Oculus Rift S – Quick Hands-On

This is a quick hands-on impression of the Oculus Rift S from the view of a flight sim player. It's not a full review (plenty of those around) and it's focused on the rather niche category of flight simulations, which is where the Rift S turns out to really prove it's worthwhile.

Despite the lukewarm reviews and the minor upgrades in specs, Matt Wagner's commentary on the Rift S's clarity in DCS made me order it from Amazon (where I could return it easily if not impressed).

I'm *not* returning it. Spent the evening flying flight sims in it and it's clearly a worthwhile upgrade for sim fans. You would think it had much higher resolution than the original (CV1) Oculus Rift, given the additional clarity. The screen door effect (visible pixels) is just *gone*. (At least, for my eyes.)

Some impressions trying various flight simulators:

  • Prepar3D v4.51 probably sees the most significant improvement, with instruments just dramatically easier to read. Everything looks sharper as well.
  • Matt Wagner wasn't kidding about DCS. The view from the F-86 Sabre cockpit was just amazingly sharp.
  • IL-2 Battle of Moscow/Bodenplatte/etc is by far the best looking of them all. With no screen door effect and the efficient VR engine, the visuals are just stunning. Flew the P-47D around and was blown away.
  • Also tried FlyInside Flight Simulator, and while that one's in very early access, it worked and looked great.
  • I haven't tried X-Plane 11 or AeroFly FS2 yet, but I have no doubt they'll be awesome given all the other sims.

A quick game of Beat Sabre showed the controller tracking to be as good in that game as with the OG Rift with three sensors spread around the room -- it never lost tracking.

Random notes:

  • The 80Hz vs 90Hz refresh rate difference from the original Rift isn't noticeable
  • I was thinking I’d need to use headphones since they dropped the earphones and added tiny speakers near your ear. But the audio is surprisingly clear from these, and it’s nice to be able to hear sounds in the room if someone comes in. This was maybe the biggest pleasant surprise. I wouldn’t use them for music (no bass) or watching movies, but it’s fine for flight sims.
  • The internal tracking on the controllers works well
  • Soooo much easier to set up than the original Rift or the Vive without all the tracking stations
  • You now define the room by laser-drawing the border with the controllers instead of having to walk around in view of cameras, much easier
  • Even with three cameras, the original Rift would sometimes lose track of tracking and I'd find my head sticking out the top of a cockpit, down by the rudder pedals, or on a wing, and have to re-set the VR view. Didn't happen once with the Rift S.
  • Unlike some of the professional reviewers, I actually like the new headband better than the original Rift’s. Easier to adjust for different users.
  • My one negative so far? There isn’t the big gap around your nose that I used to peek down through on the OG Rift to view the keyboard when playing sims. I’ve had to lift the headset a few times to find a key.

Answering Some Questions

I posted an earlier version of this on a couple of simulation and gaming forums, and some questions came up. Here are the answers:

  • Field of view is supposed to be slightly better than the original Rift, but I couldn't see a difference.
  • Because the new screen is LCD based instead of OLED, the blacks aren't going to be as... black. But flying around in Prepar3D and IL-2 at night, the night sky and scenery looked about the same as it does on a monitor -- it's not washed out or gray.
  • Oculus Tray Tool (and everything else I tried) works fine. I used it to set P3D to a supersampling rate of 1.5 and it looked super-sharp.

If you're playing action-based VR games, games with cartoony graphics, or really anything outside of vehicle simulations, I'm not sure the improvements in the Rift S would justify an upgrade from the original Oculus Rift CV1. But for flight sims, the Rift S awesome and I have zero regrets on the money spent.

I had an HP Reverb on order as well, thinking the increased resolution would be a big benefit in sims. But I just cancelled that order, because the Rift S is so sharp I'm quite satisfied, and the Oculus solution is going to have much better frame rates than the Reverb's higher resolution will afford.

I don't know what the cancelled "Rift 2" was going to be, but the S might as well stand for "Sim edition" and it's a nice upgrade for my usage scenario.

