Today the very last shuttle was launched – Atlantis. In honor of the last shuttle flight, we have a guest post from my husband, who was lucky enough to be involved in one of NASA’s tweetups (May 16, 2010). Coincidentally, the May launch also happened to be Atlantis.

Atlantis Launch, STS-132

Of all the departments of the Federal government, NASA is probably the most open and public about new technologies. I mean, DARPA and CIA and NSA may be cutting edge, but none of those departments will have a Twitter “Tweetup” showing off (say) their workhorse cryptography-breaking supercomputer. Especially not to a group of 150 people who can instantly broadcast any passing thought to the world with a couple taps on a phone. I’m curious if the government would grant Secret or higher status to anyone who has a Twitter or Facebook or LJ account.

NASA, however, embraces the “new media” concept. After getting kicked around by budget cuts (1966 budget: 5.5% of Federal spending. 2010 budget: 0.52%), and the bigger issue of paradigm shifts between the oddly big-government and grandiose space vision of George W. Bush, then recently morphed by the oddly free-enterprise private-sector slant of Barack Obama, NASA sometimes seems simultaneously obsolete and cutting-edge. One NASA manager was asked this week, “What does NASA think about…”, and the response was, paraphrased, “NASA is 18,000 employees. Are you asking what does the average employee think? The astronauts? The engineers? The top-tier of Directors?”

I have to say the rank-and-file NASA employees (and a couple retirees that were there), were almost visibly bummed out by the back and forth between Ares/Constellation , and by the shuttle program ending. I overheard debates between employees just chatting amongst themselves, supposedly out of earshot (but not to a Tweeter/LJer!): “Should we go to Mars?” “Sure, if we can.” “I wouldn’t want to be on that ship for 2 years.” “Oh, definitely not, but I’d love to support it.” That sort of thing. It was fascinating. I went to an engineering school, RPI, and I remember seeing a disconnect from reality my freshman year when a campus bowling alley employee who handed me my Lysoled shoes never looked up from reading an article about the Uranus flyby (which was happening at the time). These people think about space travel all the time. But, they do it realistically, and probably more realistically than us space fanboys/fangirls at the tweetup think about this stuff. Mars? Sure (many of us Tweeters thought) it’s the next step past the moon, let’s do it. Mars? Well, we’re talking 2 1/2 years in a box, the NASA folks said worriedly, even in casual chats among themselves. Apollo was 3 days each way, and that was 40 years ago. Can we do that now?

The space shuttle is arguably the most complex piece of machinery mankind has invented. It never went to the moon like Apollo, or roamed on another planet several years beyond its designed life like the Mars rovers, or showed us the things that Hubble sees every day. But, it can launch something the size of a city bus, along with 7 or so people, and come back again to be used over and over. It put Hubble where it is. It brought up the majority of the International Space Station…even the parts that the Russians or the Canadians or the Japanese could build on the ground, but didn’t have the technology or funding or national will (or even national acceptance) to put into orbit.

On the other hand, throughout the life of the program, there were five shuttles and now there are three. That may be unacceptable. Or, in perspective, we’ve had it pretty easy when it comes to exploration throughout history: I wrote a little essay once after the loss of Columbia about how deadly early New World exploration really was:

As of Friday, there were three shuttle launches left before they’re retired. There’s some wiggle room for maybe one more mission (Atlantis, when it makes it back, will be prepped as a rescue mission should anything go wrong with the last two and could possibly be converted into a mission on its own), but for all practical purposes, the shuttle program is over after those three (or four) launches. Maybe a year or so ago the program could have been saved, but it’s closed now. There are no more external tanks, for example, and with the production plant closed and employees moved on to other things, it would essentially require creating a new company with all the government vetting and oversight and red tape that usually goes into that sort of approval process.

In other words, it’s not just a question of money. It’s a fact of how the government, and its contractors, create a program like the space shuttle, and with the main suppliers already shut down, it’s never going to start again.

Personally, I have some serious conflicts about the current state of NASA. On one hand, I think history has shown that private enterprise has done things more cheaply and efficiently than government. The current, tangible recession aside (almost entirely caused by private enterprise), there have been few milestones in government that have not been surpassed when private enterprise has caught up. On the other hand, one of the powers that government has is the ability to throw nearly unlimited amounts of money (our money) at a problem until it is solved.

Private enterprise is currently at the Freedom/Mercury level of NASA. Without government involvement, and sometimes in spite of it, private companies are currently putting civilians up to the edge of space, and putting satellites into orbit. Civilians are pretty far behind NASA — NASA has spacecraft past the heliopause, and private enterprise can barely get something to sit in geosynchronous orbit.

