The Future, Soon

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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. So…you 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


How YOU Can Participate in #NASATweetup

In just two days I’ll be enjoying one of the best birthday presents a guy like me could dream of: A backstage tour of Kennedy Space Center, a chance to meet key players in the Space Shuttle and ISS programs, Q&A sessions with Space Shuttle astronauts Mike Massimino (@Astro_Mike), Douglas H. Wheelock (@Astro_Wheels), and Robert Crippen, and much more. And weather-willing, the trip will be capped by a chance to see the final flight of the Space Shuttle program as I and 153 other lucky #NASATweetup selectees watch the launch from the closest possible site, the press area a mere three miles from the launchpad.

Mike Massimino

Amusingly, our program also includes a visit from Elmo of @SesameStreet fame, as everyone’s favorite toddler Muppet interacts with @Astro_Mike as part of an educational program that’s being filmed during the Tweetup.

How to “Watch” the Tweetup

I feel honored an amazingly lucky to have been (randomly!) selected from over 5,500 applicants to attend the STS-135 #NASATweetup. As excited as I am about this, I’m of course sad that this is the last chance anyone will get to view a Shuttle launch. But even if you weren’t selected for the Tweetup, you can still share in the behind-the-scenes fun in a number of ways.A portion of the Tweetup will be televised on Thursday morning on NASA TV, which you can watch over the Internet at and Starting at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, July 7, 2011, you’ll be able to view the Tweetup participants talking with NASA’s Bill Gerstenmaier, followed by Elmo interviewing STS-109/STS-125 Astronaut Mike Massimino. And of course, you can also use that link to view the actual launch at 11:26 am EDT on Friday, July 8.And as you’d expect from a Tweetup, you’ll find tons of impressions, fun facts, pictures, and videos on Twitter! Here are some resources to follow:

  • @dennya – That’s me!
  • STS-135 Launch – You can view all the posts from the 154 #NASATweetup selectees.
  • @NasaTweetup – the official NASATweetup Twitter feed, where you can also find out about future Tweetup opportunities for unmanned launches, lab tours, and more!

In addition to this blog, a number of other attendees will be blogging about the event as well. You view the full list at the Wiki.Finally, If you’re an Xbox 360 owner, you can get primed for the launch by checking out the “Celebrate the Space Shuttle” experience in the Spotlight channel on Xbox LIVE. Check out my blog entry over on for details!

There are mistakes, and there are MISTAKES…

I custom-designed a t-shirt, including my avatar and the awesome #NASATweetup logo created by the awesome artist Lar DeSouza, for next week’s Shuttle launch.

This is what I ordered:

A #nasatweetup-appropriate shirt

THIS is what I received:

NOT a #NASATweetup-appropriate shirt.

Do I really have to mention I am not amused by this?

I’ll refrain from posting the company’s name until I see how they handle the customer service issue. If they can get me the shirts I ordered by Tuesday, hey, mistakes happen, and no need to call them out.

Let’s hope… I’d just really, really rather wear the top shirt.


[Edit: came through with a replacement shirt in just a couple of days. Phew!]

Atlantis: We’re Go for Launch

(Viewing, that is)

On July 8, 2011, it’s expected that over a million people will travel to Florida’s Space Coast to watch the final launch of the Space Shuttle program. I’m super-excited to be one of them, watching not from Titusville (about 13 miles away, where my son and I watched Atlantis launch in Nov. 2009), the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex (7.5 miles away, but with no direct view of the launchpad), nor the NASA Causeway (6.7 miles away, but only a lucky few thousand were able to get tickets.)

Along with just 151 other very lucky people, I’ll be watching the launch from the Press Area at Kennedy Space Center, a mere 3-ish miles from the launch pad. We’re guests of NASA, selected from over 5,500 applicants to attend the very last Space Shuttle launch #NASATweetup. The day before the launch, our group will get a special tour of KSC, including the chance to meet some of the folks who work on the Shuttle program, and hopefully some astronauts as well. Then, on launch day, we’ll be on the lawn with the countdown clock that you see on network launch coverage.

The STS-135 crew, and a willing stowaway

When NASA announced they’d be collecting names for a chance for the Tweetup, I set a reminder in my Outlook calendar to apply, but I never dreamed I’d be selected, particularly after hearing over 5,500 people had applied. So when I opened my e-mail on June 10 to see a message with “NASA Tweetup” in the title, my brain automatically filled in the “We’re sorry to inform you…” when I started to read the e-mail. But those words weren’t actually there.  Instead, I saw this:

Dear Dennis Atkin,

Congratulations, you have been selected to attend the NASA Tweetup on July 7-8 for space shuttle Atlantis’ targeted launch at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida! The event will provide you the opportunity to speak with shuttle technicians, engineers, astronauts, and managers, and to experience the launch of space shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station.

Once I caught my breath, I immediately went down the hall to inform my lead that I was going to need some unplanned vacation time! And to share my excitement with anyone who’d stand still long enough to listen.  I think the only person who could have been moreexcited would have been my 10-year-old self, if I could travel back in time to tell him this would be happening. (Actually, my 10-year-old self would probably glare at me and respond, “WTF? You mean I’m not an astronaut when I’m 45?”)

I can’t express how enthused I am about this, nor how much I appreciate the opportunity NASA has given me here. It’s literally the opportunity of a lifetime. That it’s the last launch is somewhat bittersweet, of course, and there’s always the chance that a flight delay could cause me to miss the actual launch. But even the chance to tour KSC and meet the people who’ve accomplished so much in our space program will more than make the trip worthwhile. Not to mention the chance to hang out with the group of seriously fun, smart, and enthused fellow space nuts I’ve met virtually through our Facebook  Tweetup planning group.

I was four years old Apollo 11 landed on the moon. It’s one of my earliest memories. I was at the babysitter’s house, and they quickly shot down my claim that I’d “seen this show before” when I tried to convince them to change the channel to a kid’s show. That was the start of my fascination with the space program, and I clearly remember raptly watching the later moon shots. Then came Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz, and then the triumphs and tragedies of the Space Shuttle program.

In 2009 I was in Florida with my then-six-year-old son when Atlantis was schedule to launch.  We decided we had to at least try to watch the launch. We found an abandoned apartment complex parking lot on the water across the street from a Krystal, bought a bag of cheeseburgers, and sat down for a few-hour wait. I spent the morning setting his expectations for a probable delay, so that he wouldn’t be disappointed. I did a good job convincing myself as well, so when the countdown continued, we were both super-excited.

Here’s our very shaky video, shot with a Canon Elph pocket camera. I made a point not to look at the camera LCD while shooting—I wanted to actually see the launch—so apologies for the quality. There’s much better footage, but I’m glad I have this just because it captures our excitement, particularly after Carter actually spotted the Shuttle in the air.

My only disappointment is that I can’t bring Carter with me to share this. But with the group that will be there, I’m certain we’ll have hundreds of photos, hours of video, and lots of impressions to share with him and the rest of the next generation of space fans.

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