STS-134 #NASAtweetup Day 1: The Adventure Begins!

Having gone to sleep shortly after midnight, a perfectly reasonable bedtime, I woke up at an equally reasonably time, around 7. So of course, without a reasonable bone in my body, I was exhausted. But I was so frakking excited, I didn’t care. I re-loaded our car with my computer, various cameras and accessories, snacks, and yarn-infested monsterpurse – basically everything I brought(/own) except the extra clothes – grabbed the email printouts telling us where to go, armed the GPS, and set out.

The GPS, it turns out, is not particularly helpful.

I mean, it got me onto the right road, but considering the route was basically, “You know that bridge you can see from the end of the driveway? Get on it, then turn left on 3,” I’m pretty sure a blind senile chipmunk could have gotten me there too. As far as I could tell, it was suggesting registration was happening somewhere in an unbroken half mile of chainlink and trees, so I turned into the first opening I saw. There was a gate, but it was open. It didn’t look particularly promising, but I didn’t really know what I was looking for either.

About a half mile down that road, I was reasonably convinced this was both not where I was supposed to be, and somewhere I was not supposed to be, so I turned around, went a little farther down the main road but it wasn’t there either, so backtracked a ways, and finally found it. I pulled in and sat it the car a moment longer, recollecting my composure, sanity, and acceptable forms of identification before going to check in.

Once I did that, and took a brief moment to completely geek out at the sight of my credentials and very classy swag bag, since I no longer trusted my GPS/directions/self, I asked the kind folks behind the table to direct me to my next stop. “Go right on this road, check in with the guard at the gate, and turn right at the VAB.”

That kind of melted my brain a little bit, but I did as I was told, and after a stretch could see the VAB, tiny on the horizon, but towering over the trees and everything else. It was rather surreal, looming ahead of me for miles, slowly growing larger in my field of view, while never really seeming to get was any closer… until there it was – I was there – it was RIGHT. THERE. in front of me. In all its hugenormous glory. And thankfully, between the grey behemoth and my car, there was a wonderfully obvious road, leading only to the right.

Oh. Turn right at the VAB. So I did. And signs and guards and folks waving things led me, in short order, to a suitable grassy parking space. Adjacent to the field I was in, there was an amusingly almost-empty parking lot, with just a line of news trucks/RVs, and a few lanes roped off for what turned out to be bus loading zones. Beyond that was a path through another field, past the countdown clock, and alas, the tent in which the tweet-up would be held – dubbed, by Twitter convention, the “twent”. I made it! (And on time, even!)

Outside the T(w)ent

The outside of the twent

Inside the T(w)ent

Inside the twent

SpaceTweeps, ASSEMBLE!

I grabbed an unclaimed slice of table and settled in. After a quick welcome, they started off by having us go around the twent to introduce ourselves. You would think (or I did, at any rate) that 150 introductions would take for-freakin-ever, and get boring a mere fraction of the way through, but it turns out that the tweeps (twitter people) are excellent at keeping it short and sweet (#duh), and this is an incredibly interesting and diverse group of people!

We’ve got NASA and the ESA and Twitter represented, engineers, tech and web folk, writers, photographers, designers, medical professionals, educators, students, stuffed animals, a ventriloquist, a Jeopardy champ, and even a few stray celebrities roaming about! People from every walk of life and all over the country and world, even, sharing only a tendency towards geekiness, an interest in space exploration, and the notion that community can be built 140 characters at a time.

After that succinct-yet-impressive round of introductions, I had the feeling that we could have been left to entertain ourselves for two days and still had a blast just getting to know each other… and then the official program started!

Spacesuit PresentationFirst up were Mallory and Heather, who told us all about the current spacesuit that shuttle crews wear for their EVAs, as well as the next generation they’re working on now. Yes, these two are not only lovely presenters, but also engineers, part of the team developing a new spacesuit! The next phase, they say, will be to condense the various systems racks-worth of equipment into a backpack smaller and lighter than the current one!

Next, we took a break for lunch, and I opted to join the crowd trekking over to investigate the cafeteria. I grabbed a cheeseburger and some apple juice, looked around at the folks who work and eat there every day, and laughed at the thought of “getting used to it”… not having little spaz attacks every time you saw the shuttle or the VAB, or thought about the fact that your job is sending things and people into space. I mean, I guess you’d have to, to some extent, or your brain would break, but I struggle to imagine ever being able to concentrate enough to get things done (especially such critical and precise work)!

