STS-135 NASA Tweetup. The Final launch.
The pure exhaustion of the travel day was enough to make anyone climb into a cozy bed and sleep for days.
Not this time.
26 hrs since I woke for the travel from my home in England to Orlando, Florida for the NASATweetup I attempted to lie down to sleep for a few hours before a group of us met to carpool to Kennedy Space Center. 3 alarms and a wake up call were scheduled just to make sure I didn't oversleep. None would be needed. Every half hour on the dot my subconscious woke me to double check that I hadn't overslept and missed my chance to be a part of history. At 0400 I gave in to my subconscious and began preparing for the day. 3 cameras, 1 HD video camera, multiple lenses, laptop computer, smart phone, and the dream a grown adult still holds on to like a child all to meet ....
A nice pre-dawn drive from Orlando on 7 July for the 1st day of the Tweetup. We arrive at the press credential building to get our Tweetup IDs and walk out into the soup of Florida. 110% humidity and feels like you are swimming instead of walking. A gorgeous sunrise over Kennedy Space Center as we drive towards the VAB and the Countdown Clock. Gorgeous due to the iridescent red and orange sun-rayvery large backlighting the dark clouds billowing on the horizon - an ominous sign for the launch tomorrow but that won't deter us. We press on, make our way to the Twent (Tweetup tent) with a few obligatory stops to get shots of Atlantis on the pad, the VAB, and the Countdown Clock.
The Tweetup begins.
Introductions by the 150 tweeps each one more impressive than the last. Man these are some smart people.
In walk two astronauts (Mike Massimino & Doug Wheelock) and, as only can in a group like this, they are mobbed like celebrities for autographs and photos. They are there for the upcoming program of Sesame Street to interact with Elmo. Yes, I get to meet Elmo! I think my little girl is the most excited about this particular part of the program at her age.
Our favorite red monster was getting ready for the live taping and as the time til air neared we hear Elmo yell at us all to "SIT DOWN!!!" ... kinda amusing to get yelled at by a Sesame Street character.
Elmo's interview with the astronauts was amusing - he was quite the smart-ass and it provided more than one good laugh in the Tweetup tent. Q&A time rolled around and I had promised Audrey I would ask Elmo something for her so I raised my hand and got to ask my question,
"My 2 yr old Audrey wants to know what your favorite planet is" ...
Elmo: "The Milky Way BABY!" nudges Massimino "That's a planet right?"
Massimino: (through unbridled laughter) "close enough Elmo".
Elmo: "Astronaut Mike, is Mars a planet?"
"Yes, Elmo, Mars is a planet"
"Then ... Mars BABY"
The whole room was cracking up. Go Elmo!
After Elmo had to leave we got to have Q&A time with the astronauts. I especially enjoyed Doug Wheelock (on Twitter @Astro_Wheels) speaking to us. His enthusiasm for space and his honesty was refreshing. As he talked about looking back onto Earth while working in space and how distracting Earth can be because of its beauty so they look forward to orbital sunset only to realize that with city lights, auroras, etc the Earth is just as distracting at night as it is during the day. He also told us about his experience with Soyuz and how "Coming home in the Soyuz is like getting in a barrel to go over Nigra Falls, but before you go over they light it on fire". It really gave us a sense of what the experience was like.
Then the monsoon hit. I do not say that too lightly. They had to cut the live video feed that was going on and power everything down for all the lightning in the area and our tent started to flood around the edges. The rain was so loud you could not hear the speakers anymore so eventually they all gave up rather than screaming. After a while it died down enough for us to all hurry over to the cafeteria for a quick lunch before the KSC tour.
Now when I say KSC tour I don't mean your everyday, go-buy-a-ticket-at-the-Visitor-Center tour, I mean we got THE TOUR. My bus headed straight out to the launchpad. Yes, THE launchpad where Atlantis was sitting, poised for her rocket ride into space the following day. It was time for the RSS (rotating service structure) Retraction and we got front row seats. We arrived to Atlantis still all safely hidden away inside the RSS. Protected & Sheltered. As we stand in the field next to her we slowly begin to see her emerge. A wingtip, now a wing, "I think I can see her side!" someone enthusiastically hollers, soon we can indeed make out the oh so familiar shape as her cocoon is drawn away. The RSS finishes its retraction and there sits Atlantis. We all take our photos and don't want to leave. @Astro_Wheels shows up for a few more photos with us and we are all told we have to go. NOOOO! Ok, a few more minutes as they see the pleading faces of 150 adults who all of a sudden (again) are acting like kids who don't want to leave the playground. They take a quick group shot of us with Atlantis in the background (although it was haphazard and not organized so some people (ahem ... me and a bunch others) were jammed in the back with no chance of being seen by the camera) but was a nice thought. We finally get shuffled back onto the buses and ours heads over to the Saturn V building.
