STS-134 NASA Tweetup and the final flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour
On April 28th and April 29th, 2011, I was fortunate enough to participate in the NASA Tweetup for STS-134. It was to be the final flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour and the second to last mission in the Space Shuttle program. I traveled to the Space Coast from San Francisco and spent three fantastic days with fellow Twitter users and enthusiastic space geeks at Kennedy Space Center. Things didn’t always go as planned (you’ll see), but it was an experience that I’ll cherish and never forget. Godspeed, Endeavour.
As I write this, I’m currently en route to Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to participate in the STS-134 NASA Tweetup. If all goes as planned, we’ll be watching the final launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour at 3:47pm on Friday, April 29th, 2011. It’s only a few short days from now.
Watching a space shuttle launch has always been something of a long shot dream for me. Growing up in California, it wasn’t very convenient nor easy for our family to travel across the country for a launch. It turns out that my best chance to see a launch would be canceled before I could even comprehend what the Space Shuttle was — NASA scrubbed plans to launch Space Shuttles from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California after the Challenger accident in 1986.
(To be fair, Shuttle launches from Vandenberg were originally intended for Air Force / Department of Defense purposes, so it may have been unlikely the public would have been informed of upcoming launches. Interestingly enough, we’ve been able to observe rocket launches and missile tests from Vandenberg at my parents’ house, located 220 miles away.)
Fortunately, we had something else available to us on the West Coast — the flat, expansive playas of the Mojave Desert and NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. Because of this, we were able to partake in a number of Space Shuttle landings while growing up. We’d often find ourselves venturing out to the dry lake beds around NASA Dryden and Edwards Air Force Base, usually on short notice. Once there, we’d patiently wait under sunny blue skies and rising temperatures until the shuttle announced its arrival with distinctive twin sonic booms.
Everyone would crane their necks in all directions, looking for the tiny speck that would eventually grow into a space ship right in front of our eyes. Inevitably, someone would spot it in the distance. It almost appeared to be falling rather than gliding.
Photo courtesy of Randy Walker.
We had front row seats as it silently flew over our parents’ cars, trucks, and motor homes. The silence was periodically broken by the cackle of radios, as amateur radio enthusiasts tuned into NASA’s communications channels. As it approached and landed on a runway, located only a few miles from us, the crowd would start cheering and clapping.
During one landing in the early 1990’s, we raced to Dryden before sunrise to catch an early morning landing. After the shuttle touched down (which specific shuttle it was escapes me), we drove the two hours back to our town, where my parents dropped me off for school. When I entered the classroom, my third grade teacher asked me to explain my tardiness and threatened me with a detention — it would have been my first.
“I was watching the Space Shuttle land!” Coolest kid in class? You bet.
The NASA Tweetup
On March 14th, NASA announced that it would begin accepting applications for a new tweetup event — to watch the final launch of Endeavour. The event was originally scheduled to take place on April 18th and April 19th, culminating with the final launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour (and representing the second to last flight of the Space Shuttle program).
The application process was pretty straight forward and simple. Where are you from? What are your favorite NASA Twitter accounts? And most importantly, what is your Twitter username?
Over 4,100 Twitter users responded to NASA’s call for applications in 24 hours. A week later, they selected 150 lucky people to participate. The event would feature an exclusive behind the scenes tour of NASA facilities at Kennedy Space Center that included NASA’s press site near the famous Countdown Clock, the Vehicle Assembly Building, Apollo / Saturn V Center, the Shuttle Landing Facility, an up close look of Endeavour at Launch Pad 39A, and of course, the launch of Endeavour itself.
By some sort of sheer luck and fortunate coincidence, I was one of the 150 people who were lucky enough to be selected to participate in the event. I was in Austin, Texas, attending South by Southwest on behalf of gdgt — the previous night we had thrown one of our gdgt live events. As I was heading back to the venue that next morning to help finish the tear down and clean up, I decided to stop for some coffee and a quick breakfast. While standing in line for coffee, I pulled out my phone and started checking Twitter (as usual). The first tweet in my stream was from NASA, reminding everyone that there was only an hour left to register for the STS-134 tweetup.
What?! I quickly grabbed my coffee, ran outside and sat down on a curb, and frantically filled out the application form on my phone — all while cursing my AT&T connection as the form took forever to load and submit. But it finally went through! It was time to let the waiting games begin.
A week later, I opened up my email client and saw a new message waiting for me. My heart skipped a few beats when I read the subject line: “STS-134 NASA Tweetup CONFIRMATION.” It went on to read, “Congratulations, your registration has been selected to attend the NASA Tweetup at space shuttle Endeavour’s targeted launch April 18-19 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida!”
Yes! I now had my golden ticket and I would finally see a launch! It was impossible to hide how ecstatic I was and judging from fellow NASA Tweetup attendees I began to follow on Twitter, I wasn’t alone.
