L-1 Day 'Til Launch: Day 1 #NASATweetup Recap

Space Shuttle Atlantis in the background, shortly after the RSS
retraction. I was about 400 yards away from Launch Pad 39A.
Today was a whirlwind of activity, as it marked the first time all 150 NASA Tweetup participants were together in one place. NASA had a full day planned for us, and we hit the ground running.

We got up bright and early at our group house in Cape Canaveral, and began the 23 minute drive to the press area at Kennedy Space Center. (It became quickly apparent that everything would be precisely timed for our visit...it's NASA, after all, where every minute and millimeter matters.)

Upon getting through Gate 2 security, the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) came into view, off in the distance. The VAB is where they attach the space shuttle onto the main rockets. While it looks small on TV, the massive nature of it overtakes you in person. At 525 feet tall, it's the largest single story building in the world.

The Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).
See the American flag on the left side of the building? It's the size of a basketball court. Each of those white stars in the flag stands 6 feet tall, to give you another perspective. The excitement of standing in the shadow of this building was only superseded by knowing I'd be visiting it in a few short hours.

We headed over to the NASA Tweetup tent, and settled in for our jam packed day (see agenda below).

Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Space Operations Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters, talked to us for awhile, and I had the opportunity to ask him, "What's your proudest moment?" His reply: "My team." He proceeded to tell a cool story about how they overcame a seemingly insurmountable hurdle to keep the shuttle rolling. He finished with the advice, "Stay hungry. Stay curious." Awesome.

We also had a special visit from Elmo, who spoke with astronauts Mike Massimino and Doug Wheelock. Of course, that also led to one of the most awkward moments of the day, when one poor, misguided soul decided to ask Elmo, "Do you know what a cougar is?" during the Q&A, and then told Elmo to meet her behind the tent later to find out. Weird.

Astronaut Doug Wheelock had a lot of great stories.
Had a chance to chat with both Massimino and Wheelock afterwards. They patiently answered questions and took pictures for quite awhile, smiling the whole time.

In the middle of all this Mother Nature decided to grace us with a monster of a torrential downpour. It was raining so hard at one point, that we could barely hear the special guest speakers. I tweeted, "Dear Grilled Cheesus: Thanks for having the foresight to tent the #NASATweetup. #kthxbai #itsrainingitspouring"

It held off long enough for us to run to lunch at the Kennedy Space Center Cafeteria, then we headed back for the highlight of the day: visiting the space shuttle. We boarded buses to head over to Launch Pad 39A for an up close and personal view of Space Shuttle Atlantis herself.

I thought I was excited when I got chosen to attend this event...then when I picked up my credentials...but now, this. Seeing the big bird in person.

The energy on the bus ride from the press area to the launch pad could best be described as giddy yet solemn. We were about to witness a sought-after event: the Rotating Service Structure (RSS) retraction. From NASA.com: "The rotating service structure provides protected access to the orbiter for installation and servicing of payloads at the pad, as well as servicing access to certain systems on the orbiter."

Space Shuttle Atlantis, post-RSS retraction.
We were dropped off in a small roped off area, across the street from and about 400 yards away from the shuttle, and the retraction began. It's a slow process, kind of like peeling back an onion.

One of my fellow attendees, Tristan Moody (who's also fantastically knowledgeable about all of this and has been a veritable font of information for all my questions) tweeted, "Internet is totally overwhelmed here at KSC" to which I replied, "*I'm* totally overwhelmed here at KSC. ;)"

As the RSS began to pull away from Atlantis, I felt like a kid getting a sneak peak of a Christmas present. There was a collective cheer from all of us once she was in full view. After much mulling about and oohs, ahhs, and a few "Holy sh!ts" thrown in for good measure, we boarded the buses for our next stop: the VAB.

I lagged behind on the bus to find my iPhone charger when we arrived at the VAB, and got a rare treat in return: on my way into the building, one of our escorts excitedly waved her phone and said, "Come here!" She was on the phone with astronaut Ron Garan, who's in space. Yeah, you read that right: I got to say hi to a man who's floating around space in the International Space Station. Wild!

After that little delightful moment, I headed into the VAB. As I mentioned before, this building is huge, but it's only once you're inside that you get that true feeling of being dwarfed. It was impossible not to walk through this area and feel so small, knowing you're walking in the footsteps of giants.

Inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) looking south.
For our last stop of the day, we headed over to the Apollo Saturn V Center for some free time and more spacetastic views. It was a nice, quiet end to an extraordinarily wonderful day.

Speaking of which, tomorrow is the Big Day. I'm really looking forward to sharing it with my 150 new friends, the press we're sharing this area with, and the world.

Our official agenda from NASA for the day:

Thursday, July 7/L-1: Tweetup Day 1
Elmo in front of the countdown clock.
Photo credit: @Camilla_SDO
  • 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. – Registration at the Kennedy Space Center Press Accreditation Badging Building; travel to the press site, set up, meet fellow participants.
  • 9:00 a.m. – Welcome by @NASA team member John Yembrick
  • 9:05 a.m. – Meet the tweeps
  • 10:30 a.m. – Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Space Operations Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarter
  • 10:50 a.m. – Elmo, Sesame Street (@SesameStreet) interacts with STS-109 and STS-125 Astronaut Mike Massimino (@Astro_Mike)
  • 11:10 a.m. – Massimino answers questions from the participants
  • 11:30 a.m. – Tracy Thumm (@ISS_Research) and Justin Kuglerm (@ISS_NatLab), International Space Station Program, NASA's Johnson Space Center
  • 11:50 a.m. – Angie Brewer, space shuttle Atlantis' flow director, Kennedy Space Center
  • 12:15 p.m. – Lunch break (on your own or a visit to the cafeteria)
  • 1:15 p.m. – Board buses for Launch Pad 39A to view the retraction of the Rotating Service Structure at 2 p.m.
  • 3:15 p.m. – Tour of NASA's Kennedy Space Center, including visits to the Apollo Saturn V Center and the Vehicle Assembly Building and a drive by the Launch Control Center, Mobile Launch Platform and Orbiter Processing Facility.
  • 6:00 p.m. – Return to the press site
All photos mine unless otherwise noted.