The Saturn V building was part of the everyday tour and as such was beyond packed with people. After getting elbowed by more than a few I decided my cameras weren't safe and went outside to sit for the 15 minutes we had left there and just relax. Wow - hadn't gotten a chance to sit and relax since we arrived. It was kinda nice. The rain started again.
It was getting late in the afternoon but we still had one more stop: the VAB. For those of you who have ever seen a photo of Kennedy Space Center, the Vehicle Assembly Building is the HUGE building where they, as one would expect, assemble the Shuttle onto the ET and SRBs. When I say huge, I mean that at one point, this building was the largest by volume in the WORLD. It still stands as 4th largest (a few of the Asian mega-skyrises are larger now) but this building is still, by far, the largest building I have ever seen. Not only is it tall, it is a giant rectangle so the volume is just massive (129,428,000 cubic feet). When you first even near KSC by road you see it dozens of miles away, and even once you are through the gates and you think you are close, you still drive another 15 minutes until you are there. Its just that big. It was amazing to stand in it, no workers around (say for the one showing us the building) no parts or shuttles around as the Space Shuttle is no more. A giant empty shell. Makes you wonder when they will be using this building again . . . hopefully soon.
We all go to exit the VAB and are finished for the day, say for one problem: we are locked in. Its 6pm and apparently security forgot that we were touring in there and locked it all up to go home for the day. Not the worst place to be stuck but we were all tired from such an amazing day and kinda ready to go to our hotels and crash for the night. They eventually showed back up after a few calls and then the keycard and pin device weren't unlocking the first set of gates to let us out after they came in. SNAP! Another security guard showed up and tossed the first their keys through the gate and thankfully we were free :)
What a day!
Despite the forecasts and NASA's odds (70% chance of a scrub) I was bound and determined to be positive. It WAS going to launch. Then we all get back to the hotel and see that a tropical storm warning was called and headed this way. SNAP! Oh well, we still decide that we will be positive and decide on a 230am departure from the hotel. We wanted to beat the traffic to KSC or at least make sure that we were there for the 5am entry we were allowed.
Launch Day: As I begin the drive I realize that we left WELL early enough. Nobody else was on the road yet. A few rain showers on the earlier part of the drive and then ... the clouds part, rain stops, & we see stars. Atlantis shines in the distance, like a beacon through the storm. The massive VAB sits like a shadowy guardian brother waiting to protect it's offspring should the need arise. The view driving in was awe-inspriting in and of itself. The criss-crossing spotlights on Atlantis could be seen nearly from Orlando, especially when they reflected off of the scattered clouds that remained. We got to the badging office at 330am. Yup - NO traffic for us on the way out. We decide to have an impromptu tail-gate there at the badging office until 5. Someone put some tunes on and we all hung out and chatted, laughed, and hoped that the weather would continue to improve.
We hurry in once we are allowed and go to the turn basin to set up our tripods. Media has taken most of the space up, but there are some spots left so we pick out where we want, leave the tripods and head in for the morning program of the NASATweetup.
To be honest, I was too excited to really pay attention to anything that happened that morning say for a few things. Here they are:
Seth Green, actor and space enthusiast, makes an appearance and plays Bear McCreary's new song for NASA "Fanfare for STS-135". Seth played it for us (1st time played for anyone) while we watched the astronauts getting strapped into Atlantis. It was a very powerful and moving song. Thanks Seth & Bear!
Bob Crippen, astronaut on STS-1, popped in to talk to us. He got choked up talking about the shuttle program ending and had to stop for a minute to compose himself. It really showed us what this program means to not only current astronauts and NASA employees, but everyone who has ever flown on it. He gave a very good talk, although apparently has something against photos and autographs as he refused everyone's requests and rushed out after he spoke.
Think Geek's Timmy the monkey made a quick appearance. I got a photo of him sitting on my head - It will be on my flickr photos. Silly stuffed monkey.