(If you decide to buy one and use this Amazon link, I'll get a couple of bucks in Amazon credit, which would be cool and appreciated.)

Memorialized for WW2 heroism

BRITISH AIRCRAFT IN ROYAL AIR FORCE SERVICE, 1939-1945: VICKERS WELLINGTON. (ME(RAF) 3703) Two Wellington Mark ICs, Z8797 ?A? and Z9095 ?D?, of No. 38 Squadron RAF, in flight over the Western Desert, probably while based at Shallufa, Egypt.  These aircraft were specially converted for use as torpedo bomber/minelayers by the Squadron. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
BRITISH AIRCRAFT IN ROYAL AIR FORCE SERVICE, 1939-1945: VICKERS WELLINGTON. (ME(RAF) 3703) Two Wellington Mark ICs, Z8797 ?A? and Z9095 ?D?, of No. 38 Squadron RAF, in flight over the Western Desert, probably while based at Shallufa, Egypt. These aircraft were specially converted for use as torpedo bomber/minelayers by the Squadron. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

My great uncle was recently recognized by the city of London for his service in WW2 by having a new street, Morgan Ave., in the west end named after him.

Franklin Benedict Morgan was an RCAF Pilot Officer who flew for 99 Squadron RAF on both bombing and mine-laying missions.

While flying Wellington LC Z8891 of 99 Sqn. on their return from Bremen he and his crew were forced to ditch off Lowestoft and were picked up by a trawler.

He was flying for the RAF's 38th Squadron in Egypt in 1942 when his plane was hit while returning from a mission. A couple of his crew were able to bail out and he attempted to nurse his badly damaged Vickers Wellington bomber back to base. Unfortunately, the bomber ran out of fuel and crashed just four miles short of his home station near Cairo. He's buried in the Heliopolis Military Cemetery in Egypt.

Due to a 1940s-era divorce I never got to know the Morgan side of my family well, but I'm honored by the service of my great uncle in helping win the war.

Both of my grandfathers -- Donald Thorburn, who I was very close to and who helped raise me and build my interest in science, and my genetic grandfather Donald Morgan -- also served in WW2. Opa (Don Thorburn) was an X-ray technician on the front lines, helping wounded soldiers as the allies advanced north into Italy. Don Morgan was a Canadian adviser to Winston Churchill, among other duties.

Under (re)Construction

The original contents of this blog were lost due to a GoDaddy snafu in 2017, but I’m currently re-building the blog thanks to having grabbed copies of early snapshots of my blog posts. As we head into a new era of launching astronauts from American soil, I feel it’s worth the effort to document where we’ve been, as we head into the future.

I’ll be focusing on resurrecting my space posts for now. My guide to building a Windows 7 Media Center PC/DVR probably isn’t going to be that useful in 2019.

Once the old content’s back, I’m looking forward to chronicling upcoming missions to the ISS and beyond, as well as musings about technology, comedy, and more.

Test Flight: Orion EFT-1

My original blog entry about the Orion launch was alas lost when GoDaddy deleted my earlier site, so this is a "best-of" recap of the highly successful Orion EFT-1 flight test NASA Social.

I live-tweeted the social, including the Kennedy Space Center tour, the first day excitedly waiting for the eventually-scrubbed launch, and the final launch. Click here to read the Tweets and see the images I posted during the NASA Social event.

The Twitter stream is a good recap of the actual event. The flight was a resounding success. After the launch most of us went to the KSC tour to watch the recovery in the theater there. You can see my video of the launch, and NASA's video of the recovery, at the bottom of the post.

For more background on the planned test, see NASA's data sheet on Orion EFT-1. For a full recap of the timetable of the flight, the Orion EFT-1 Wikipedia article has some good info.

See my pics below. It was an honor to be invited by NASA to be a part of this historic event in our move to send humans past earth orbit again. Looking forward to visiting KSC to see astronauts launching from American soil again soon!