In some sense, this almost defines the mission of NASA (what kind of profit motive to investors does the heliopause provide?) On the other hand, there’s a lot of profit to be made in space, and maybe private enterprise should step in to reduce the inevitable bureaucracy and cash-sucking budgets against which government isn’t designed to care about. I mean, the President or the Director of NASA might decide that Pluto is a worthy subject to study (and I happen to agree). So, throw $650 billion or $750 billion at it. It’s just money already collected by the IRS. Solar power from space? A company would have to compete against coal and natural gas and nuclear plants already operating, no matter how environmentally friendly it is. But, if there’s already a private enterprise launch system in place, the private sector can start thinking about it: “Hmmmm, the startup costs are bad right now, but then again, it’s almost free power after that point. So at one point does it make sense to try?”

Setting aside the approach to mankind’s destiny for a bit, I had an interesting Thursday and Friday.

NASA decided to host a “tweetup” for Twitter people (#nasatweetup if you’re a Twitter person). Enter a lottery, and NASA would pick 150 Twitter people to watch the Atlantis space shuttle launch from the press area at Kennedy Space Center. Get there on your own, stay at a hotel on your own, but once you’re on site, they’d give us a show. Over 1000 Twitter people applied, and I happened to have been one of the ones chosen.

It was a little weird for me for a bunch of reasons. Firstly, I’m not much of a Twitter person. We have a Twitter account for FotoCuisine, mainly as a marketing tool for our website FotoCuisine. Up to that point, I’ve tweeted maybe twice. It doesn’t help that I was one of the founding engineers for the now defunct Utterz/Utterli, which was an early competitor to Twitter, and so I have a bit of technological rivalry/sour grapes about the whole thing.

Then again, I just got invited to meet astronauts and watch a shuttle launch from less than 5 miles (8km) away. I learned a new respect for Twitter very quickly.

We’ve seen shuttle launches from our backyard. In my life in Florida, I’ve probably seen over 40 of them, from here in Melbourne or Cocoa Beach or Orlando or Miami. The launch before this happened at the early hours of the morning, and, with two little kids, we didn’t watch it, though it woke us both up shaking the house. In a sense, being 25 miles from Kennedy, it’s part of the thrill and yet part of the day-to-day routine of living in Central Florida.

But, this tweetup was also the chance of a lifetime.

Following, is photos and commentary about the last couple days:

The VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building), where the shuttle is “mated” to the tanks and solid boosters, is one of the largest enclosed spaces in the world. It’s the height of the Washington Monument, and half the height of the Eiffel Tower. For some sense of scale, each of the stripes on the flag is the width of a highway lane. It’s big enough to have its own weather — on humid days, clouds form in the top and without special air conditioning, will condense water over the scaffolding and “rain” onto the lower areas. It’s big enough to be seen by pilots in Tampa, and from shuttle astronauts flying over in orbit. The press area is next to this building, and this is a shot from where I parked.

We had our own tent with WiFi and power strips at each table. See all those laptops? Each one more than surpasses the computing power of all of NASA combined during the Apollo program. Wonder what they would have thought if they would have seen this. Computers took up a room back then, and here we are, civilians.

This is one of the space suit designers. He started as an art major and kind of fell into space suit design. Cool guy. He would talk about flexibility and zipper placement at one point, then show off his watercolor paintings at another.

This is one of the hard shells that create one of the space suits used by shuttle astronauts. They come in small, medium, large, and extra large. No difference between male and female, though. He mentioned that some astronauts use padding in areas to prevent chafing and bumping.

They passed around actual space suit gloves and boots for us to play with. We weren’t allowed to actually put hands/feet/anything into the parts. Not sure if noses count.

They gave us a complimentary tour of the NASA grounds. They happened to have a Saturn V sitting around since the Apollo days.

I sat under one of the main engines for a while and tried to trace all the pipes. This is 1960s technology, no computer chips, very little wires, almost all of this was mech engineering. Supercooled fuel wound around the rocket exhausts to cool it, like antifreeze, before it found its way into the combustion chamber and was blasted. It was complex, and yet strangely elegant. And this was a one-shot deal — this whole noodle-like complex of pipes would be built, would then boost the whole thing up to second-stage, then it would get jettisoned and fall back to Earth and be destroyed.

This was the crew capsule from Apollo 14, the one that made it to the moon after the Apollo 13 disaster. Contrary to popular belief, the heat of re-entry isn’t from friction. It’s from compression of the atmosphere in front of the capsule. Think of an air-conditioner — the compressor compresses the freon (or whatever they use these days) into a small pipe, and it’s hot. It cools off outside your house or car, then the tubes expand and the gas expands and cools off, and that coolness gets circulated into your house or car. Now instead of the AC compressor squeezing some freon into a small tube, imagine how compressed the atmosphere gets when something at orbital velocity slams into the atmosphere. It squeezes the air into a pancake (perhaps a crêpe), and warms up the air to the same temperature as the surface of the sun.

