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!!!

6 Responses to “My NASA Tweetup Adventure – Part II: Tweetup & NASA Tour”

  1. Ben H. December 7, 2011 at 7:49 am #

    Thanks for sharing your awesome experience going to the MSL tweetup. Wish I had been there! I was at the STS-130 launch in 2010 and I know how amazing it is to be there at KSC for something like that.

    I wanted to point out one small factual error you made a couple times in your tweetup posts. The control rooms at KSC that you toured are actually not mission control centers (MCC) but are Launch Control Centers (LCC). Mission control was only done in Florida for the first part of the space program until Johnson Space Center opened in Houston in 1962. So the Apollo 8 video is actually shown in the Apollo LCC. You have to come here to JSC to see the historic Apollo MCC!

    All the best,
    – Ben H.
    Mission Control, Houston, TX

  2. canadianastronomy December 7, 2011 at 10:25 am #

    You’re absolutely right, Ben. That’s an important distinction and was an oversight on my part! I’ve corrected it and noted the change in the post. Cheers and thanks for reading!

  3. Ben H. December 7, 2011 at 10:35 am #

    Wow, way to update it quick!

    Anxiously awaiting part 3!!!


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    […] « Astronaut plays Canadian tune in space My NASA Tweetup Adventure – Part II: Tweetup & NASA Tour […]

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