Orion: First Step to Deep Space

On December 3 and 4, I’ll be part of a lucky group of 150 people chosen from thousands of applicants to attend the NASA Social event for the first launch of Orion, NASA’s next space vehicle. On Wednesday, we’ll tour Kennedy Space Center in the morning, and from 1-3 pmoriononpad EST we’ll be the audience for a NASA TV broadcast about the upcoming launch. We’ll hear from scientists and engineers supporting the Orion program, and hopefully get a chance to see it on the launch pad. Then, on Thursday, we’ll be up during the pre-dawn hours to head out to the NASA Causeway, where if all goes well we’ll be able to witness the launch from the press area just a couple of miles away. I’ll be covering the launch on this blog, and tweeting live at @dennya on Twitter.


What is Orion?

Orion is a new space capsule that’s a component in NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System, the crewed successor to the Space Shuttle program that will be used to travel to the moon, asteroids, or even Mars. Orion resembles the Apollo Command Modules of the 60s and 70s, but with room for four to six astronauts, and modern 21st century technology inside. Like the Apollo capsules, Orion will return to Earth via parachutes, and will splash down in the ocean for recovery.

Orion will be protected during reentry by a huge 16.5-foot diameter heat shield on the bottom of the capsule, as well as 970 Space Shuttle-style tiles surrounding the upper portion. As with Apollo, an escape rocket will be mounted above Orion to pull the astronauts to safety should something go wrong during launch.

Though NASA is promoting Orion as the first step towards Mars, the capsule isn’t roomy enough to support a trip of that length. By itself, it can support a crew of four for up to 21 days in space, so it would be paired with a habitat module that could allow for longer trips, and possibly a crew of up to six. (And hopefully a lander as well, if they’re going that far!) Current proposed initial crewed flights for Orion include a possible test flight around the moon (with no landing) and an asteroid recovery mission. The asteroid mission is particularly ambitious: a robotic tug will fly out to the asteroid belt, snag a small asteroid, and bring it back into orbit around the Moon. Then astronauts will fly to the asteroid on Orion to do scientific investigation.

This Week’s Flight

The launch I’m attending, Exploration Flight Test-1, is an uncrewed first test of Orion’s systems, designed to ensure that everything works as planned before the first flights with astronauts aboard. The 4.5 hour flight will include two orbits of Earth, reaching a peak altitude of 3,609 miles in order to simulate a re-entry speed similar to what will be experienced returning from the moon.

This flight will test the capsule’s systems and shielding, making sure that Orion can safely protect human passengers from the heavy radiation it will encounter passing through the Van Allen Belt around the Earth. The capsule is heavily instrumented to measure heat, radiation, and other criteria throughout the flight.

During re-entry, the Orion capsule will face temperatures of up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 80% of the 5,000-degree temperatures expected during a return from lunar orbit. A series of 11 drogue and main parachutes will slow the capsule down, culminating in the deployment of three 116-foot-diameter main chutes that lower the capsule’s speed to less than 20 mph for splashdown. As with the Apollo capsules, US Navy ships will be standing by to recover Orion from the ocean.


Because the Space Launch System rocket – a monstrously huge craft, bigger than a Saturn V, which uses updated Space Shuttle main engines and stretched versions of the Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters – isn’t yet ready to test fly, Orion will be lofted to orbit by a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket. It will be interesting to compare the power and noise from the last launch I attended: STS-135, the final flight of the Space Shuttle program.

Next Steps

There’s some criticism that Orion doesn’t have a clear mission. But by the time Orion is ready to fly with a crew, we’ll have a new administration in office, so its first destination will likely be determined by whoever is President then. It’s an unfortunate reality of our system that, as governments change, long-term programs like Orion often get re-tasked or reset. In fact, the Orion capsule was originally designed as part of NASA’s Constellation rocket program, which President Obama canceled after taking office. We’d likely be much closer to flying to an actual destination had there not been a political reset of the Shuttle successor, and hopefully the next administration will support this existing effort to reach out past our planet’s orbit and not force similar delays and resets. Orion alone is not an interplanetary craft, but it’s the first step in developing a craft that can take humans past the moon and into a future where we’re not fully dependent upon one planet for our continued survival.

