Archive | December, 2011

My NASA Tweetup Adventure – Part III: The Launch & Closing Thoughts

18 Dec

This is Part III of my three-part series on my participation in the MSL NASA Tweetup in November, 2011 (Read Part I & Part II.)

Launch Day

Saturday, November 26th, was the BIG day. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover was scheduled to launch at 10:02AM EST.

Our view of the Atlas V rocket the day before launch.

Anyone familiar with rocket launches knows that a launch – be it a manned or a robotic launch – is anything but guaranteed.  Saturday’s launch attempt was simply the first scheduled opportunity for the spacecraft to leave the Earth. If the weather was unfavourable, or if a problem was detected with any part of the rocket, the launch would be “scrubbed” and attempted again the following day. That would be bad news for me as my flight was scheduled to leave later that evening.

In fact, the mission had already faced one such delay. Under the original schedule, the first launch opportunity was scheduled for Friday morning but a faulty battery had pushed the launch to Saturday. This meant that I, and many of the space tweeps, would have only one chance to see the rocket try for Mars!

I Love the Smell of Rocket Fuel in the Morning

As had been the case on Friday, NASA had prepared a very full agenda for us. I, and the other “foreign nationals” needed to arrive onsite at the Kennedy Space Center at 6:00am to be escorted by a NASA employee to the press site. It was still quite dark by the time we arrived at the Twent, which made the sight of the launch clock – which was actually counting down! – even more impressive.

T-Minus 2 hours, 36 minutes and counting...

I had not expected the sight of the illuminated clock to give me give me shivers, but it did. When I first noticed it from the car as we parked, my jaw literally dropped at the sight of the huge, bright numbers ticking down against the dark sky. I was looking live at the digits I’d seen so many times before on television during shuttle launches. Following the STS-95 mission that launched John Glenn back into space in 1998, I tried to catch every shuttle launch on TV or online (and I missed very few!) so that clock was like an old familiar friend and a powerful reminder that I was here to see a something special!

Pre-Launch “Edutainment”

Soon after we arrived at the “Twent” to announce our arrival, half of us were shepherded to an adjacent building to hear about Eyes on the Solar System, an amazing online solar system simulator that displays the position of the planets and NASA spacecraft at almost any point in the past, present or future.  The speaker, Doug Ellison, took us on a tour of the free tool and its latest features.

Doug Ellison walks us through "Eyes on the Solar System"

After the demo, we returned to the twent to hear from two very special guests: astronaut Doug “Wheels” Wheelock, who has spent more than 175 days in space, and Bill Nye, who’s better known as Bill Nye the Science Guy.  I happened to pass by Wheels before he went up to speak and he was kind enough to pose for a pic:

Astronaut Doug "Wheels" Wheelock who tweets from the ground and from space @astro_wheels

Bill Nye and Doug Wheelock spoke individually and then answered questions as a pair. I caught this short and funny clip of one of their answers on my video camera:

Shortly thereafter, NASA administrator and former astronaut Charles Bolden gave a quick speech.

Charles Bolden, head of NASA, spoke right beside my table.

We were then joined by astronaut Leland Melvin (@Astro_Flow) who was a standout college football wide receiver drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1986; and entertainer will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas! A passionate believer in the power of science and technology, will.i.am has been working to inspire young people to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). He finds the STEM acronym boring, however, and prefers SYSTEM or STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and match) which I really like!

Leland Melvin, will.i.am, and Lori Garver (Deputy Administrator of NASA) explain how spaceflight can inspire students to study science, technology, engineering & math.

will.i.am explained how he personally funded a TV program on ABC in August called  i.am.FIRST- Science is Rock and Roll. The show blended science, technology and pop culture to portray science in a youth-friendly, non-boring fashion. will.i.am also told us about a new song he’d written called “Reach For the Stars” that he will release when the MSL Curiosity rover touches down on Mars in August! I got a quick video clip of him talking about the song:

Once the talks were done, we were ushered outside for a group photo!

I'm slightly visible in the middle row on the right hand side. Photo source: NASA

After the photo, we pretty much mobbed poor Bill Nye:

"One at a time, people!"

