My excitement was palpable. I had been anticipating day one of the STS-135 NASA Tweetup for nearly a month. I arrived in Florida the day prior–Wednesday–and had been to SpaceX that evening to see their Dragon spacecraft. After a special presentation at SpaceX, I enjoyed dinner with my father and step-mother at a restaurant near their facilities and within sight of the majestic and iconic Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center. I had seen the schedule of speakers and activities planned for the first day of the tweetup, and knew it would replete with memories I would cherish for the rest of my life.
My father graciously agreed to lend me use of his Jeep for my duration in Florida, which saved me considerably. I awoke early, showered and headed to the coast from St. Cloud. The drive down Nova road is surprisingly pleasant, as it is straight and well-maintained and is, as they say, less traveled. It afforded me ample time to comptemplate what I might experience, and perhaps more important, how it might be experienced.
As previously arranged, I drove first to Cocoa to pick up Phil Anderegg (@philanderegg) at his girlfriend’s house before heading to Kennedy Space Center. Phil is from Switzerland and was great to hang out with.
We stopped first at the Press Accreditation building to pick up our badges. It was there I first met the NASA Social Media Manager and tweetup organizer, Stephanie Schierholz (@schierholz), a women for whom I will be forever grateful.
Having secured our credentials, Phil and I drove into the heart of Kennedy Space Center, toward the mighty Vehicle Assembly Building. Our reserved parking lot was in the shadow of the VAB, and aided by the provided map and ample signage, was easy to locate. The Press Site, likewise, was easy to find, as it was a short walk and in sight of the parking lot, nearby national press trailers and their large satellite communications dishes.
After making our way across the field in which the iconic Countdown Clock is located, I entered the twent and was fortunate to find an open table just within the main opening and within excellent view of the podium, on which I planted my laptop.
Lori Garver, NASA Deputy Administrator, spoke to us, followed by Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Space Operations Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters. We were also fortunate to hear from Tracy Thumm and Justin Kugler of the International Space Station Program at Johnson Space Center. Astronauts Mike Massimino (@astro_mike) and Doug Wheelock (@astro_wheels) spoke to us and appeared with Sesame Street’s Elmo. As with the other speakers, they were generous and answered many questions.
I had been wondering about since reading Astronaut Mike Mullane’s book “Riding Rockets” what it must be like to experience atmospheric phenomena from orbit, so when I had the opportunity I asked it of “Wheels.” His answer was illuminating and fascinating.
Angie Brewer, Atlantis’ Flow Director, was the final speaker of the morning. The rain was coming down in sheets, and at one time the lightning and thunder was so close NASA TV, who had been broadcasting live from inside the twent, had to suspend their activities. The field outside the twent was soaked and had several inches of standing water. Since the launch wasn’t until the following day, it wasn’t dampening our spirits much (except that the weather forecast for the launch was a discouraging seventy percent chance of no-go).
When the rain let up briefly we hurriedly walked to the NASA employees’ cafeteria near the VAB. I found a table that was empty except for Robert Scoble (@Scobleizer), another tweetup attendee. Robert is a well-known technology blogger and I expected our conversation would be interesting. What was perhaps more exciting is that his friend, Trey Ratcliff (@TreyRatcliff), soon joined us, sitting directly across from me. I have been a fan of Trey’s photography for several years, and was thrilled at this fortuitous meeting. We talked about Trey and Robert’s travels, photography gear, photographic technique, social media and what future technology landscapes might be like.
On the walk to the twent after lunch I struck up a conversation with the incredibly beautiful Emily Calandrelli (@EmCalandrelli). Emily, it turns out, is as interesting and brilliant as she is gorgeous. She studies both aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is doing a summer internship in Washington D.C. writing white papers on government / commercial partnerships in space ventures. Our discussion was without a doubt my favorite and most memorable of the tweetup. When I asked her who had more effect on airfoil lift, Bernoulli or Newton, she would not give me an answer. I hope, at least, she thought the question interesting.
The afternoon plans consisted of a visit to Launch Pad 39A to watch the retraction of the Rotating Service Structure (RSS) and a tour of the VAB. We were told the RSS retraction may be delayed due to weather, which was quite disappointing to me. It was one of the events for which I was looking the most forward. Regardless, we would be able to go to the pad as the first stop in our tour of the Kennedy Space Center facilities.
When we disembarked the busses we gathered in a small field just outside the pad perimeter fence. We were close, and the excitement we were feeling was significant. Few people get this close to the pad, let alone one with a shuttle stack. Atlantis was shrouded in the protection of the RSS, which was fully closed. Shortly after arriving, however, we began to see the RSS begin to move. Slowly. Perhaps it was just our optimistic and hopeful eyes that were deceiving us. Was it really moving? It was difficult to tell. After a few tense minutes of uncertainty, it became obvious that the RSS was indeed retracting. We snapped photos and cheered and stood in awe as Atlantis was slowly revealed to us.
After the RSS was fully retracted we posed for an official group photo before we boarded the bus and waved goodbye.
Our next stop was to the Apollo/Saturn V Center, where we were left for an hour or so to amuse ourselves. It was very touristy, and I wasn’t much interested.
The next stop was the VAB, but to get there we passed the Orbiter Processing Facility, Launch Control Center and several launch platforms and crawler transporters. It was an honor to be among so much history and engineering marvels.
Once again we disembarked our bus and filed into the massive VAB, which can only be described with a sequence of superlatives. The Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center is of a scale that one can truly appreciate only first hand. It was originally called the Vertical Assembly Building, because rockets are literally assembled inside it in the vertical position atop a launch platform and a crawler transporter. It was designed and built for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions and is much larger than is required for the Space Shuttle.
The solid rocket boosters (SRB) are assembled vertically inside the VAB, after which the external tank (ET) is lowered between them and attached. Finally, the orbiter is towed horizontally into the VAB, where it is hoisted to a vertical position, lifted, rotated, moved horizontally and then lowered to the awaiting SRBs and ET. The orchestra is well-rehearsed and done to a phenomenal precision. In fact, the hook that lift the orbiter moves as little as one millimeter per second.
When the tour was ended, so was our schedule for the day, and I was exhausted. I drove Phil back to his girlfriend’s and continued back to my father’s house in St. Cloud. The following day–launch day–was going to begin very early and I was going to need every minute of what little sleep I could get.