On our way in to Kennedy Space Center, we passed a car that looked as if it was on its way to a high school pep rally. Its windows covered with a strange new word - Tweetup. We had no idea what that meant, but the driver was obviously enthusiastic. Unfortunately, our NASA adventure did not end with a shuttle launch; Discovery was scrubbed several times and launched in February.
I jumped at every chance to attend the shuttle's final launch - entering every possible option - including the Tweetup (having since learned what that was!). On June 10 I was busy at work; the end of the school year is a busy time for Library Media Specialists. There are books to chase down, yearbooks sales to handle, equipment to organize, and orders to submit. My pocket vibrated early in the afternoon and I barely had time to look at the screen. It was an email....from NASA! I took a cursory glance at the screen and forwarded the message to Sarah, assuming we would be on our way again. Twice in one year!
My cellphone rang as I walked through the door that afternoon and all I recall hearing was screaming. What on Earth could this be about? Was she really that excited (she's normally more laid back). After a few moments she said, "You have no idea what this means, do you?!" I really didn't. And then I read the email more carefully.
The event will provide you the opportunity to speak with shuttle technicians,
engineers, astronauts, and managers, and to experience the launch
of space shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station.
In addition, once we receive your confirmation, you will receive instructions
for an accreditation step you will need to complete no later than June 20 to
obtain clearance to come onsite at this secure government facility.
The next feeling I can remember having is one of panic. Could this really be true? Could I really afford to do this twice in one year? Where would I stay? How would I get there? Worst of all was the mother's guilt. This opportunity was for one person only. How could I do this and not have Sarah there? She's the one who aspires to be an astronaut. Thankfully my family calmed me enough to get my reply sent in on time and assured me that this was something not to be turned down.
What became clear very quickly is that NASA takes their Tweetups very seriously. This was not something thrown together. This was organized. The itinerary was incredible. But perhaps the most amazing thing to experience was the camaraderie among the Tweeps. We rented houses together, named them (VAB House!), organized rental cars and rides to KSC and the airport - all never having met before. Someone said that if your child announced they were going to go stay with strangers that your reaction would be to chain them to a radiator. But there we were! Physicists, photographers, engineers, students of every sort, Americans, Europeans, Asians, Australians....and me.
We spent Thursday in the tent captivated by the cadre of speakers and the horrific storm that swirled outside. At one point they tried to assure us that the tent was grounded. With the quantity of cords, cables and electronics over 150 Tweeps brought we could only hope so!
Our speakers were impressive and the Tweeps learned a great deal about NASA, space travel and the future of the programs. I promise to continue posting about that. But the star of the show was out on launch pad 39A and we still weren't sure if we would meet her that day. We weren't sure we'd ever get out of that tent! For the record, if they tell you to leave your cooler in the car because there won't be room at the table, ignore the directive. The VAB House mates made sandwiches and packed lots of nice cool water that was doing us no good in the trunk of Mary Kate's car. After noon the clouds decided to cease their torrents and allowed us enough time to be escorted to the employee cafeteria. I know there are reports of funny happenings while there, but I was so focused on the large bottle of water I could see from the end of the line, that I don't have a single anecdote. Except, perhaps, that @IamTay was seriously concerned for my well-being as she fanned me with my own shirt! It's hot in Florida.
After lunch, we trekked back to the Twent (notice the new vocabulary learned on this trip?) and heard not only that we were still under a lightning strike warning, but that there was concern that lightning struck the pad itself. Our hopes for attending the Rotating Service Structure rollback were fading, right up until the buses arrived. The closest emotion I can think of is disbelief at every turn. It's raining, we won't be able to go. There's the threat of lightning, we won't be able to go. We're on the bus and it's drizzling, we won't be able to get out. Something about the whole experience puts your brain into this permanent 'this can't really be happening' mode.
But the bus approached the gantry - the closest the public can get to the launch pad on a daily basis - and passed it on by. Beth Beck, NASA's Space Operations Outreach Manager and expert tour guide on the Cool Bus (we have a Four Square checkin to prove that status) was as excited as we were. This was our first view out of the bus window: Atlantis cradled by the RSS.
Just prior to launch, this mammoth structure seems to glide very smoothly away from the orbiter. It's job of providing protection and access to her complete. That RSS retraction went on as scheduled gave hope for launch the next day despite weather reports indicating a 70% no-go. The Tweeps disembarked the buses and commenced unabashed photo opps with one another and Atlantis. NASA officials practically had to drag us back to the buses, but our day was not yet complete.
Our next stop was the Vehicle Assembly Building - the immense structure capable of housing the shuttle and external fuel tanks in a vertical position. We were not just going to see it from the outside. For goodness sake, we were parked next to it, walked next to it (I still can't believe that to be so). We were going INSIDE! But Beth was not going to have this be any old tour of the VAB. She answered her iPhone just prior to our walking in. Who could be calling? Why Ron Garan, of course, FROM THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION! When NASA says 'outreach', they're not kidding.