The Vehicle Assembly Building
The size and scale of the Vehicle Assembly Building (in NASA’s acronym happy world, it’s more commonly known as the VAB) is nearly incomprehensible. It was built in 1966 and stands at a height of over 500 feet. It’s the largest single story building on Earth. In fact, you can even see the VAB when flying out of Orlando International Airport, 40 miles away!
A few minutes after passing through the employee entrance and security checkpoint at Kennedy Space Center, the structure looms large in front you. Incredibly, it’s still 4 miles away. It steadily grows to consume an ever larger percentage of your field of vision.
We entered the VAB on Thursday and tried to take it in. It was huge, giant, gargantuan, and monstrous. There isn’t an appropriate adjective to describe just how immense this building is. You basically walk in, look up and then keep looking up some more. It never seems to end.
As if there wasn’t enough to comprehend, you finally began to realize the amazing history of this building. For one, this is where they put together the powerful machines that took men to the Moon. The Moon! Machines that were in this building brought humans to another heavenly body and back. For a space geek, this is nearly as hallowed ground as it gets. And not many people get to see this.
Nowadays, this building is used to stack the Space Shuttle (e.g., mate it with the solid rocket boosters and the external tank). NASA was already hard at work prepping for STS-135, which will mark the end of the Space Shuttle program with the final flight of Atlantis. We were able to see a small portion of the immense solid rocket boaters and external tank in an adjacent gallery.
Someone from our group pointed up to the SRBs and ET and asked a NASA official who was with us how they got the whole shuttle stack to the launch pad.
“How do you get to it the launch pad?” He asked. “That is the launch pad!”
The Tweetup Tent
One hundred and fifty of us were gathered underneath a white tent at NASA’s press site, located only a few meters away from the world famous Countdown Clock.
We were listening to astronaut Clay Anderson describe his experiences in space, such as acclimating to Earth’s gravity after spending nearly 5 months aboard the International Space Station. Clay is a veteran of 3 previous shuttle missions as well.
When asked what he was thinking the first time he stepped out of an airlock (Clay actually says you don’t step so much as gracefully fall) was that, “I was meant to be right here, doing this.”
On Thursday evening, less than 24 hours before Endeavour was set to lift off, we were tentatively scheduled to take a trip to Launch Pad 39A and get up close and personal. We would be only 600 meters away from the Space Shuttle and watch as the rotating service structure retracted to reveal the Space Shuttle.
At least that was the plan. Only 20 minutes before we were supposed to leave, we found out that NASA was postponing the RSS retraction by at least an hour, due to dangerous incoming thunderstorms.
It was a beautiful sight to behold — an ominous, large storm front bearing down on Kennedy Space Center. Every 10 to 15 seconds, the sky would flash and faint sounds of thunder would soon reach us. Suddenly, riding out the storm in a seemingly flimsy tent supported by aluminum poles didn’t sit very well.
Everyone packed up their gear and we ran for cover to a nearby building. There, we rode out the storm in NASA’s John Holliman Auditorium. This is where they hold many of their mission briefings with members of the press.
Eventually, the storm would pass. Unfortunately, it would be too late for us to take a trip out to Launch Pad 39A and get some personal time with Endeavour. The RSS would end up retracting at midnight. But it was good news, because launch was go! We were disappointed to be foiled by Mother Nature, but there was still fun to be had.
Finally, the big day was here. We arrived at Kennedy Space Center early, partly to beat the crowds on the road (750,000 people were expected to descend on Space Coast for this launch) and partly because we wanted to be at KSC for as much time as we could. Many of the other tweetup attendees had the same idea as well. At 9AM, all 150 of us gathered next to the Countdown Clock for a group photo.
The tweetup tent was filled with energy. You could tell many of us didn’t sleep too much that night — and why would we? For the vast majority of us, this would be our first launch! We were ready for this. In fact, someone might say we were born for this moment (though I bet that many of us at the tweetup would trade seats with any of those astronauts inside Endeavour in a heartbeat).
As mid morning approached, some people started whispering rumors.
“NASA is looking into a LOX leak in the ET.”
“Something about a heater not working? Supposedly it’s not launch critical.”
“I hear the wind might kick up later.”
Anytime someone shared news that wasn’t positive, we all shushed and hissed at them. Nothing was going to come between us and the launch. Nothing was going to happen that would compromise the launch of our dear Endeavour. Call it a self fulfilling prophecy, call it denial, or just naive enthusiasm, but every single one of us in the NASA tweetup tent were ready to will that space shuttle into orbit.
It was nearly time. At 12PM, roughly 3 and a half hours from launch, we disembarked from the tweetup tent and walked a few hundred meters down hill towards the VAB, where we would wait by the roadside to cheer our heroes on. All 6 Endeavour crew members were inside NASA’s Astrovan and set to drive by us on their way to Launch Pad 39A.