Many of us were also able to meet Nye briefly inside the Twent. I grabbed a photo with him and he even autographed a magazine article I’d brought with me about the mission.

Me with Bill Nye the Science Guy

Bill Nye signed my magazine!

The Launch

NASA was smart to keep us busy that morning as it distracted us from worrying about whether the rocket would actually launch! When we arrived, it was quite cloudy with a bit of wind. We also felt a few raindrops from time to time and actually heard a very short downpour on the roof of the Twent at one point in the morning.

The real concern, though, was the amount of upper level wind and the height of the cloud ceiling – MSL had a strict set of constraints that could not be exceeded, and some of us learned via Twitter that its launch status had moved from “Go” to “No go” and back to “Go” a couple of times. That movement in itself was encouraging, however, because this launch had a 1 hr 43 minute launch window. That meant that the rocket would be able to launch as long as the weather was “Go” at some point between 10:02am and 11:45am.

I was surprised at how calm we all were as the clock ticked down. Inside the Twent, we could see video of the rocket venting its liquid propellant on the launch pad. It looked much more “alive” than it had the previous day as it readied itself to leave the planet:

With less then 15 minutes left in the countdown, all systems were “Go”. I headed out to the edge of the press site with my video camera, tripod and digital SLR camera to scope out a good place to view the launch. As I walked, I took a quick video of the scene – it gives you a sense of how big that clock really is!

And, to give you a sense of how close (far?) we were from the rocket, I visited the site in Google Earth and narrated a quick tour that shows our position that morning and that of the rocket:

I set my tripod down near the edge of the water and positioned my video camera to record the first few seconds of the launch. I had decided long before that I wanted to see all of the action with my own eyes and not through a camera lens, so my plan was to let the camera record the initial launch and the sound while I watched. I kept my digital SLR camera around my neck so that I would be ready if and when I decided that I would get a photo. This was the view to my left:

Places everyone! The tweeps test out their cameras before the launch.

and to my right:

Less than 5 minutes to go, now.

We were about 4 or 5 kilometers away from the actual launch complex and only the tip of the lightning towers surrounding the pad were visible from my vantage point.

My view of the launch site.

At this point the clock was behind me but the sound from the TV broadcast (I believe that was what we were hearing) was being piped in, allowing us to hear the countdown.  The final two minutes sped by very quickly and I clued into the fact that this was actually going to happen!

In the days leading up to the launch I had been working not to get my hopes up too high. I tried to prepare myself for how I would feel if the launch I had traveled so far to see didn’t happen.  I’d actually made peace with that idea since I’d seen so much and had such an amazing experience up to that point. But now, it was becoming clear that I was really, truly going to see my first rocket launch!

At T-minus 2 minutes, I hit “record” on my video camera and stood back to take in the view. Those last two minutes are a bit of a blur to me, but I remember becoming very focused once I heard the countdown reach T-minus 15 seconds.

At the T-minus 10 second mark, everyone began counting down out loud in unison up to the point of…

LIFTOFF!!!

We have liftoff!

After what seemed to be an eternity following the clock reaching zero, I saw the tip of the rocket clear the trees and, soon after, the blinding yellow/white light beneath it. The brightness surprised me as it was unlike anything I’d seen on a televised launch. It was almost as if someone took a small piece of the Sun and placed it below the rocket. I described it in this fashion later on Facebook:

The rocket began to climb quite quickly and after about ten to twelve seconds the first hint of the sound reached us. At first, it sounded like someone shaking a piece of poster paper in the distance and then it quickly grew louder and louder. As soon as the rocket began going through a cloud, the loud “crackle” sounds I’d heard before on televised launches reached us and a wave of unanticipated emotion swept over me.  My voice (I was cheering by this point) began to shake and I was shocked to feel my eyes welling up with tears! I think that it was the result of finally seeing something I’d always wanted to see in person mixed with the fact that this wasn’t just “a rocket” – it was our baby, MSL Curiosity, headed to another planet. It was overwhelming and magnificent.

Destination: Mars

Soon after the rocket had disappeared behind the clouds, there was a lot of cheering, hugging and high fives. I tweeted:

Flying through the clouds.