— Denny Atkin

I’m excited to hear that Electronic Arts has been selected to produce the next wave of Star Wars games after the shuttering of LucasArts. The news that DICE, BioWare, and Visceral will be doing Star Wars titles should please most

Now, I probably shouldn’t post this, but I just got hold of a secret document outlining EA’s 2015 gaming lineup, and I had to share the excitement!

  • Battlefield: Hoth
  • The Sims 5: Tatooine
  • Jane’s Combat Simulations: Incom T-65 X-Wing
  • Need for Landspeeder
  • Sarlacc Age: Origins
  • Blasterstorm
  • Kingdoms of Alderaan: Reckoning
  • B.A.N.T.H.A.
  • Command & Conquer 27: Corellian Dawn
  • Force Effect
  • Medal of Honor Spaceborne
  • American McGee’s Leia
  • Madden NFL 16
  • Archon IV: The Light and the Dark Sides
  • Plants vs. Wookies
  • Trash Compactor Keeper
  • MySims Podrace
  • Privateer 3: Millenium Falcon
  • Rock Band Cantina

NASATweetup Day 2, Part 2: Go for Launch? Really?

As we returned from the cafeteria, the skies were looking surprisingly tame. Might we actually get to see a launch today? The buzz around the Twent wasn’t consistent: Some said we were still green for launch, while others had heard there were no-go rain clouds downrange. The excitement was building, but we all tried to temper it because the official word was still a 30% chance of a launch.

With less than half an hour to go before the scheduled launch, @MituK and I headed outside to set up our cameras on our tripods. I got mine set up and started working on figuring out the exposure when Mitu reminded me that I was going to loan her my extra zoom lens. “Oh, sure, I’ll go back and grab it,” I said out loud, while thinking “But what if I trip on the way back to the tent? What if a baby alligator crawls up to my tripod and I’m not there to scare it away? What if…” But I steeled myself to step away from my carefully secured vantage point and headed back to grab the lens.

I walked in the Twent just in time to hear the end of the launch status check, as the mission controllers asking the various groups for their go/no-go calls. Not believing my ears after steeling myself for disappointment all day, I asked a guy standing near me, “Did he just say we’re go for launch?” “Yes, he did!”

I grabbed my lens and once again floated, rather than ran, back out to the camera line. I handed @MituK the lens and told her “Go for launch!” I can’t think of many things I’ve ever said to anyone that have elicited a smile that big. I looked around for the rest of the #NerdForceOne crew, but @CelticFeminist and @lartist were elsewhere in the crowd.

We were behind and to the right of the countdown clock, so we couldn’t see it and we were dependent on the folks behind us for updates. “Two minutes!” Holy Moly, they really were going to launch this thing! My camera all set, remote shutter in my hand (so I could watch the launch directly instead of through the eyepiece), I let the excitement build. It’s going up!

“Thirty seconds!” someone called. I pressed the shutter release on the Canon SD4000 pocket camera that I’d MacGuyvered to the top of my T2i DSLR to capture launch video. I grabbed a couple more shots of the last time a Space Shuttle would ever sit on Pad 39A.

And then… nothing. Soon it became clear that more than 30 seconds had passed. What was happening? Were the astronauts in danger? Was this a pad abort? Did we get that close and scrub? A wave of intense disappointment crushed down on me. I figured if anything went wrong this close to launch, we’d be in for a few days of investigation and we’d miss the launch.

Then, out of a crowd that had grown deadly quiet, someone says “The clock is moving again! Thirty seconds!” Disappointment instantly replaced by a staggering level of excitement! Just 30 seconds? Restarted the video (forgot to zoom this time, darnit), finger on the DLSR shutter release, and ready for launch!

