Posted by: sternenfeeinflorida | 18 May 2010

I went to the #NASAtweetup

Before I start with the highlights, let me add some history. I pretty much grew up with spaceflight, I was in 3rd grade when the Challenger broke up, killing the crew in the process. This disaster has always stayed with me and although I only had a brief period of wanting to become an astronaut (that idea was killed quickly once I started taking physics in school), I was always interested in space and human space flight.
In the 80’s, still during the Cold War, there was still a stiff competition between the US and Russia. Once the Cold War ended and the wall came down in Germany late in 1989, things seemed to shift a little for me, away from space to more earthly events… until the Mir-Shuttle program launched its first mission in 1994. In case you didn’t know, Mir (мир) is the Russian word for peace – a sign how far the world had come. For the first time, Americans and Russians weren’t competing, they were working together. That alone was incredible… but then to hear that people would stay in space for an extended period of time was simply amazing. It shouldn’t be surprising that I was quite sad when the Mir was deorbited in 2001. On the other hand, however, another exciting project had started to launch: the ISS.
But once again, the space program drifted away from my conscience. It was always there and whenever the news reported that a shuttle went into space to deliver more parts, I imagined how cool it must be to fly around the earth… from space. It wasn’t until I moved to the United States in 2002 that space flight started to take a larger spot in my life again. With extended coverage and NASA TV, I was able to follow the space program closer than I ever did… and so I followed STS-107’s mission and was could not believe my eyes when at re-entry Columbia simply turned into a ball of fire. Having never seen a re-entry, I wasn’t sure what was going on but it couldn’t be good. It wasn’t and for the second time in my life, I saw a shuttle and its crew vanish. Although this put danger back into human space flight, I never ceased to believe that ultimately these missions are an incredible part of what humankind can achieve.
When I moved to Florida, suddenly the shuttles were so much closer but yet, I thought I wouldn’t be able to watch them launch anyway, too far was Kennedy Space Center from Orlando, I thought, and usually I either had to work or it was late at night anyway. So I continued to watch the launches on TV… until last year.
Having been introduced to Twitter and following NASA the year before, I suddenly had even more access and I became aware that the shuttle was indeed visible from Orlando. That’s when I knew I had to see it with my own eyes and eventually I did. I was able to see a few launches, including a night launch, from far, far away. Never did I imagine what would happen next.
In April, a tweet came through my stream saying there would be a tweetup at the KSC and anyone interested should fill out a form and apply. I did so immediately and when I got the email saying I was invited, I couldn’t believe my luck! While I was happy to have been invited, I was sad that the same invitation wasn’t extended to Kurtis. What an experience it would have been had we both been able to go! Thankfully, though, a few days later Kurtis got an invitation as well. After all, it was largely because of him that I got to see as many launches as I did.
We decided to get a hotel room for convenience reasons at the coast, so we wouldn’t have to get up too early and drive from Orlando to KSC. We had to discover during an earlier launch attempt that the traffic would be brutal on launch day. From our hotel in Melbourne it was an easy drive to KSC and we arrived early at the first badging station on Thursday. We had to get special tweetup badges to be allowed onto the restricted KSC area, where the tweetup tent was. I even had to get an extra badge because I’m not a US citizen. This badge had to be picked up first and when we got there, the badging officer didn’t seem to know what we were talking about. This already sent up a red flag in my head but when he found my credentials in his computer, took a picture and handed me a badge, I thought all was good. We continued to the tweetup registration where we would get the other badges necessary. We stood in line, met a few other lucky tweeters and received our badges along with a bag full of NASA related stuff. Our badges in hand, we drove towards the security checkpoint… and the security officer denied me access because I had the wrong badge. We had to turn around and drove back to the tweetup registration where the problem had already been noted. We were sent back to the first badging office where I would receive a different badge. This time, my fingerprints had to be taken as well and we had to wait again. But at least I wasn’t alone with my dilemma, there were other foreign tweeters who encountered the same problem. Eventually, though, we all had the right badges and were able to proceed through security to the tweetup tent.
