January 27, 2020

The Smart Phones Strike Back: The STS-132 NASAtweetup!

I got into Twitter about a year ago with some apprehension; did I really want to know (or care?) what someone’s cat did today? Was “micro-blogging” a cop-out to serious writing? After all, a scant decade ago, we barely knew what e-mail was. Here it is a year later, and we’re hooked. Twitter has produced tangible benefits, such as the opportunity to attend the launch of STS-132 last week and the NASAtweetup! Fans of this space will note that we attended our first Tweetup at the Johnson Space Flight Center in March. While that was a stellar session, we’d always wanted to do a launch event, and not be stuck viewing from the peanut gallery or a Home Depot parking lot in Orlando, but up close with the “serious” media. 

So, why see a launch up close in person? Aren’t they all the same? Well, as a Florida resident that has witnessed many a launch from afar, let me tell you; they’re not! At the press site on Kennedy near the VAB, the launch is a “total body” experience. You hear the roar. The sound shakes your rib cage. The plume is as bright as the Sun. Heck; you can smell the exhaust fuel in the air! I would urge anyone with the opportunity to view from this locale to not pass it up; putting shuttles in space requires a lot more oomph than tiny unmanned satellites, and there are only two shuttle missions left!

The tweetup itself was a two day event, and 141 folks came from 8 separate countries, many to witness a shuttle launch for the first time. Let me stress that anyone with a Twitter account and over 18 years of age can enter these events; thus far, six events have been held at four different locations, and as we write this, an up and coming lottery is underway for a NASAtweetup for the World Science Festival in New York City on June 5th. Be sure to follow @NASAtweetup like a hawk as lotteries come and go, usually with a 24 hour selection window… we were bummed when the first STS-129 flew under our radar and vowed never to let that happen again!

Wanna increase your chances of selection? From the caliber of enthusiasts present, I would say that NASA does a fair amount of vetting of potential candidates. Obviously, you don’t want any crop circle conspiracy theorists or anyone Buzz Aldrin would deem worthy of knocking out getting in the door. Not to say that you have to be a rocket scientist; just an avid space fan who blogs and tweets about space will do.

Day one saw numerous talks and presentations as we settled into the Tweetup tent. Dedicated Wi-Fi and power was available, and we had numerous talks from Astronauts Janet Voss and engineers and @NASA team members such as Stephanie Schierholz, Jon Cowart, Stephanie Stilson, and John Yembrick, to name a few. We also used some of the time to scout out the vantage points for photography, as well as watch the old-school media setup. I wondered how many of them knew that a tweetup was underway, and just who occupied that strange tent at the end of the field? It also gave us time to reflect on the drama that had been witnessed on these very grounds we were walking, and the thrill to be a part of it all. You can still see the sun-blasted CBS sign hanging on the building were Walter and friends reported the historic Apollo flights!

The “Tweeters” were as unique as the launch itself. It’s always surreal to see these folks in person, and it always seems to me that no one looks like their Twitter icon. There were some new faces and some old friends from the first JSCtweetup in March. Is it a sign of the times that we now wax nostalgic about Tweetups “back in the day?” it also soon became unremarkable to see someone armed with an IPhone, IPad, Bluetooth, 2xDSLRs, and Laptop… these are my kind of people. Tech envy was rampant, and it felt at times like a scene from The Big Bang Theory… conversation such as “Blackberry vs. IPhone” was not uncommon, and remarks such as “I’m the black sheep in my family, what with only a Masters and all…” drew barely a second thought. Everyone was courteous, motivated, and thrilled to be there. The difference struck me when we briefly integrated with the general tour later that afternoon; it even made our day when a lady remarked; “Who are those people getting on that special bus?” to be sure, we’d all been in the back of the pack many, many, times… it felt good to have “arrived!”

