Today is the 4th anniversary of a very special opportunity that I was able to take part in thanks to NASA's community outreach program via Twitter. Back in 2009 when Twitter had been around for awhile, but not even close to the popularity it has today, I had heard about Twitter but wasn't too interested in it. That all changed when I heard about events being held to gather people that used Twitter to help spread the word about whatever the Tweet-Up sponsor invited them to. NASA had done a few of these Tweet-Ups for events, including going to Johnson Space Center to see Space Shuttle launches or communicate with International Space Station (ISS) crews. NASA was doing a fantastic job using all of the social media tools available to get those of us excited about space exploration to help spread the word and best thing was it was pretty much free advertising for an agency that keep getting it's budget reduced more and more each year. Also during this time the Space Shuttle program end had already announced, so it was important to capitalize on the last few manned space launches that would be going on until a decade or more in the US.
STS-129 was the designation for the launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis, on November 16, 2009 at Kennedy Space Center, Florida. I have always followed the space program and NASA, and still get very emotional about the Challenger and Columbia tragedies as I followed both of them, watching as many launches and landings live as I could (assuming they were being covered by news media of the time). When I heard that NASA was going to invite a group of Twitter users to Kennedy Space Center to witness the launch of Atlantis, I made sure I was signed up on Twitter and submitted the necessary details to NASA to be part of this event. I was shocked that I was selected from a group of hundreds, maybe even thousands of people who had entered for this random drawing. For this Tweet-Up NASA had selected a pretty small group as it was the first Tweet-Up that they were doing for a Space Shuttle launch.
What a lot of people didn't understand about being selected for this Tweet-Up is that NASA was not paying those that were selected, or were they covering any of our expenses to get to Florida or stay there for the multiple days that may be required if there were delays in the launch. But, they did provide us access to the facilities and people, including us being able to take pictures at the nearest that anyone not working for the Space Shuttle program is allowed on the day before a launch. That is where this picture that I have used as my profile picture on various online accounts for years was taken.
I was beyond excited the whole time that I was there. I had taken a few trips to Kennedy Space Center over the years, including a trip with my grandparents when I was 10 years old, but I never got to see a Space Shuttle launch in all of my trips. I tried to time trips in the past, but it never worked out. I was able to see an Atlas launch on one trip with the family, when I got up before dawn and drove out to an area that I heard had the best view of launches from the Cape Canaveral launch site. It was awesome to see that launch with my own eyes, but nothing compares to seeing a Space Shuttle launch.
As the launch morning came on November 16, 2009, I don't think that I slept much at all the night before and we had to get to a specified location to park our cars very early that morning and get on the bus that would get us to the press site. The launch was not until early afternoon, but we had to be onsite earlier since they lock down the area once it gets closer to launch. NASA has setup a tent for all of us to use for our computers with the NASA TV live feed being shown on multiple screens and a series of different speakers to help keep us occupied over the hours. It was extremely hard to stay in that tent though, knowing that a Space Shuttle was going to be launching soon! I took way too many pictures of the famous countdown clock that is there at the press site, but I knew that this would probably be the one and only chance I had to do this with the end of the Space Shuttle program coming and no clear picture what the future would be. As we got to within 30 minutes of the launch the tent was emptied and we all headed out to find the best spot to capture the moment. I debated if I was going to watch the launch through a camera viewfinder or try to just enjoy it with my eyes and ears. I decided to try and do a combination of both as much as I could. I spent some time trying to get some really good pictures as the engines started and then switched to video so that I could just let it run and watch it as well. It was even more awesome then I could have ever imagined and I still remember the delay in the sound and when it finally came how it almost physically knocked me back and I also remember all of the car alarms going off in the parking lot behind us afterwards as the sound echoed off of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).
It was an experience that I will NEVER forget and I thank everyone at that worked in the NASA outreach team at the time for the opportunity to participate in this and help NASA as much as I could. I look back on it now it was the beginning of an amazing journey for me as I started to use Twitter more and more at that time and still do today. While I'm not on Twitter all of the time, like I used to be, I still enjoy using Twitter to keep up with people and events. And it also still allows me to stay in contact with many of the others that were also part of that same Tweet-Up and share the experience with others that participated in NASA Tweet-Ups after me.
Thanks Twitter and a big thanks to NASA, I will always be a life-long fan and support you in as many way as I can! Here is a link to the Flickr group that includes pictures from me and many of the other participants in the STS-129 Launch Tweet-Up.