We got to stand on the side of the road and wave to the crew of Atlantis in the Astrovan as they headed to the launchpad. GO ASTROVAN! No U-TURNS!!!
A couple quotes I wrote down from other morning talks:
-Astronaut Tony Antonelli on viewing Earth from space: "I wondered why we don't treat ourselves more neighborly."
-NASA Depute Administrator Lori Garver, "This isn't the beginning of the end, it is the end of what was our beginning.
The weather was our nemesis on launch day. NASA went ahead and tanked but the head weather person came to talk to us and pretty much said that we weren't going to launch, although she personally was still hoping for a clearing. Over 1 million people on the Space Coast all had their fingers crossed that the clearing skies we saw beginning before dawn and were still continuing after sunrise would stay and the tropical storm stayed far enough away that the 20 mile "no rain" radius would be met. We made it to the 9 minute hold and it kept going back and forth. Weather was "GO" to cheers, weather was "NO GO" to boos, multiple times. As we looked out of the tent we were seeing clouds, but also blue skies. My spirits were lifted. I had a good feeling. About 10 minutes before the 9 minute hold came to an end and we all headed out to our tripods. A slight altercation occurred over tripod spot "saving" from weeks before via a stick but I won't get into that TOO much as this is a positive thread - but if "Mr $12000 lens who thinks he is better than anyone else and a stick in the ground actually held his spot" is reading this I will say this: I hope your camera jammed during launch" ... anywho, I found a new spot for my tripod as I wasn't going to waste my time on him and some nice tweeps made room for the few of us who got bumped by him. I got my camera and video camera set up as the 9 minute hold ended (although afterwards I realized I forgot to switch back to RAW shooting after the morning twent shooting on jpg...oops) and we all breathed a sigh of relief as most weather scrubs occur in that hold. Maybe we were actually going to get to see the launch! Less than a minute someone yells out. There were no speakers there near the countdown clock and as we were in front of it a ways it was getting frustrating not knowing what the countdown was at. At 31 seconds someone yells "there's a hold, problem with something" ... NOOOOO!!!! Were they seriously going to scrub the launch at 31 seconds?!
It turns out it was more of a pause for dramatic effect (a sensor wasn't reading something and they just had to visually confirm). "Countdown has resumed" ... 30 ... 20 ... we were counting in our heads since we still weren't completely sure what the count was until 10, 9, 8 - we hear some people by the countdown clock start yelling. We ALL join in at "5, 4 ..."
I have started my camera and video at 5 and glance through the viewfinder just to make sure I am framed. I see the smoke starting to billow so I leave the camera to take the photos I programmed it to and turn to watch it with my own eyes. "3, 2, 1 ... LIFTOFF"
I watch Atlantis start to rise as momentum from the rockets build and as it clears the tower the light from the SRBs are so bright it is almost like looking into the sun. For seconds we just see it, until the sound-wave hits us. When it hit us, it HIT us. Cameras shook, you feel your entire insides rumbling and Atlantis is full speed heading towards the heavens. A beautiful roll and she heads for the cloud deck. Blue skies peek through the clouds, welcoming Atlantis to the skies as we all cheer Atlantis and her crew of 4 on their way to the International Space Station.
The entire crowd, whether it be Tweetup attendees, dignitaries, astronauts, or media were all cheering and a good portion were crying - overcome with the emotion of the moment. We all just watched the final Space Shuttle lift off so beautifully. A site that no human will get to see again. The end of an era and hopefully the beginning of a new one. It is hard enough to describe a launch to someone who has never seen one live. It is so much more powerful and emotional than watching it on tv. You are not only watching it, you are feeling
it, you are
the launch. Add to it the weight of this event and it really is beyond words. I have had to wait for a few days to even come up with how to express this and still cannot adequately describe what I still feel when thinking of the launch or looking at my photos.
Amazing is a completely inadequate word. It is truly beyond any explanation.
Godspeed Atlantis. I look forward to watching the rest of your mission and a safe return to Earth after your last trip to space and the International Space Station.note: all photos in this blog were taken by me (except the ones of me - I gave my camera to someone for those) at the NASATweetup and STS-135 launch of the Shuttle Atlantis. © All rights reserved. If you would like to use a photo posted here please contact me first.
More of my photos of the NASATweetup and launch can be found at http://www.flickr.com/akryger once I finish loading them and some will be available on www.eprisephoto.com
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