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 fragileoasis.org, 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 fragileoasis.org.” 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.