On the general public tour (where the bus drives BY the VAB) you hear how this is the tallest one story building at 526 feet, and about the flag on the outside whose field of blue is the size of a basketball court and whose stripes could individually accommodate the bus you are in. Impressive. Right up until you actually walk into the place. I've been to cathedrals that were not as glorious, not as breathtaking. Photos cannot indicate scale nor can they convey the sense of importance of the place. Every rocket since my childhood has been readied for launch within these walls and structures. Banners signed by workers for each shuttle mission hang from the railings at every level. Tweeps whispered in reverence and walked forward, mouths agape.
|Looking straight up|
Thursday ended with a trip to the Saturn V visitor complex, no less impressive than the other locations of the day. The only difference is that this location is open to the public. You are welcome to take the tour, see the movie, and touch a moon rock (truly!). It was there I met @NasaMan, Jim Gerard, NASA's INSPIRE Education Specialist. He was the tour guide for another of the Tweetup buses. After talking to us for a few moments, he did what many of us had been doing all day - reading everyone's credentials hanging around our necks. You see, we are Tweeps and our given names are not necessarily how we are known on Twitter. One of the highlights of my trip was when Jim Gerard said, "ResearChameleon. I know who you are." The geek and educator in me swooned.
We were sent on our way that evening with a 70% no-go for launch, advice to check our emails after official meetings around midnight (as if we would still be awake!) and knowledge that we would need to be at KSC when the gates opened at 0500. That's five AM!
When my alarm went off at 0330 (groan), I immediately checked my email. There was an email, but it was not to announce a scrub. I was surprised, actually. And a bit disappointed. I might have been the only person to hope for a scrub to Sunday's promised better weather. OK, one of two. Sarah would have flown in to see a Sunday launch from the Visitor's Center. We were off! Cameras, tripods, chargers, laptops, cellphones, iPads, credentials and the cooler (to be put under the table no matter what!). It rained heavily on our trip to KSC and we arrived just after 0500 never having encountered the rumored traffic nightmare.
And there she was on the launchpad. Atlantis, lit from every side by powerful lights. Her last stand; the program's last stand. The countdown clock was at T -3 hours and holding - where it would remain for many hours to come. The Twent hosted many dignitaries before the launch. Including those I'm sure had more important things to do on the morning of a launch! As I said, NASA takes its Tweetups very seriously. To say humbled is to underestimate the word and the sentiment. One guest brought the rapt attention of all in the Twent - the Air Force meteorologist. She told us that weather was still a concern. In hindsight, many said her appearance was the signal for a go without saying it outright. I was among those who still thought a scrub was inevitable.
While waiting, I walked around the press area, taking photos and video. And then the sky brightened, not cleared, but definitely an improvement. As launch time approached, we realized it was time to man the tripods! In the crowd, several people had radios tuned to NASA's prelaunch 'calls'. Through the static I could hear scratchy calls and responses. All were 'go' until weather who deferred. My emotions were on a roller coaster. Will it launch? Will it scrub? I should have told Sarah to come anyway. FOCUS!! I never heard the final 'go' from weather. I was standing behind the countdown clock so I couldn't see it. I knew that more time had elapsed than should have. It was then that someone with a better signal said there was a problem. I found out later that the 'beanie cap' that covers the nose of the orange external fuel tank was the holdup; they weren't sure that it had cleared and was in a locked position. Flashback to Thursday when astronaut Tony Antonelli said you can start to get excited for launch if the count goes within 31 seconds as that is when the computers take over. What time was the hold? At 31 seconds. This was torture of the kind you would sign up for every day of the week.
Still behind the clock, I had no way of knowing the status until I became aware of counting....backwards counting....out loud from those who could see it behind me. Ten, nine...I'm welling up with tears as I type. You want to soak in every millisecond - from the heat and humidity, to the sounds, to the birds who instinctively know to fly - to those around you. Light and Sound being what they are, you begin to see changes to the landscape in front of you. It is subtle at first and then you see billowing white clouds ripple above the trees, reflected in the water in front of you. The orange cone of the external fuel tank fights to rise above and finally emerges bringing with it the most spectacular sight you've ever seen. Atlantis bursts forth trailing a shower of white and orange of a quality that cannot be described. It is brilliant, piercing, blinding and you cannot look away. The color surges, undulates and grows as the shuttle climbs toward the oh-too-low cloud cover. Sound comes after and is not so much heard as felt. It is not an external rumbling like when you are near an airport. It is guttural, somehow internal. You feel it under your feet and within your ribcage. At one point I became aware that my pant legs were madly flapping against my shins as if trying to escape the ferocity. And then I looked to my right. One of my VAB House roommates, Mary Kate, was standing there. I do not recall an exchange of words, but rather feelings as we looked at one another. Truly, no words are necessary or able to be formed at that moment.
And then Atlantis was gone. Not her rumbling, growling, snapping. That was still wildly audible. We could see her shadow cast upon the top side of the clouds. But the majesty of ascent was over for us from our perspective. We stayed outside until we realized that we could see her continued journey on the large monitors in our Twent. But you had to get there first. Emotions were raw; most people were standing in amazement, many were crying (of course I was). As I walked the distance to the tent, many people came from nowhere to provide a hug, to continue the magical connection that we just shared. Reporters loomed to get first-hand accounts.
Those of us who received the Golden Ticket became fast friends over the previous weeks. How do you describe our bond now? Lasting...enduring...affirming? I'm not sure. I know that our Twitter feeds, Facebook group, and now Google+ connections are going strong. We were talking about reunions before anyone left KSC on Friday. We all struggled with how to thank NASA for what they had done for us. An artist in the group crafted a poster which we all signed. We each tried to thank our hosts individually. When I had a chance to speak to Stephanie after the launch, I was choked with emotion. Her simple reply was not to thank her, but to pay it forward. I assured her that I would take this experience to my students. To share the message that NASA is far from 'over', that the world is in need of students who aspire to space travel, design, engineering that my message would be for them and for all of us to DREAM BIG!