My video gives a decent taste of how it all looked and sounded, although nothing can match the real thing!

On To Mars

Once we had all absorbed what we had just seen, we quickly packed up our gear to return to the Twent where we’d be able to see replays of the launch and get word on whether the spacecraft was performing well. Within about half an hour we were treated to an amazing sight as we were able to see the spacecraft separation maneuver that would set the rover on its proper course out of Earth orbit and onto Mars. I caught the moment on video just in the nick of time:

Headed Home

And with that, the Tweetup was officially over. I was flying out that evening and was sad that I would have to miss the “Endless BBQ”, a NASA Tweetup tradition, that night. I said goodbye to many of the new friends I’d made and was escorted off of the premises (with the other foreigners) by Trent Perotto, Public Affairs Officer at NASA.

In the car, Perotto asked us what which speaker we had enjoyed the most. That was difficult to answer as they were all top notch and all had something interesting and relevant to say. I think that the entire Tweetup experience was one of those activities in which “the whole was greater than the sum of its parts”. There were five our six standout moments, but the real fun was being surrounded by people who knew and LOVED space, space travel, exploration and the pursuit of knowledge.

In fact, one thing that stood out to me was how much each and every NASA or JPL representative wants to put *humans* on Mars. From the head of NASA down, almost each speaker in public or private mentioned how excited they would be to see an astronaut walking on the surface of Mars. The trouble is – it’s not their call. A decision like that would ultimately need to be made by the President and approved by Congress –  something that seems like a distant dream at this point.  For now, robotic explorers like Curiosity are our best hope for unlocking the secrets of the red planet and, via the Internet and NASA TV, will take us along for the ride.

If you haven’t already seen how the rover will land on Mars, the first 4 minutes of this video are a MUST SEE!

The Journey Isn’t Over

Since returning from Florida, I’ve kept in close touch with four of five of the new space tweeps I met at the Tweetup and built stronger relationships with people I’d previously followed but never met. I’ve also gained almost 100 new Twitter followers since the trip, which is very humbling! Many of the tweeps are already thinking about ways that we could engage in a virtual Tweetup for the landing of the rover in August, 2012. The launch was just the beginning of the journey, and I know that we are all very excited – and nervous – about seeing our baby land at Gale Crater!

An artistic depiction of Gale Crater, MSL Curiosity's landing site. (Photo from space4case.com)

Even though it’s almost been a month since I left for Florida, I think that the true impact of the Tweetup will only become clear to me over time. For now, it has given me a set of amazing memories that I’ve been so happy to share with all of you: the tweeps who were there, family and friends who’ve expressed so much interest, and  those of you who have stumbled upon this blog.

Last, but not least, the trip also made me truly understand why so many Canadian retirees choose to spend their winters in Florida…sigh…

Cocoa Beach at sunset.

The constellation Orion hovers above palm trees outside my hotel in Cocoa Beach, Florida. (click to enlarge)

My NASA Tweetup Adventure – Part II: Tweetup & NASA Tour

4 Dec

This is Part II of my three-part series on my participation in the MSL NASA Tweetup in November, 2011 (You can read Part I here.)

My First NASA Tweetup

Friday, November 25th was the first official day of the MSL NASA Tweetup and our chance to visit hallowed ground: the Kennedy Space Center Press Site. There, we would learn about the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover from the scientists that conceived and designed the mission those who would manage it after its launch.

The press site would also be the location from which we would witness the launch (if all went well) on Saturday. I had seen this area so many times before on TV so it felt incredibly familiar. I made sure that I continually reminded myself “hey, Andrew, you’re  actually here in person. This is incredible!”

The KSC Press Site is where the press gathers to film launches and it would be our home for the next two days!

In the distance across the river, I could see one of the former Space Shuttle launch pads:

Launch Complex 39A. Many Space Shuttles launched from here!

When I first arrived on site, the massive Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) was to my left. We would get the chance to go inside that building (the fourth-largest building in the world by volume) later in the day to see first hand where the Apollo Saturn V rockets and all of the Space Shuttles were assembled and readied for launch.

NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) covers 8 acres. To give you a sense of the size, the blue portion of the American flag is the size of a regulation basketball court!

To my right was the Tweetup tent, called the “Twent”. This was an air-conditioned, electrified and wi-fi-enabled tent that would allow us to tweet the events of the morning in comfort.

O Canada! Fellow Canucks Magalie Renaud and Nancy Vezina represented the Canadian Space Agency at the Tweetup.

Many of the tables were already full by the time I’d finished taking photos outside, so I settled into a seat near the back. I still had a decent view of the main podium:

My view of the Tweetup. Veronica McGregor, NASA/JPL Social Media Manager, is speaking.

After the Tweetup officially kicked off, one of the many TV cameras in the Twent caught me tweeting!

That’s me in front of the Tweetup banner. (Screenshot taken from the Ustream online broadcast of the Tweetup)

Over the course of the morning, we heard from real-life rocket scientists and were able to ask them questions. Speakers included:

  • Jim Green, director, Planetary Science, NASA HQ
  • Doug McCuistion, director, Mars Exploration program, NASA HQ
  • Allen Chen and Betina Pavri, systems engineers, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • Ryan Bechtel, Department of Energy
  • Ashwin Vasavada, MSL deputy project scientist and Pan Conrad, deputy principal investigator, SAM Instrument, at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
  • Rex Engelhardt, Launch Services mission manager (@NASA_LSP)

I, like all of the other space tweeps, “live tweeted” the talks. Here are a few of my tweets from early that morning:


In addition to hearing from experts, we got to see some nifty artifacts/models, including life-size models of the wheels used on the MSL Curiosity rover that would launch on Saturday (far left), the Mars Exploration Rovers, which landed in 2003 (middle), and the Pathfinder Sojourner rover, which touched down on Mars in 1997 (right).

The evolution of the Mars rover wheel! I put down a quarter to give a sense of the scale.

There was even a Martian globe on hand and a mini model of the MSL Curiosity rover hard at work:

It’s Mars, baby. Can you dig it?

At the back of the tent was one of the BEST set of 3D photographs I’d ever seen. We were given red and blue glasses and the view through them was incredible. If you have some at home (and if you don’t, I’m not sure that we can still be friends) put them on and look at this picture! You won’t be disappointed:

Put on your red & blue 3D glasses and check this out!

The Tour

The morning flew by and after a quick lunch break, we shuffled into three NASA tour buses for a tour like no other.

We started at the Apollo Saturn V Center, a special museum dedicated to the Apollo missions that visited the Moon.  After watching a decent video about the events that led to the American/Russian space race, we were ushered into a theater to watch footage of the launch of the incredible Saturn V rocket: the largest rocket ever built, and the one that took men to the Moon between 1968 and 1972.  Our vantage point was just above the *actual* mission launch control center used to launch the missions to the Moon – it’s been preserved and turned into an exhibit of sorts.

The ACTUAL Apollo Launch Control room!

Nothing, though, can really prepare you for how BIG the actual Saturn V rocket is. Lying sideways is a restored Saturn V launch vehicle built from test components and parts of planned Apollo mission (Apollo 19) that never flew.

The massive Saturn V rocket engines.

The rocket is on its side, allowing you to walk around it and see all sections up close:

Needless to say, you need a big rocket to get people to the Moon. There was no way for me to fit the entire rocket in the shot (I tried!)

Hanging from the ceiling is an actual Lunar Module (a lunar lander) that never flew to the Moon. This one was originally scheduled to fly on Apollo 15, but was replaced with an updated J-Series lander that was built for a more extended stay (the later Apollo missions spent 2-3 days on the moon, whereas the Apollo 11 astronauts spent less than 24 hours on the surface.)

A real Lunar Module (LM) that almost went to the Moon. 

There was also a display of the interior of the Lunar Module:

This is the cockpit of the Lunar Module – notice how there are no seats! The astronauts had to land while standing upright. The lack of seats helped to save weight. When it comes to space travel, weight = money!

We also got to see an unused Command/Service Module. While two astronauts worked on the Moon, another orbited above them in this type of craft. This was also the spacecraft used to bring the astronauts back home.