The first day culminated with a special gathering to witness the evening retraction of the servicing gantry in preparation for launch. It was awesome to see Atlantis slowly revealed for her final trip into space. Although it was a wonderful experience to share with fellow “Space tweeps,” it was also a good time to silently reflect on the triumphs and tragedies that had gone before, and what was about to happen. Here before us stood one of the most complex machines ever built by man, a product of thousands of years of science and engineering. It also seemed strange to be witnessing the end of the shuttle era after 30+ years; it’s hard to imagine that we’ve been flying shuttles longer than anything in the space program. I still remember watching the first drop tests of Enterprise on TV as a kid, and thinking the days of the first shuttle space flights seemed so far off, let alone the very ideas of Hubble and the International Space Station…

Day two saw more talks and frenzied activity throughout the media site in preparation for launch. One of my favorite comments came from astronaut Dave Wolf on his time aboard Mir, saying that it was very “Jules Verne-like…” One can easily picture a craft stuffed full of gauges and brass-bezelled dials, ala a bad steam-punk novel…

Towards T-minus 10, tensions mounted. Were the abort sites clear? What was that rumor of a bad strut or computer malfunction? Are batteries charged and cameras positioned? Thoughts crossed my mind of simply cueing up a good Rush track on the Ipod and just rocking out for the launch… but I was already tethered to so much technology already! I settled on the following strategy, which worked pretty well. I placed to video on a stationary tripod and simply left it running. As launch erupted, I started shooting with the DSLR until the plume expanded beyond the frame. I then raised the Blackberry for a quick shot for Tweet-fandom. Finally, I traced Atlantis visually with my trusty 15×45 binocs that I brought just for the occasion. Perhaps an FM radio (or its modern day IPhone equivalent) would have come in handy at this point, as updates were pretty much passed “down the line…”     

It also made our day that follower @KGyST acted on our tweet advice and was moved to image STS-132 and its external tank after separation from his native Hungary! Naysayers take note; this is Twitter and grassroots space-tweeping in action!

Regrets? Like Christmas, two days whirled by much too quickly. It’s also slightly sad to think such grand sights from the Space Coast will soon be a thing of the past, and the future of manned space flight is still uncertain, at best. What always strikes me when I take company on the obligatory KSC tour is how America seems to view its space program as history, as if to say; “in those days, there were heroes…” Heroes and heroines still rocket into space and orbit high over-head every night, if only we would care to listen to their tales. True, we need both a manned and unmanned space program, but if we’re not careful, we could lose our edge in space. Neil Degrasse Tyson nailed it on Colbert when he said “They don’t name schools after robots.” Abilities such as flying shuttles, assembling things in low Earth orbit and long duration space flights are perishable skills, and if we fail to keep at it and build on them, we’ll soon forget how it was really done. It also seems ironic that just as we’re getting good at flying shuttles, we’re about to stop. Such abilities may come in handy for future interplanetary missions; as engineering manager Jon Cowart said, “We can do anything, with the proper funding!”

But perhaps it is the very enthusiasm evinced by the Space Tweeps themselves that is cause for hope. Many interrupted their busy lives to converge on the Space Coast and see Atlantis off one more time. The very physical aftermath on-site was striking… far from looking like the final closing scenes of Woodstock, the tweeps policed up after themselves, leaving a very small footprint. Perhaps this event might represent a shift, evidence of a portion of the “turned on” but dis-enfranchised public that the Lindsay Lohan-chasing media isn’t satiating. Whatever the case, NASA definitely “gets it,” and the future of new-school media. And with two shuttle launches (STS-129 & STS-132) on-time and both hosting tweetups,  NASA, in the words of SpaceFlightNow host Miles O’Brien “might just be on to something.” Is there in fact a Tweetup Effect? Or could it be, in the words of @Charizardi that; “It’s Atlantis… she’s just very reliable…”

Will there be a Part III to complete the Tweetup trilogy? I’m torn. I love these gatherings, but would perhaps like to give up my potential spot to someone who has never been. Perhaps, if they do another SDO style tweetup or one for the final launch (which has an astro-physics payload, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer) our interests will be piqued. In the meantime, get out there and tweet your support for our space program, and watch those hash tags for the next tweetup!


  1. [...] the final dramatic repair mission STS-125 launch of shuttle Atlantis close-up as well as attend the STS-132 NASAtweetup in 2010 for the launch once again of [...]

  2. [...] repair mission to the Hubble from the visitor center, and STS-132 from the press site during the #NASATweetup. With the arrival of Endeavour to Los Angeles, an orbiter will never take to the skies again. It [...]

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