Saturday, November 26th, was the BIG day. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover was scheduled to launch at 10:02AM EST.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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!
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!
After the photo, we pretty much mobbed poor Bill Nye:
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.
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:
and to my right:
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.
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…
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.
Soon after the rocket had disappeared behind the clouds, there was a lot of cheering, hugging and high fives. I tweeted:
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:
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!
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…