How Could Something So Wonderful Be So Bittersweet? February 28, 2011Posted by craftlass in Discovery, events, NASA, NASAtweetup, space, SpaceTweeps, travel, Twitter.
2/24/2011. Day 115 of the STS-133 NASATweetup. A most beautiful day in Florida, at the press site of Kennedy Space Center. Most of us had gathered the night before to watch the Rotating Service Structure retract on Pad 39A, revealing the naked shuttle beneath, a most glorious sight to see and something we were supposed to do in November but were unable to. One of several reasons I’m actually glad that Discovery didn’t launch on time, in retrospect. However, a few people couldn’t make it in on time for the retraction, so launch day (was it really going to be a launch day this time?) was the first time all of us who could return were together again and that alone was wonderful enough to fill my heart with sheer joy.
I was actually quite surprised at how many in our group were still completely unknown to me. We hadn’t met on Twitter, hadn’t met at the original tweetup, and I still haven’t met some of them.
On the other hand, there were piles of people who I’d met in November who had become friends, some extremely close and getting closer. It had the air of a family reunion only better because we were about to see one of the coolest things you can see in 2011!
This was to be my 2nd shuttle launch. STS-131 was my first and it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, right before dawn so it had the beauty of a night launch with a nearly-unique quality of creating essentially two sunrises in rapid succession. Yes, that’s how bright the shuttle is when you’re only 3 miles away from the pad! Blinding, breathtaking, and utterly exhilarating even before the ground rumbles and the shockwaves hit you.
This time I was a little more prepared for how quickly it all happens and how gloriously intense it is. What I wasn’t prepared for was how different it would be to share the experience with people I love, not just one good friend and two new acquaintances.
Most of us arrived very, very early, almost as early as we were allowed in. Since we’d pretty much blown NASA’s budget for our tweetup last time (they had to keep our tent and everything all week instead of for two days) we were going to have no real facilities, just some bleachers and a charging station in the midst of the press site. None of us cared. We packed up coolers full of food and drinks, some brought along camp chairs, we shared sunblock and bug spray and whatever else we had. We even had some friends not in our tweetup hanging out, as they were officially press, which added to the general community feel. I have never before felt so surrounded by people I care about. I probably never will again.
The remarkable hero to us all, Stephanie Schierholz, had once again gone above and beyond, arranging for speakers just as good or even better than the ones we had last time. Astronaut Shannon Walker talked about her experience on the Soyuz and the International Space Station, which was still fresh to her as she only returned last Thanksgiving. NASA’s Chief Technologist, Bobby Braun, talked about plans for fresh innovation and the future of human spaceflight. We got another demonstration from the Robonaut 2 team, this time with his fresh new wheels. To top it all off with whipped cream and cherries we had former astronaut and current Associate Administrator for Education at NASA, Leland Melvin, who was there to talk about education, naturally, but also regaled us with stories from his days on the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys as well as “secret” tales of life in space. None of them seemed to want to stop talking to us, our gang had tons of great questions and you could tell they enjoyed being so appreciated.
In between, we had a lot of fun just catching up, hugging a lot, getting way too much sun, waving to the astronauts in the Astrovan on their way to the pad, and just generally being silly and overexcited space geeks. When Melvin finally got pulled away we had a bit more time to finish setting up tripods, grab a snack, and figure out where we wanted to be for launch.
Last time I stayed at the first house formed, known as the Big House. I’ve gone on and on about what a family we became, both in prose here and in song, so I won’t bore you with that story again. This time there were some complications and I wound up in Lambda House, another wonderful mix of people I already adore and some I hadn’t met. Two very different experiences, both fantastic. However, missing my Big House tweeps led me to choosing to spend the launch with them. Andy Cochrane made sure I was front and center for the launch (after all, I’m the shortest of us all…) and I loaned him a tripod since I wasn’t taking pictures or video myself. That’s just what family does, right? (For a real treat, listen to Andy’s audio from the event, it will blow your mind, especially if you’ve never been that close to a launch!)
Most of the people around me had never seen a launch of any large rocket before and their energy was extra-infectious as the big countdown clock ticked it’s way towards 0. The surprising thing about the press site is that very little news was reaching our ears so when we finally heard that there was a computer glitch turning launch status to red we were so nervous! I pulled up NASA TV on my phone but as I was on 3G it was a bit delayed, but better than no information. Phylise Banner, our dear Mothership, grabbed her ham radio so we could listen. They added a highly unusual T-5 minute hold to try to fix the glitch. As we heard, “45 seconds left in the window… 30 seconds left in the window… 10 seconds left in the window…” my heart sank. Could we bear another disappointment?
2 seconds before the window closed we saw the trademark smoke start billowing around the launch pad and everything else was completely forgotten. People started whooping and hollering up a storm, growing in strength as the the tower was cleared and it all became very, very real. We were watching Discovery make her last voyage off of the planet and we were doing this together! That dear orbiter, oldest left in the fleet, first to return us to space after each shuttle disaster, deliverer of Hubble, and temporary home to two astronauts I’d met just over a week earlier was going… going… gone.
It really does happen far too fast and the time seems even shorter when you are there. Adrenaline floods your body, for many of us tears filled our eyes, and a sense of true awe is palpable. There is nothing else like it in the world. Nothing.
Add in these very special people, and the experience goes from the best thing ever to something utterly incomprehensible in the most marvelous of ways.
I watched until she was out of eyesight, then watched a bit longer with my binoculars. I wanted this to go on forever.
Alas, it could not be.
I turned around and hugged Andy, then Talullah Kidd, then a whole bunch of us just piled onto each other in a massive group hug. I found myself in the same state as I was on the day Discovery scrubbed in November, laughing and crying in a chaotic mess of emotions. That struck me as odd at first until I realized that the launch meant this was all over. No more emails from Stephanie. No more planning needed. No reason that this precise group would be together again. Nothing concrete to tie us to each other.
Months of IMs, DMs, and Skype calls ran through my mind. Would all of us continue this even if we had no event to plan?
I like to think we will but the realist in me worries a bit. After all, I’ve lost touch with family and old friends without even a hint of regret. Emotions ran very high between the two parts to our tweetup.
I’m planning to hit the road to see these people and play music for those who wish me to. I’m going to do my part to keep these connections alive. There are even a few people who probably don’t realize what a profound effect they had on me, and these are the folks I wonder about the most.
It’s now been 119 days since our tweetup started officially. I’ve said goodbye to so many people already, including some that I’m having real trouble with parting from. I’m still on the Space Coast and having a great time, even as our numbers dwindle and the approach of “real life” sets in.
Memories and education are the two things no one can take from us and this tweetup has given me both in spades. No matter how hard re-entry may be I am so much better prepared for whatever comes next and I have a small army of support to keep me on track.
Not bad for an event created by a government agency almost no one wants to support, huh?