It’s a fairly substantial walk between the press site and the twent. Not long, really, but long enough that it felt long in the Florida heat and humidity, with the sun beating down on you, and the path not being entirely sidewalk’d. As my brain tends to do, it meandered back to other times when I was plodding along the side of a road in weather that felt like you jumped in a pot of soup… and in each of the instances the brain recalled, they were the start of some really epic adventure. (Well, in one instance the walk was the epic adventure… I’ll have to tell that story sometime. But not now.) Anyways, they don’t naturally go hand-in-hand, so I thought it was a noteworthy and amusing pattern, and said so to whoever was walking near me at the time… they just kinda looked at me funny.

“What happens in space stays in space… unless it’s peer reviewed!”
…or shared at a tweetup!
Waleed Abdalati, NASA chief scientist - 2011-04-28 13:00:00

Waleed Abdalati

Dana Hutcherson (Endeavour Flow Director) - 2011-04-28 13:15:00

Dana Hutcherson

Tara Ruttley & SpaceSpider (International Space Station research) - 2011-04-28 13:30:00

Tara Ruttley

@Astro_Clay Anderson - 2011-04-28 13:45:00

@Astro_Clay Anderson

Post-nommage, the televised portion of the tweetup began. It was a whirlwind of awesomeness, with rapidfire presentations from (in order of appearance):

  • NASA Chief Scientist Waleed Abdalati Talked about how the space program is part of America’s soul, and how we as tweet-up-ers are part of it, and we’re all making history. As the last shuttles launch, it’s a period of transition, “It’s not really just an end – it’s a very, very exciting beginning.” When asked what he has to say to highschool students, he said, “There is a brilliant future that’s theirs (and ours) for the creating.” On international collaboration, “Collectively, we can do far more than we can as individuals.” And my favorite, what asked what current science/projects get him really excited, waking up in the morning saying “I wonder what the propulsion guys are going to report today?!” he responded, “Don’t we all wake up saying that?”
  • Endeavour Flow Director Dana Hutcherson described what NASA’s three shuttle flow directors (all 3 are women) do, coordinating the three components – orbiter, external tank (which for this mission is the rather unique ET-122), and solid rocket boosters) – of their respective shuttles through the whole process from the previous landing, processing, to the pad, and finally launch! “The canned answer that we’re supposed to say is ‘All the vehicles are approximately the same,’ but it’s really the teams that are different and unique… As part of the Endeavour family, we like to think that Endeavour’s the best.”
  • ISS Associate Program Scientist Tara Ruttley (@ISS_research) gave us a top ten of coolest things to know about space station research, including that over 1100 investigations have been completed on the ISS in the last 10 years – which was it’s assembly period – as in, this sucker’s still being built, but we managed to squeeze in some research, experiments going up on STS-134 (among them, the Alpha-Magnetic Spectrometer, space spiders, and something about plasma detectors!), some of the technologies and scientific discoveries that have resulted from previous experiments, and the fabulous quote, “What happens in space stays in space… unless it’s peer reviewed.”
  • Expedition 15/STS-131 Astronaut Clayton Anderson (@Astro_Clay) is quite the personality. He told us how he got to be an astronaut (after applying 15 times), some about life in space, some very… specific details about how he felt after coming back to earth. He described the experience of “falling out gracefully” into space for spacewalks (thinking “I was born to be right here, doing this.”), and not trying to communicate telepathically with aliens (“I mean, you can do that through tweeting!). His dream is to see “an American vehicle, with a United States flag on the side, that’s carrying United States’ astronauts into orbit….[Who?] I don’t know. I don’t care. Whoever. May the best person win. But do it so it’s safe, do it so it’s reliable, do it so we can get Americans back into space.” Another point on which he and I agree: “the greatest thing is” when you nod off while reading in space, you don’t jolt back awake as your head drops, “because there’s no gravity, so you just kind of float there, and everything on your body relaxes, and you let go of the book… if you wake back up, the book’s still there!”
  • AMS Project Manager Trent Martin (@AMSISS) filled in for Professor Sam Ting who was supposed to come, telling us all about the Alpha-Magnetic Spectrometer, which the STS-134 crew will be installing on the ISS, to look for antimatter, dark matter, and dark energy, measuring particle hits in much higher quantities than it could on earth, where the atmosphere filters most of them out, so the scientists will have a crazy-ton more data to work from, to basically tell us if… well, physics is right or not. And answer the big questions we just don’t know. Cool!