This is the type of spacecraft that brought astronauts home from the Moon.

Some of the best exhibits, however, were tucked away in a side room that could have been easily missed! This room housed equipment that *actually* made a trip to and from  the Moon:

The Apollo 14 Command Module that brought astronauts home from the Moon. Crispy!

A spacesuit WORN ON THE MOON by Al Shepard. That dirt near the boots is moon dust!

The Vehicle Assembly Building

Once our rapid-fire tour of the Saturn V Center was done (we had a tight schedule to keep) we boarded the bus to visit the Vehicle Assembly Building:

Inside the VAB – the building in which the Saturn V rockets and Space Shuttles were assembled before rolling out to the launch pad.

Our tour guide was a former Space Shuttle worker named Kim who lost her job when the shuttle program ended. She volunteers her time on tours like the one we took because she believes so strongly in the space program and the legacy of the shuttle. When she was 8 years old, she decided that she would either fly on a shuttle or work on one, and she made her dream come true!

Our tour guide Kim finds her name on the VAB’s Space Shuttle tribute wall.

We were all moved when she described how she traveled to Texas in 2003 to be part of the team that recovered debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia after it disintegrated on re-entry. The remnants that were recovered (about 60% of the vehicle, I believe she said) are currently stored in an upper level of the VAB, and Kim pointed out their approximate location to us.

One of the amazing moments in the tour was when we were able to see an “old friend” up close! The Space Shuttle Endeavour is currently being prepared for a move to its permanent home as a museum piece at the California Science Center. All of the toxic components need to be removed and replaced, so it was getting a bit of a facelift when we saw it.

Me with the Space Shuttle Endeavour!

Trip to the Launch Pad

As if we hadn’t seen enough, we were soon taken to see something that was even new to our guide – a visit to the rocket that would launch the MSL Curiosity rover to Mars the following day!

As our bus approached the launch pad, I took a quick video with my phone:

When we first saw the rocket, it was practically silhouetted against the Sun:

MSL Curiosity’s last sunset (on Earth, at least…)

At our next stop around the corner, however, we saw it in all its glory:

Can I hop on board?

Here’s a closeup shot I took of the top of the rocket, in which the rover was housed:

The Atlas V: up close and personal!

Someone was smart enough to get us all to pose for a pic!

Space Tweeps from Bus #2

Not only was it incredible to be THAT close to a rocket headed for Mars, it was amazing to realize that the rover we had been talking about all day was actually tucked away in there, just a few hundred feet from where we stood.

I also tried to absorb the historic nature of this site. This area, Launch Complex 41, was the same complex that launched the Voyager probes that flew past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in the 70s and 80s, and the Viking landers, which were the first successful Mars landers.

The rocket was perfectly still and completely quiet, but we knew that was only temporary. Tomorrow, this site would (hopefully) be filled with the sound, fire, and fury of a launch!

Launch Complex 34

Despite dwindling daylight, Kim and our driver let us make one final, unanticipated stop.

Space travel is obviously not easy, and it is also not risk-free. Our bus stopped at the location of the American space program’s first tragedy: the site of the Apollo 1 fire that claimed the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White.

The astronauts of Apollo 1 perished in a fire at this launch complex while performing a test of their spacecraft.

The launch complex itself has been left to the elements, adding to its eerie feel. Off to the side is a simple tribute: three granite benches – one for each astronaut lost.

Apollo 1 Memorial

Dinner and An Early Bedtime

The bus returned us to the press site where we said our goodbyes for the day. I headed out to meet a group of space tweeps for dinner at Fishlips, a local seafood restaurant. There, we enjoyed more space-y conversation and shared our excitement about what we’d seen. I tweeted:

We also shared our excitement about what we all hoped to see the following day: the launch of “our” rocket bound for Mars!

I was facing a 4:30AM wake-up call to ensure that I would make it to the launch site in time for Saturday’s activities, so I returned to the hotel, posted a few photos to Twitter & Facebook and tried to get some sleep…

In Part III of this blog series, I recount the events of Saturday, November 26th – the LAUNCH!!!