“Ten.. Nine…Eight…” I joined in the count. After the crazy storms of Thursday, the bleak prediction for Friday weather, and the unexpected hold, getting to this point in the countdown seemed an impossible goal. But then the white smoke began to billow out from below the shuttle, and the group erupted into a roar of excitement. Atlantis began to slowly and silently rise from the behind the launchpad, riding on a pillar of fire that seemed as bright as the sun. Then, an earthquake-like vibration passed across the ground below us, and suddenly we heard and felt the roar and crackle of the engines. It’s difficult to describe the sensation that close to the pad. It’s not as if sound starts growing, it as if the sound waves are a very strong, very loud wind that rushes to and through you.

Atlantis gained speed, heading towards the cloud deck. As it passed through, for a fraction of a second the clouds around Atlantis looked to be on fire as the Shuttle passed through them.

The applause and cheers, which hadn’t abated since launch, reached a new crescendo as the Shuttle passed out of sight. We took some pictures around the exhaust pillar, the only indication remaining that a Space Shuttle had left the launch pad for the very last time, and then started heading inside to watch NASA TV to confirm SRB separation and a successful orbit.

Seeing a launch from such a close distance, literally feeling the ship leave our planet, and experiencing it with the people who make it happen was truly a moving experience. I felt energized, proud, and just gobsmacked by what the what NASA’s accomplishment. A Space Shuttle launch has never been “routine,” and seeing the people, equipment, and professionalism necessary to make this enormous rocket leave the planet drives that home even further.

As I headed back to the Twent to take a look at my launch pictures and reflect on what I’d seen, I saw my new friends reacting in every possible way. Some were talking at a million miles an hour about what they’d just seen. Some were reflecting quietly. More than a few were moved to tears. I think it’s impossible to see something like that and not be affected by it.

A few of us took post-launch pics with Elmo.

And as Atlantis heads into its final 12-day mission, over 150 people who were already space enthusiasts were moved to become space activists. You can’t watch that amazing space ship head into orbit and imagine that it’s the last time we’ll accomplish something so significant. You can’t see the wonder of a crewed, winged ship that can launch an enormous space station into orbit and be satisfied with a future that limits us to 1960s earth-orbiting space capsules. You can’t look at the accomplishments of the Space Shuttle, the ISS, Hubble, and the other amazing orbiting and planetary satellites and sit back silently while Congress throws away billions of dollars already invested, and universe-changing scientific potential, for short-term saving by canceling the Webb Space Telescope.

The Tweeps are already writing and calling reps about the Webb Telescope. Whether or not we can save it, we have to try. And we’re discussing getting together again, not just because we had a fantastic time with a bunch of like-minded people who feel that humanity has to continue to reach past the sky to achieve its full potential, but also because our geographically diverse group, with experience ranging from planetary science to marketing to construction to beer company social media, can spread our enthusiasm to an an enormous and varied audience. We’re organizing, and while some Tweeps will return to their day-to-day lives with a vivid memory of the end of an era of amazing accomplishment, others are going to do what we can to help make sure that, whatever our problems are at home, we don’t let those stop us from continuing to expand our knowledge and reach for the skies.

An enormous thanks to @schierholz@bethbeck@nasatweetup, and the rest of the #NASATweetup crew. I’ve never seen a team so perfectly harness social media, and create such a smooth-running event. I’m still amazed it’s not even their primary job responsibility. Like every NASA employee we met, you can sense the passion in what they do. As the space program enters a time of transition, it’s heartening to know that folks like this are helping keep the excitement and wonder in the public eye.

NASATweetup Day 2, Part 1: Ground Control to @Astro_Ron

On Friday, July 8, #NerdForceOne hit the road at 2:15 am to get to Kennedy Space Center before the roads clogged with cars for the 11:26 am launch. We weren’t allowed through the KSC gate until 5 am, so we met up with other Tweeps in the parking lot at the Press Accreditation Center. When we arrived around 3:30 am, there was already an Atlantis launch tailgate party in full force. The awesome @lartist decorated our car for the event.

When we arrived at KSC, I remembered seeing a row of tripods already lined up along the water the day before, so @MituK and I decided we should hurry straight to the countdown clock and grab a spot first thing. When we got to the waterline, we were greeted by a beautiful view of Atlantis poised for launch.