Perhaps the coolest part of the tour, they took us to the shuttle launchpad itself to watch the…housing?… pull back. We were a few hundred yards/meters from the shuttle, at the very edge of the fence.

At the middle of the fence, below the shuttle itself, are some ground crew, for a bit of scale.

All around us were cameras behind bullet-proof glass, in steel housings. These are still-cameras. Film cameras were closer, but even more protected. I noticed the grass around us tended to bend noticeably away from the fence-line. Coincidence? On one hand, there are only a few launches a year, on the other, it’s quite a blast. Did it train the grass?

Me, with the shuttle housing pulled back in the background

This was from the bus, on the way back, from a different angle.

From the bus again, but this is the crawler tracks that brought the shuttle here from the VAB. The shuttle and crawler are too heavy for asphalt (it melts) or concrete (it cracks), so they use pebbles. Even the pebbles don’t really survive, and we saw piles of replacement rocks along the way.

Sign at the entrance of Kennedy on launch day! How exciting!

Extreme closeup of the countdown clock. I touched it. Perhaps there was a caress involved.

We were told that the (real) press had right-of-way. If anyone with (real) press credentials asked us to move, we were to move. I didn’t hear of anyone being asked to move.

Counting down.

The van taking the astronauts to the shuttle drove right past our spot. A helicopter preceded it, no doubt looking for godless anarchists.

A gentleman left the van and proceeded into a nearby building. I heard conflicting reports of this and never got a straight story — backup astronaut? (they were all quarantined, so a spare?) Program director? The uniform was astronaut, so I don’t know, except the rest of the astronauts speeded away to the pad

Ah, Florida. I was a little surprised to see this guy since alligators are more freshwater than saltwater, but here he was. Probably about 6-7 feet (2m).

Talk about a range of photographic equipment. We had everything from Canon’s latest to Ansel Adams over there in the middle.

Astronaut David Wolf talking about being locked out of Mir after the cargo ship collision. The airlock wouldn’t open and they had to improvise a way back into the station after over 14 hours in a spacesuit outside the station. He had all sorts of interesting trivia — Mir smelled bad, it was old and musty. The ISS and space shuttle are so scrubbed and sterile, there is no smell at all. After they land and walk out of the shuttle, every smell hits them in wave — green grass and concrete and everything.

This is the OSB2. Operational Service Building 2? NASA is full of TLAs (Triple-Letter-Acronyms) like most of the government, and there already was an OSB, so this was the new one, #2. The VIPs hung out on the roof to watch the launch, and apparently, David Letterman and his family were among the VIPs on launch day. I don’t see any khaki pants, my zoom wasn’t that good. We tweeted that he should stop by our tent, but alas.

I set up my spot on the edge of the waterline with my fellow tweeters.

Here it goes. The last minute or two up to this point, it’s like after standing in line at a roller coaster, and now you’re strapped in. It’s almost frightening with anticipation, even though we’re a few miles away, just watching. The point where you see the initial steam, it’s like the jerking start of the roller coaster. It’s huge and vivid and very, very fast.

Somewhere about here, the sound hits. And that’s kind of strange — it’s probably 10 seconds or so into launch maybe? At home, 25 miles south, the sound hits us a little over 2 minutes later, which is about right for the speed of sound. But 5 miles away should be 25-30 seconds. The exhaust is probably supersonic. Then again, time didn’t mean much at this point between the adrenaline.

And sound there was. Huge, huge rumbles and roars and louder and louder. The sub-sonic pulses pounded the ground, my feet were vibrating in my shoes, my chest was getting slap-slap-slap with each lick of the engines. As the shuttle started its roll, the exhaust was pointed more toward us, and the sound got louder than I ever expected.

Oddly, we were almost in the plane of the shuttle’s launch trajectory (it has to catch up with the International Space Station). So, we saw it go up, and then as it started to go past the curve of the Earth, the vapor trail caught up to itself.

We never saw the shuttle again as it was obscured by its own exhaust. It was mildly disappointing, because I would have loved to have caught the solid boosters falling off (I think I had the camera power), but it was hidden.

Afterward, the fire crew drove out, and we saw huge jets of water shooting at the structure. Cooling it down?

One of the observation helicopters let off someone at the helipad in front of the VAB and took off again.

Then, it was just a lot of traffic driving home.

There’s a lot more that happened, from political debates with NASA directors, to me asking astronaut Janice Voss what it was like to dream in space, and I’m sure I’ll be popping those stories up randomly as circumstances permit.

Amazing doesn’t cover it.