Is that an Atlas V-551 in your pocket, or are you just happy to be here?   Leave a comment

I had a fantastic once-in-a-lifetime experience last weekend, the highlight of which was seeing the launch of the Juno mission to Jupiter atop an Atlas V-551 rocket up close and personal, from the press area at the Kennedy Space Center.

Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle, this rocket is a prime contender for heavyweight champion of NASA’s fleet. In its maximum configuration, with all five solid rockets attached (hence the 5 series) asymmetrically around a liquid-fueled core, it puts out a hefty 2.5 million pounds of thrust, and one hell of a smoke trail, and it gets off the pad in a hurry!

I was one of 150 Twitter users (Tweeps) NASA picked from I’m not sure how many thousands of entrants to see the launch from the press area — the lawn near the countdown clock — have Q&As with rocket scientists and engineers and astrophysicists, and get a tour of the Kennedy Space Center. The collection of events is called a Tweetup, which rhymes with “lead-up,” and is a brilliant creation of their social networking team. They did not disappoint.

We had to foot our own bill for transportation, lodging, and meals (so there were a lot of relative locals from DC and points south), but people came from 26 states and 6 foreign countries and were quite excited to do so, because the access was unprecedented.

I literally jumped at the opportunity. We all sent press releases to our local media, and some of us even got calls from local TV stations to do interviews. I was one of those people, and I got an email from a reporter at the Seattle ABC affiliate, KOMO. Big-time.

I had a 6 AM flight out of SeaTac and had pulled an all-nighter, driving two hours from Bellingham and hanging out with some friends before getting to the airport the prescribed two hours early. Noooo problem for this reporter, Marlee Ginter, who started her day at 2:30AM. Crazy. She was glad to meet me at 3:45 outside departures. She asked me questions and we talked for about five minutes, and the cameraman went inside to get some shots of me shlepping through the terminal on zero hours of sleep.

Marlee is a petite (5′ maybe?) woman with a great voice and a genuine million-dollar smile. I may actually time-shift KOMO’s morning show and take a rest from the political b*llsh*t on msnbc every once in awhile – I’ll have to see how that works out through election season….

Anyway, she made me feel very comfortable, and I recorded all the KOMO local news shows from the time I left until I returned, and they were nice enough to have made me the feel-good story of the day twice — both the day I left and the day after the launch, when we did a followup interview over the phone. So I owe her a debt of gratitude. And the studio anchors who did nice lead-ins. And whomever cut out or didn’t record the scene where I’m going through my bag like a madman searching for my passport.

A lot of people who know me apparently saw one or more of the broadcasts, because I’ve been getting calls and messages via various media for the past week. It’s nice to know I’ve put a smile on some people’s faces; it really didn’t take any effort. I wish I won the lottery; I’d hear from even more people. (You know who you are….)

I enjoyed watching people who’d grown up watching Bill Nye the Science Guy, our last speaker, as he answered questions, hung around to watch the launch with us, and do a Skype broadcast; and then took pictures & signed autographs for a bunch of people as well. I’ve been an autograph collector for a long time, but I decided to skip on that one in favor of a seat closer to the air-conditioning unit.

The whole event was televised on NASA-TV; I haven’t had a chance to look back on it yet and get all the names and affiliations down right because I was so in awe of every one of the speakers. Charles Bolden, the NASA Adinistrator, a four-time Shuttle pilot, and the man who launched the Hubble Telescope, took time to meet with us and answer questions, most of which I’m sure he’d heard before; he even stayed around to take a group picture with us.

Group Photo of #NASAJuno Tweeps

It was extremely gracious of Bolden to spend that kind of time with us; it was a damn busy week for him, and a very good one, as Thursday, the day our Tweetup started, NASA had announced they’d found proof of liquid water on Mars. Major breaking news in the building right across the parking lot.

And it wasn’t like the launch was on autopilot Friday either. Minor problems came up, small delays became bigger delays, some schmuck took his pleasure boat into restricted waters and had to be shooed off by the Air Force, and for a while it was looking pretty gloomy for a Friday launch. So, if I had butterflies before the launch, I know Bolden had to.

But the Atlas rocket lifted off at 12:25PM, with 40 minutes left in a 90-minute launch window, and by the time 24 hours had gone by, Juno had already gone beyond the moon’s orbit and was speeding off on its two-year loop toward Mars, and then back towards earth, where it will pick up a gravity boost and shoot out towards Jupiter in just three years, becoming the fastest man-made object in history. The earth fly-by is set to occur on July 4th, 2013, and with its huge solar array, we may get a good chance to see it when it does.

Juno will arrive at Jupiter in 2016, go into a polar orbit and make 33-35 passes before being “de-orbited” (intentionally crashed) into the planet so as not to contaminate Europa or the other Jovian moons.

So, that was the end of the organized portion of my trip. I set out on my own to see the KSC Visitor Center and all its exhibits on Saturday, and returned home Sunday night, where it was a comfortable 61 degrees. Interesting factoid which seems to be based in truth: Take the temperature in Florida, add the temperature of an ice cube (32 degrees), divide by two, and that’s the temperature in Bellingham.

Most interesting thing I learned on this trip: To propel yourself in a zero-G environment, you blow out puffs of air. Newton’s Third law will tell you that you will move in the opposite direction. (Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.) Taking that a step further, in order to use a toilet in zero-G, not only must there be suction to replace the force of gravity, but the user must strap himself (or herself) to the seat in order to prevent unscheduled lift-offs. You learn something new every day.

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