The morning program started at 6:30 am with a demonstration of the robotic refueling experiment planned to take place during the Atlantis mission, as well as a talk by Bob Crippen, who flew on STS-1, the very first Space Shuttle launch. I got a chance to ask Crippen about the ejection seats on the initial Shuttle test flights. It turns out that they would have only been useful had there been a problem during landing. An ejection during launch would likely have resulted in the astronauts passing through the solid rocket booster exhaust, which wouldn’t have been… pleasant. (Trivia: Two of the reusable SRB segments on the final Space Shuttle launch were actually used on STS-1.)

What I thought would be the pre-launch highlight was the chance to go out to the road near the VAB and wave at the astronauts as the passed by in the Astrovan on the way to the launch pad. It was awesome to wave at people who would be in space a few hours later, but little did I know an even bigger pre-launch thrill was coming up soon.

The morning fun continued with @SethGreen introducing a music theme for Atlantis created by Battlestar Galactica composer @BearMcCreary. We also got a chance to listen to astronaut Tony Antonelli, pilot of Atlantis’ previous flight, STS-132. A stark reminder of the next few years of America’s manned space program: Antonelli is currently learning Russian in hopes of being able to return to the ISS on a Soyuz rocket.

Around two hours before launch, there was a break in the program and they announced that they’d be escorting groups to the NASA cafeteria. I headed outside and ran into NASA’s @bethbeck and asked if the group milling around outside of the Twent was waiting to go to the cafeteria. “No,” she said, “they’re talking to @Astro_Ron.”

“Ron Garan?” I said, noticing folks standing in a circle across from me passing around a typical everyday iPhone 3GS in a flower-covered case, “but, isn’t he on the Space Station?” Beth smiled. “Yes.”

I immediately and enthusiastically stepped into the circle as fellow tweeps excitedly talked to Ron. As the phone started heading my direction, the person handing it off said “He said he’s got about one more minute.” Panic! Will I come thisclose to talking to space? Just before the phone reached him, I grabbed the camera from the guy standing next to me and said “I’ll take a picture of you talking to space, but make it quick!” Being awesome like every person I met this week, he said “sure.” He talked for about 25 seconds, I took his pic, and he handed me the phone.

Having spent a couple of decades as a journalist, I don’t typically get starstruck. I’ve interviewed some of the very best game designers, well-known actors, talented special effects artists, and respected scientists. I have great respect for what they do, but when you talk with them, you realize that even folks who’ve made great accomplishments are people like you and me, so no need to be nervous.

But this time, I had to really focus not to stammer or drop into raving fanboy mode. Astronauts are already the folks who are most likely to make me starstruck. But this astronaut was about to talk to me from the bleeding International Space Station. Over 200 miles up. And it wasn’t just any astronaut (like you can use the phrase “just any astronaut”), this was Ron Garan. Ron is one of the founders of, an awesome web site that uses the experience of viewing Earth from space to promote actively working to protect the future of the planet below.

An absolutely terrible picture of me, but I don't care, because I'm talking on the phone to an astronaut on the International Space Station!

I gathered my remaining wit as as the phone was passed to me and said quickly, “Hi Ron, this is Denny Atkin, @dennya on Twitter. Just wanted to say it’s an honor to talk to you up there, and that I’m a huge fan of” Garan said hello, and told me he appreciated that, and how important it is to get the site’s message across. “Absolutely,” I said, “and I’ll continue to promote it whenever I can.” I than thanked him and passed the phone on to the next tweep so she’d have a chance to talk to him.

At that point, I was positively, ridiculously giddy with excitement. I’d talked to one of my astronaut heroes, and he was in space when I did it. That’s a pretty damned rare and special treat for any space fan.

As I floated on air over towards the cafeteria, someone joked to our escort that she hoped Garan didn’t have roaming charges up there. She said the call was done via Voice Over IP, and that the ISS shows up on the call as a Houston exchange.

It was surely the most “long-distance” call I’ll ever be on, and definitely the most memorable.

