Image by nasa hq photo via Flickr
In early July 2011, I was licking my wounds after seeing the final space shuttle launch in Titusville, FL, and quite frankly I was getting rather depressed over the decline of manned space travel in the U.S. As a longtime space nerd, I was being told by people I worked with at my day job that NASA “was dead,” among other rather positive-sounding platitudes. So imagine my complete surprise when I discovered an invitation in my e-mail inbox to a NASA Tweetup in mid-July. I had been on its waiting list (over 1,000 people had signed up for it), and now I’d be on its front lines.
Fast forward to August 4th, and I’m standing right in front of the old shuttle countdown clock, Launch Complex 39A, and the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center. What began as a sheer interest in space travel had turned into two days of every budding science writer’s ultimate fantasy – a trip to see things which I had only seen on TV and had read about. The first morning of the “tweetup” (a term used to describe the furious tweets which go back and forth on Twitter, essentially covering events in real, unvarnished time) was filled with speakers discussing the technical aspects of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Juno mission to Jupiter.
Juno is the first ever solar-powered space probe to make its way to the Giant Planet; Juno intends to look just under the clouds of Jupiter to investigate atmospheric characteristics of the planet which have never been looked into previously. This is not a mission without peril. Radiation and static electricity, both big killers of electronic equipment, entirely rule the domain of Jupiter. However, new advances in titanium shielding, solar panels, and discharging said static electricity allow Juno to go where no other interplanetary missions have gone before. Galileo, Voyagers 1 and 2, and Pioneers 10 and 11 could not possibly have completed these missions. Due to its use of Earth’s gravity and its highly elliptical polar orbits, Juno is expected to make its Jupiter flybys in mid-2016.
…But enough of the technical stuff. Let’s get to the Completely Badass Bus Tour of the Century. Our tour guide George Hoggard (himself a real-life space legend – he just recently retired after 42 years of firefighting service, and he assisted Apollo and shuttle astronauts with emergency egress training) first took us to the giant, ubiquitous Vehicle Assembly Building. The building inside resembles a giant hangar bay. I was awestruck at how silent our group became when we entered the hallowed interiors of the VAB; after all, this is where everything in manned spaceflight had been put together for well over 40 years. Even the “hallway” of the building is unimaginably gigantic.
George is a really funny guy – as most NASA workers from the Good Ol’ Days are – and after a few minutes inside the VAB, he said matter-of-factly, “Okay, it’s time to get back to the bus.” However, we had heard through the space nerd grapevine on Twitter that the shuttle Discovery was being dismantled inside the building. One of the tweeps in our group politely piped up, “Um, can we please see Discovery?” George replied, “Oh, yeah…” as if he had completely forgotten that a space shuttle was inside the building, off to a corner. He then led us to a small corner…and lo and behold, one of the greatest flying machines ever built was languishing all by its lonesome. Tears sprang to my face immediately.
Seeing Discovery – which I saw launched for its final time in February 2011 – partially dismantled was akin to seeing your beloved first car on blocks inside the mechanic’s shop. The shuttle retained all of its majesty though, and I was kind of shocked to discover how small the orbiter was. In pictures, the shuttles always looked so gigantic. We spent about 10 minutes taking photos and generally staring aghast at Discovery, then we said our goodbyes – until we meet it again at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, where it will eventually be displayed.
The tour had barely even started yet. Our stops then encompassed Launch Complexes 17A and 17B. Pad 17B currently boasts a Delta II rocket on its launchpad; the pad will be retired following the launch of GRAIL’s Delta II next month. We then saw the Atlas V launch control center, its vehicle processing building, and – last but not of course least – Juno’s Atlas V at Launch Complex 41. I’d never seen a rocket so closely in all of my years as a space fanatic; it looked beautiful, sleek, and so modern compared to all of the old Titan missiles launched back in the 1960s.
The next morning, we went back to the tweetup tent for more amazing surprises. Dr. Andy Aldrin – himself a spaceflight legend, and the son of Buzz Aldrin! – spoke to us about Juno and “human-rating” Atlas V rockets for possible manned flight. I’d only ever seen him on TV before discussing Soviet space missions from the 1960s. I shook his hand, and seriously thought I was in some delirious state where I had almost died, and I was still in some kind of space-coma imagining all of this. The speakers just kept getting more and more iconic. The speaking portion of the day was rounded out in great form by Charles Bolden, NASA administrator and former astronaut/space legend, and Bill Nye of the celebrated self-named kids’ show. Charles Bolden even posed for a group photo with us. I seriously had to pinch my inner elbow hard to verify that all of this was really occurring – that I was in the company of such intelligence and greatness in the space of two awe-inspiring days. Also, my fellow tweeps were among the most brilliant, coolest people I’d ever had the privilege to be surrounded by.
The launch sequence leading up to Juno’s Atlas V leaving the Earth’s bounds is honestly kind of foggy to me. By this point, I was so overwhelmed by everything that I was having a hard time taking it all in. At any rate, the launch faced some delays over a minor technical issue on the ground side, and then some douchebag in a boat had to be fished out of the waterway in front of the launch pad (of course someone had to troll the 10,000 people waiting to see something huge leave the planet). After what seemed like ages (in actuality, we probably only waited about 45 minutes – the launch window was around 90 minutes), the countdown resumed and we started to feel somewhat optimistic that the rocket would launch. Then we got down to 30 seconds. Then ten.
The rocket left the pad with such spectacular force; within seconds the ground shook uncontrollably. I could feel the vibration through my chest. At roughly a minute into the launch, the vehicle began to enter a hyperbolic (or curved) trajectory. That was when I noticed the massive shadow cast on the water from the launch vehicle and smoke plume. It was like nothing I’d seen before in my entire life. Within seconds, the launch vehicle jettisoned its five boosters and disappeared into the horizon.
But the Atlas V wasn’t done traveling yet. You could still hear it surging into space on top of its fiery column. This thing was going into deep space, and nothing could stop it.
NASA, JPL, and all of their associated contractors managed to give us the greatest show of our lifetimes in what undoubtedly is a very difficult time for the organization. I am eternally indebted to their generosity. Also, I’ll never forget the amazing people I got to meet over my two days in Space Heaven. In conclusion, I will simply just reiterate the words of Charles Bolden, who stated emphatically during the tweetup that NASA is very much alive and well, and here to stay.
Check out my video of the Juno NASA Tweetup at this YouTube link.