…and the Question Of The Day Award goes to, “I’m just wondering how long you spent planning and designing the AMS unit so that you don’t Hubble it?”
Super Special Guest Badge for the VAB

You know you’ve got a bus full of geeks when you pass out security badges …and everyone starts taking pictures of them.

Next up was the grand tour.

We loaded onto buses, and our tour guide gave us each one of these →

You know, ’cause the credentials we already had to apply and get background checked for to get in the gate wasn’t enough. 🙂

Vehicle Assembly BuildingWe knew where we were heading now, but it still felt rather surreal when the bus not only stopped right next to the VAB, but let us get off! Of course, that was nothing compared to walking inside.

The size of this place is absolutely astounding. It’s 525 feet high, and the fourth largest building in the world by volume. The funny part is, it’s technically a 1-story building! (The largest 1-story building in the world, to be precise!) Some other impressive numbers and facts can be found here.
Sunny Day in the World's Largest 1-Story Building

The picture right is a feeble attempt to capture the scale of the interior. (The size of the people at the bottom of the frame should give you some idea!)

The one below is looking straight up to the ceiling… and still doesn’t do it justice. Apparently, sometimes clouds actually form up there – inside the building.

Sometimes There Are Clouds Up There

We wandered around a while, taking pictures and just being sort of stunned. It was surprisingly quiet in there, considering how many of us were milling about. Everyone just kept their voices down, as if out of reverence. The sense of history here overwhelmed even its sheer hugenormousness. For more than 40 years, spaceships have been built here! It was the same feeling I got visiting the great historic cathedrals in Europe – awe.

Our insanely awesome tour guide, Gary, (a former NASA engineer, who retired but loved it too much to all-the-way leave) pointed out a big orange roundish thing behind a bunch of access structure (below left) – ET-138, the external tank for the next, and very last space shuttle. It’s hard to see in this picture, but the solid rocket boosters are attached on either side too! All they need is their lovely orbiter, Atlantis!

ET-138 in the VAB

Saturn Assembly Brackets

Eventually, it was time to head on to the next stop on our tour. As we walked out, somebody asked Gary about the big red bracket-things (pictured above right). He informed us, rather nonchalantly, that they were used to put together the Saturn V rockets (you know, the ones that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon). o.0

The rest of the tour included a brief stop to look at one of the Shuttle Training Aircraft and the Mate-Demate Device (used to attach/detach shuttle orbiters and the specially fitted airplanes that carry them across the country if they have to land at Edwards AFB), and the Apollo/Saturn V center. I didn’t take pictures there, because my batteries were all running low by that point, and it’s a stop on the regular Visitors Complex tour, so I was just there on vacation a year ago, and took pictures then… of course, I now realize I have no idea where those pictures are, but hopefully they’ll turn up! @levarburton and @ohlauren at #NASAtweetup

Finally, we headed back to regroup and hang out in the twent until it was time to head out to watch the RSS retraction! While we waited, I got my picture taken with LeVar Burton (@levarburton)! I tried to refrain from being too much of a fangirl. Judging from my failure to speak coherently, I’m pretty sure I failed and looked like a big dork, but I guess he’s probably used to that!

Shortly before it was supposed to be time to head back out, the weather revealed it had other plans. In typical Florida style, a storm rolled in out of nowhere, stalling the RSS retraction, and chasing us from the twent into a building with actual walls. We congregated in the press auditorium and just sort of goofed around and got to know our fellow tweeps a little better.

Tweeps in the KSC Press Briefing Room

KSC Press Site Waiting Out the Storm

The storm hung around just a little too long, pushing the earliest chance for the retraction to later than our lovely volunteer tour guides and bus drivers could be expected to stay, so we couldn’t either. So we didn’t get to get up close and personal with Endeavour, but hopefully the service structure will get pulled back sometime tonight, so everything stays on schedule and tomorrow we can see her fly!

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