#NASATweetup, Day 1, Part 2: A Visit to the Launch Pad

As the presentation wrapped up, the weather was not looking good at all for launch the next day. I’ve been through two hurricanes, and those were the only times I can remember more intense rain. Lightning struck the Shuttle launchpad during this storm, and NASA TV had to shut down its coverage of the Tweetup.

A bit after noon, the weather cleared up a bit, and we broke for lunch. On our way back from the KSC Cafeteria, we encountered NASA’s “Tertiary Security System” in one of the drainage ditches near the Vehicle Assembly Building parking lot.

Next up, we boarded a group of our buses to begin our behind-the-scenes tour of Kennedy Space Center. We had heard that previous Tweetup had been able to see the Rotating Service Structure being rolled back to unveil the Shuttle before launch. And sure enough, our first stop was the fence just outside of the Shuttle launch pad perimeter! We were mere hundreds of feet from Atlantis. The space geek excitement was palpable.

However, what we could see was the launch pad, the external tank and solid rocket boosters, and the RSS wrapped securely around Atlantis.

The original scheduled time for the RSS retraction was 2 pm, and we’d arrived around 2:40. The weather and lightning strike had delayed the RSS retraction, and we were worried we were going to miss the chance to see the Space Shuttle up close. Would it retract before we had to roll at 3:15? After some excruciatingly subtle movements, the RSS started moving quickly, swinging around to unveil the Space Shuttle Atlantis!

It’s awesome that the retired shuttles will be on display in museums, but it’s a shame nobody will ever see the full “stack” with the tank and SRBs, because I gotta tell you, it’s impressive. At 184 feet tall, the Shuttle stack is more than 30 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. Seeing it in person, it seemed inconceivable that that huge assembly was about to go straight up at thousands of miles an hour.

Everyone was passing around cameras shooting Facebook profile pictures with the Space Shuttle in the background—even though most of us were quite a sight with the 90+ degree weather and 90%+ humidity. After a group shot, we boarded the buses and hit the road.

STS-135 Tweetup participants are seen outside launch pad 39a and space shuttle Atlantis following the Rotating Service Structure rollback, Thursday, July 7, 2011, at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.About 150 NASA Twitter followers attended the event. The STS-135 mission will be NASA's last space shuttle launch. Photo Credit: (NASA/Paul E. Alers)

As we drove away from the pad, we stopped briefly to get a great look at the shuttle from another vantage point.

The next stop was the Saturn V Center, where Americans can pay tribute to how our government saves money: Spend hundreds of millions of dollars building moon rockets, and then save tens of millions by not actually launching them! Actually, though hearing Apollo 18-20 were cancelled when I was in second grade may have been the first time I ever got annoyed with our government, I have to admit I’m glad to have gotten the chance to see a Saturn V in person. At double the height of the Space Shuttle stack, it’s an amazing feat of engineering. If you’re ever at Kennedy Space Center, don’t just go to the Visitor’s Center, be sure to take the tour to see this amazing rocket. You’ll also get the chance to touch a moon rock, view a space suit that walked on the moon, and much more.

Our final stop of the day was another special one: the Vehicle Assembly Building, the amazing structure where the Saturn V rockets were assembled, and where the Space Shuttle was stacked onto its boosters. It used to be the world’s largest building by volume (now eclipsed by the Boeing factory in my current home state), but it’s still the largest “one-story” building in the world, and is a breathtaking structure. Click here for a 360-degree panorama I shot with my iPhone.

As the VAB tour concluded, with the weather still gloomy and a chance that the weather would be so bad that NASA would decide that not not to even fuel the shuttle, we asked our NASA guide what the plan would be for the Tweetup tomorrow if the launch was scrubbed. “If there are any schedule changes,” he said, “we’ll let you know via the @NASATweetup Twitter feed and via e-mail.” Despite the 30-percent chance of favorable launch weather, they weren’t going to use the “s” word.