I think we missed the first speaker, came in on time to hear astronaut Janice Voss share a few of her experiences in space flight. It was interesting to hear how it feels to be in space. The next speaker was Stephanie Stilson, one of the orbiter processing flow directors. She explained that she is responsible for the shuttle from landing to its next launch. An interesting fact she mentioned was that currently all processing flow directors are female. Stephanie Stilson also talked about the importance of teamwork and that there’s quite some competition among the flow directors, who are each responsible for a different shuttle and each have their favorite. The following speaker was Jon Cowart, an orbiter engineering manager, who demonstrated quite accurately how the shuttle would sound at liftoff. He also explained that NASA’s mission is to figure out the magic in nature and that NASA still has a mission to Mars in the back of its mind but that the current shuttles are not the right vehicles to get there. Ron Woods, who is not only an equipment specialist but also a pretty good painter, relieved Jon Cowart and talked to us about the space suits. He explained that the space suits are unisex and that once an astronaut wears one, he or she doesn’t have a real chance of scratching an itch. For the most part they just have to deal with it. Of course he passed around a space boot and a space glove, too! I didn’t get to touch either but I took photos. After a lunch break, we were able to go on a tour. We went to the ISS processing facility, the Apollo mission exhibit, which eventually put Neil Armstrong on the moon and finally, we went to the launch pad for the Atlantis’ roll-out. That alone was an amazing thing to see and the shuttle was just so close. After the obligatory group photo in front of the shuttle, we drove back to the press site, where our first day ended. With plenty of photos and a brain full of new impressions, Kurtis and I drove back to the hotel. We transferred the photos to the computer, gave them a quick glance before I uploaded them to a web album for my family and friends to see.
The next day promised to be just as exciting. After we had to fight traffic to get to KSC and missed the group photo in front of the clock, we found a place inside the tent and were set up in plenty of time to hear deputy administrator Lori Garver speak. She explained the new space program and stated that privatizing the shuttle program will free up operational costs, which will allow NASA to do what it was founded to do. She believes that NASA does not give up on spaceflight or a return on the moon by privatizing the shuttle program. With the launch time getting closer, weather office Lt. Col. Patrick Barrett joined us to talk about the implications of weather on a successful launch. The main concern were a few low clouds, which could prevent a successful return to KSC, should there be a problem. He said that the volcanic ash poses a potential problem, too, should Atlantis have a problem and be forced to land in Spain. Of course we were all hoping for clear skies and a problem-free launch. After he was done talking, it was almost time for us to watch the astronauts get on the bus that would take them to the shuttle. Once the astronauts were in the bus, we were heading out to take pictures of the bus driving by & possibly wave at the astronauts.
After we watched the astronauts on their way to the shuttle, we went back to the tweetup tent, where astronaut Dave Wolf would talk to us. He was lucky enough to be in the Mir as well as the ISS and he compared the two a bit. He said because of humidity control issues, the Mir had a musty smell while the ISS has no smell at all. He explained that while on the ISS, it doesn’t bother him but once he lands back on earth, he smells everything much more intensely. Dave Wolf compared it to having superpowers or being like a dog, simply smelling everything. Dave Wolf explained one incident where he had to fix an airlock on the Mir station, he said he could easily have panicked and died but all the training he had gotten helped him to focus and just do what he had to do to fix it. He also mentioned that when looking out of the windows of the ISS, the earth looks like just another spacecraft, flying in formation with the ISS. When talking about becoming an astronaut, he emphasized how lucky people aspiring to be an astronaut, have to be. He mentioned his many different career paths and that finally, he was in the right place at the right time.
Soon after he was done talking, it was time for us to head outside and position ourselves for the shuttle launch. Having seen a few launches from far away, I was curious to see how this would compare. Finally, the last seconds counted down on the clock, we saw the rocket boosters ignite and all the smoke and then Atlantis lifted off. The sound came, just like Jon Cowart said it would and then the earth started shaking. It was an incredible feeling. Seeing the shuttle lift off, with the bright tail from the rocket boosters and the white smoke contrail against clear and bright blue skies, while the earth was moving with the immense power of the rockets. Too fast it was over but it certainly was an experience I will never forget. Looking at the pictures I took, I am able to relive the whole experience time and time again.
I was impressed with the dedication of all our speakers to their jobs, to NASA and the space program. After having been unsure what to think about seeing the shuttle program end, after all I grew up with it, I am confident that NASA will continue its research and eventually wow us once again with a project that will change the way we look at the universe.
Thank you, NASA, for providing this incredible, awe-inspiring opportunity.


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