While waiting, we could see a helicopter approaching. The deep, distinctive “whomp-whomp-whomp-whomp” sound signaled the arrival of NASA’s UH-1 Heuy helicopter. It was tasked with clearing the route and providing aerial protection for the astronauts’ trip to the launch pad. Inside the helicopter sat a sharp shooter, keeping watch.
After a brief wait, the NASA motorcade approached, lead by the Astrovan and followed by a fleet of vehicles that included suburbans, armored cars, buses, and unmarked police cars. As the Astrovan slowly made its way past us, we cheered, clapped, and waved.
That’s when the Astrovan turned left into the parking lot of the Launch Control Center. Most of the tweetup guests couldn’t know anything at the time, but that wasn’t supposed to happen.
Stephanie Schierholz, NASA’s incredible Social Media Manager (and the person responsible for much of the work putting the NASA tweetups together), turned to a friend and said, “huh, that hasn’t happened before.”
Something was amiss. The Astrovan turned around in the parking lot and faced us. We all waited. Some people checked Twitter and saw tweets from various NASA personnel. There was a problem with Endeavour. There wasn’t much info to go on, and we didn’t know what to believe.
The Astrovan and its entourage began to move and approached us. They got to the intersection in front of us. If they went to our right, they were going to Launch Pad 39A. If they turned toward our left, they were headed back to crew quarters and the launch was scrubbed.
They turned left. One hundred and fifty hearts broke at once. We all cried out. There was a collective gasp from everyone watching. Some people yelled out, “You’re going the wrong way!” Others pointed in the direction of the launch pad. I felt like I had the wind knocked out of me and was shocked. We were a mere 3 hours from liftoff, and only 3 miles from the launch pad. Something I’ve been dreaming about seeing my whole life, something that was so close, it was knocked away.
Now, to be fair, this account might paint us all as a selfish bunch, but I don’t think that is the case at all. First and foremost, we want the crew and the Endeavour to be safe. There was just so much emotion, hope, and anticipation for the launch that it really affected all of us.
As the Astrovan made its way past us to head back to the crew quarters, a stream of people walked away from the road and back toward the tweetup tent. More solid info began to emerge — there was an issue with one of Endeavour’s APUs. It would take 48 hours minimum to fix. That means the earliest Endeavour could launch would have been Sunday. The day I fly back to California. A press conference was scheduled for later that afternoon. Stephanie Schierholz, Beth Beck, and the rest of NASA’s social media and public outreach team hoped to know more by then.
A lot of us in the tweetup tent sat in shocked silence. Some people were quietly talking to family and friends on their phones, or were busy rebooking plane tickets. Others were standing outside, looking at Endeavour in the distance. I did the same. I wanted to tell Endeavour that she was my favorite Space Shuttle, but with an emphasis on was. It was a stupid thought. More than anything, I was disappointed that this happened.
Nearly all of us were disappointed though. But we were going to try to make the best of it and wait for more news. I mean, we were at Kennedy Space Center after all. How many of our friends and family members were jealous that we could actually even see the Space Shuttle at that moment?
NASA’s press conference on Friday afternoon confirmed many of our worst fears. The launch was now postponed until Monday at the earliest. It would be at least a day before engineers could get inside Endeavour and take a look. The ET has to be drained and the rotating service structure moved back into a protective position. NASA wouldn’t have more definitive information to share until a briefing scheduled for Sunday morning.
It didn’t look good. I wound up changing my flight back home and moved it up a day. There was no way I would be able to make a Monday launch due to work commitments. It left me in a melancholy mood. I actually felt depressed!
Many of my fellow tweetup attendees and temporary housemates also changed their flights to leave earlier. Others were going to stay behind, intent to see the launch through. I admire and envy them.
Stephanie Schierholz sent out an email survey to the group to find out how many people would be able to stay behind for a Monday launch. Only around 60 people would be able to make it!
In hindsight, feeling melancholy or depressed about the situation was ridiculous. We knew exactly what risks we were taking by coming to Florida, and we were all familiar with the sometimes unpredictable nature of a launch.
We participated in an amazing event, seeing things and meeting people that most could only dream of. Just being at Kennedy Space Center and talking to veteran astronauts, or important scientists, or even volunteers was an inspiring experience. I even felt like I could quit everything and try out my hand at being an astronaut.
It really was a great experience and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The aura of KSC and the entire Space Coast is intoxicating. It’s hard to see how someone could come to KSC and leave without wanting to be an astronaut, scientist, or engineer.
As I left Kennedy Space Center yesterday, I took a final look at Endeavour sitting at 39A and wished her well. I couldn’t say goodbye though, because it wouldn’t be true. After STS-134 is over, she’ll be processed and eventually sent to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. There would be a Space Shuttle in my neck of the woods after all!
I may not get to see Endeavour launch, but I’ll still get to spend some time with her one day.
Update: As this post went live, NASA announced that Monday’s launch was also scrubbed.