#NASATweetup, Day 1, Part 1: The Twent

The fun actually started the night before, as we arrived at the Orlando La Quinta UCF, redesignated “Aquarius House” for the event. A number of us got together and headed out for dinner together. As you might expect from a group that found its way to the event via Twitter, we had a bit of a mutual smartphone problem…

Tuesday morning arrived with a 5 am meetup time to hit the road, so not a lot of sleep was had.  We arrived to find a large sign pointing our way, and our very own air-conditioned Tweetup tent, or as the Tweeps called it, the “Twent.”

Our morning started with all 150 Tweetup participants introducing themselves. The variety of participants was impressive: a planetary scientist, PhD game researcher, comic artist, movie composer, actor, game website editor (cough), meteorologists, TEDx organizers, and all kinds of other interesting careers. Here’s @lartist@celticfeminist, and @mituk, AKA the other riders in the carpool we designated #NerdForceOne.

Our morning program started with a star-studded program of amazingly interesting NASA folks, including Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. At around 11:30, they started broadcasting the Tweetup on NASA TV, and our special guests arrived: Astronauts Mike Massimino (@Astro_Mike) and Douglas Wheelock (@Astro_Wheels). I got a chance to shake hands with @Astro_Mike before the program started. There is apparently no longer a height limit for astronauts. (I’m just under 5’11”)

Massimino and Wheelock were joined on stage by Sesame Street’s Elmo for a question-and-answer session. (Here’s a portion of it on YouTube.) It was hilarious and a bit surreal. The questions were a mix of space queries for the astronauts as well as more down-to-earth queries for Elmo. My favorite line, after a question to the astronauts about the taste of space food, was when Elmo replied “Elmo really loves wasabi. That’s why Elmo has no eyelids.”

Alas, Elmo and Massimino had to leave after the Q&A was complete, but Doug Wheelock was able to stay for an additional Q&A session that included some of the most vivid descriptions of spaceflight that I’ve heard yet. I was able to ask him what the reentry experience was like. (And apparently friends saw me on NASA TV doing so.) You often hear of the violence of launch, but I’d never heard a good description of what it’s like to return to Earth. Listening to Wheels describe it was fascinating. He’s a truly inspirational speaker, and I commented after the event that if they’d just force Congress to sit down and listen to him, they’d fund weekly manned launches just to go up themselves.

We found out after we returned that we were lucky to have Wheels there at all. He’s an active-duty Colonel in the Army, and with the Shuttle program winding down, he’s going back on duty in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Luckily for us, a paperwork issue caused his deployment to be delayed, and he was able to be there for the launch. For once, we can be thankful for bureaucracy.

But the truly lucky one was a little boy who was there to see the launch. The following photo and story comes from @Astro_Wheels’ Twitter feed. I’m copying it here in case TwitPic ever purges it. I’ll let it speak for itself.

Are you the one? You never know when you’ll encounter an angel. I was at the Banana Creek viewing area to watch the launch last Friday, and was signing pictures and hats and shirts…and answering questions. A little boy stood patiently beside me, held my hand tightly for several minutes, and when it was his turn I knelt to talk with him. He only said a few words but for several minutes he felt my hair, and mapped the contours of my face with his little fingers. He looked at every detail of the patches on my flight suit, and drew the lines of each patch as if he were memorizing the design. Then he just gave me a hug and wouldn’t let go. One of those moments that blesses my life and touches my soul.

I found out yesterday that this little guy was sent to Florida through ‘Make-A-Wish’, a wonderful organization that makes dreams come true for children with life-threatening medical conditions. This little boy’s wish was to meet an Astronaut and watch a Space Shuttle launch. just never know… 

Ever told your child, We'll do it tomorrow?
And in your haste, Not see his sorrow? 
Ever lost touch, Let a good friendship die...Cause you never had time? 
You'd better slow down. Don't dance so fast. 
Time is short. The music won't last.

When you run so fast to get somewhere...You miss half the fun of getting there.
When you worry and hurry through your day, 
It is like an unopened gift...Thrown away. 
Life is not a race. Do take it slower…
Hear the music...Before the song is over.

-- Douglas H. Wheelock @Astro_Wheels