Five years ago today, I flew to Florida to witness my first space launch, the liftoff of Space Shuttle Atlantis on mission STS-129. Aboard the Shuttle were NASA astronauts Charlie Hobaugh (“Scorch”), Butch Wilmore, Leland Melvin (@Astro_Flow), Randy Bresnik, Michael Foreman (@foreman_mike), and Robert Satcher (@Astro_Bones). The trip, made possible by NASA’s tweetup program (which began in January 2009 and continues today under the name NASA Social), fulfilled my lifelong dream of witnessing a Shuttle launch with my own eyes. The experience also reignited my love of space exploration and human spaceflight, and made me want to actively nurture that interest in others. I will be forever grateful to NASA and the NASA Social program for the opportunities they have given me. Today, I even have the great privilege of working with one of the crew members from the mission — Leland Melvin, now the President of Spaceship Earth Grants (@SEGrants).
NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore, the Pilot of STS-129, is currently the Commander of the International Space Station, having assumed command from Russian cosmonaut Maksim Surayev (@MSuraev) on November 8, 2014.
As I imagine astronauts experience, I was far too excited to sleep the night before STS-129’s launch. As a result, I was still wide awake when Jon Belmont asked via Twitter, on behalf of Associated Press (AP) Radio News, if any NASATweetup attendees would be available to do a short interview. It was 3 AM Eastern time. I replied, “I’m up,” and the next thing I knew, I was doing my first-ever radio interview.
By 5:30am on launch day, I had given up any hope of sleeping and departed my Port Canaveral hotel to find a 24-hour McDonald’s for breakfast before heading to the official NASATweetup rally point fifteen minutes away. Needless to say, I arrived before the official NASA representatives. As it is, I have a policy of always being early wherever I go, and when it’s my first Shuttle launch, I figured there really is no such thing as being “too early”.
In 2009, NASA was still new to the business of inviting the general public behind-the-scenes to NASA facilities for launches. In fact, STS-129 was the first time they had ever done so! As a result, they were justifiably cautious, designating a park miles away from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) as the tweeps’ rally point, and we were then transported by bus onto KSC property. Five years later, with a total of almost 100 NASATweetup and NASA Social events having been held since January 2009, Social attendees now have the privilege of being badged with the same access as the media receives. At KSC events, they are now permitted to drive their personal vehicles on designated areas of KSC property. Trust me, there is nothing quite like driving toward the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and parking at the historic press site parking area, or anywhere else at the space facility. If you ever receive the invitation, cherish and treat it with the respect it deserves! You are a trusted guest walking on hallowed ground that’s seen the birth and continuing evolution of our nation’s government and commercial space programs.
45 Years Ago, Today (November 14, 1969) — Apollo 12, the sixth crewed flight in the Apollo program and the second to land on the Moon, launched from the same launch pad as Space Shuttle Atlantis did on STS-129 (LC-39A at Cape Canaveral, FL).
I could easily write an entire post just about the incredible speakers NASA lined up to talk to us both days of the event, including: scientists like Jon Cowart (@Rocky_Sci), science communicators like Veronica McGregor (@VeronicaMcG & @MarsCuriosity, among others) and Miles O’Brien (@MilesOBrien), former NASA officials like Wayne Hale (@WayneHale), and astronauts like Mike Massimino (@Astro_Mike)! We touched actual space hardware and space age compounds like aerogel, toured working space facilities, and — the highlight — visited Space Shuttle Atlantis as she stood on the launch pad, poised for liftoff less than 24 hours later.
Most of us would have returned home grinning even if a weather or mechanical delay had forced Atlantis to remain on the pad. As members of the first-ever launch tweetup, we were particularly mindful that anything could happen! The fact that our event culminated in a flawless launch on a beautiful day highlighted how fortunate we all were to be there.
If you’re interested in seeing more about NASA’s first-ever launch tweetup, explore the STS-129 NASA Tweetup Flickr Gallery featuring photos from all of the event’s attendees. Although somewhat dated by the passage of time, the Scoop.it site I created for the event documents some of the articles and media coverage we generated.
Sometimes video provides a better sense of an experience, so I am sharing several videos I shot for myself, my husband, and our then-2.5 year old daughter, both of whom remained back home in San Antonio, Texas, while I experienced the joy of launch. The videos are not polished, but to this day I think they most accurately convey the sense of awe, gratitude, and love I have for NASA after having this incredible privilege to experience the launch in person:
- STS-129 Space Shuttle Atlantis Lifts Off
- Post STS-129 Launch Tweetup Observations & Emotions
- STS-129 NASATweetup Attendees Thank NASA for the Event (prior to launch)
Special thanks to the NASA (@NASA) and NASA Social (@NASASocial) teams, Stephanie Schierholz (@Schierholz), Veronica McGregor (@VeronicaMcG), Beth Beck (@BethBeck), Bob Jacobs (@bnjacobs), Leland Melvin (@Astro_Flow) and the rest of the STS-129 crew, and my fellow STS-129 NASATweetup alumni for being a part of what remains one of the single most transformative experiences of my life.
Ad astra per aspera!