  • I watched a spaceship take off.
  • When you watch the shuttle launch, it’s a dramatic, powerful event that blows your mind. Then you remember that there’s four humans riding on it, and your mind is blown even more.
  • Kennedy Space Center is a place where they build spaceships in giant buildings surrounded by moats filled with alligators. If that’s not science fiction I don’t know what is.
  • If you want good prices on NASA mission patches and t-shirts visit the gift shop at the Air Force Space and Missile History Museum. Same stuff, way cheaper. Tell Mary Ann I said hi.
  • The Saturn V rocket is the biggest rocket you have ever seen. (Which makes sense, because it’s the biggest rocket ever made.)
  • You can say you’re going to Tweet a launch, but in reality you won’t be Tweeting much because there’s no cellular service during a launch. Totally clogged up.
  • Manatees live in the pond between the press site and the launch pad. That’s cool.
  • Bring bug spray.
  • And sunscreen.
  • When people say to bring bug spray and sunscreen, do it.
  • And when the sign says don’t drink the water on site for any reason, don’t drink the water. This goes for brewed coffee too. (It’s a long story.)
  • The NASA cafeteria is a great place for a deli sandwich, but you better know what you want. The ladies there aren’t fooling around.
  • There’s a lot more waiting than launching at a shuttle launch. And don’t trust the clock… NASA time is not real time. When it says there’s three hours to launch that really means seven hours to launch. Plan accordingly.
  • Of course, there won’t be any more shuttle launches, so that’s a moot point.

Regardless of it being the end of the shuttle program, KSC is an awesome place to visit. I am honestly shocked that this is the first time I have ever been there, considering all the times I have been in Florida. But then again I have never been a guest of NASA like I was during the Tweetup – it’s definitely a different experience that way! Still I’d go back in a second as there’s still a lot I didn’t get a chance to see. Until then, I’ll be replaying the events of last week over and over in my mind… until then and for the rest of my life, I’m sure. Thanks to everyone at NASA who made this possible, and thanks to the great tweeps I met while I was there! We’re now part of a special group of people who shared a historic event, it’s true, but we’re also very excited to share it with as many people as we can.

Because it really was just that cool.

STS-135 Atlantis launched at 11:29 am on July 8, 2011. I was there. © Jason Major

See more photos from the STS-135 Tweetup in the Flickr group here.

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Jason Major is a graphic designer, photo enthusiast and space blogger. Visit his website Lights in the Dark and follow him on Twitter @JPMajor or on Facebook for the most up-to-date astronomy awesomeness!

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A graphic designer in Rhode Island, Jason writes about space exploration on his blog Lights In The Dark, Discovery News, and, of course, here on Universe Today. Ad astra!

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