T+366 days

One year ago today, I was standing on a scruffy lawn in Florida, bleary-eyed from having slept an hour in the last 20–and feeling none of the fatigue accumulated from that sleep debt and compounded over an afternoon, evening and night of travel.

I don’t think there has been a day since May 16, 2011 when I haven’t thought about the mind-expanding experience of seeing a space shuttle launch for the first time.

First the waiting–welling up in the predawn hours from a kid’s Christmas Eve anticipation to the electricity in the stands at a baseball game before a walk-off home run for your team. The “oh my God, we’re really going to do this” moment at about T-15 seconds. Then the visceral jolt of seeing Endeavour’s rockets split the sky open with a sustained, brilliant flash of light, throwing that improbable machine into the clouds–and hearing and feeling the crackling avalanche of sound rush right up and over us.

The birth of our daughter was about as exciting–also experienced on near-zero sleep!–but I can’t think of much else that compares. Except for seeing the final shuttle launch with a press pass in July. (If you can get away with doing a once-in-a-lifetime thing twice without taking somebody else’s spot, do it; after taking the canonical launch photo on my first try, I could soak everything in the second time.)

Witnessing this controlled explosion didn’t last long, but I think if you ask any of the NASA Tweetup attendees who returned to the Kennedy Space Center for the launch after the scrub two weeks earlier, they’d all say it was one of the greatest moments of their lives. And that it taught something about endeavoring through adversity–or, at least, about the importance of avoiding short circuits in a Load Controller Assembly box.

I’ve retold this story dozens of times to friends and strangers, and I’m still trying to get the language right. Maybe I’m overthinking it. When I saw the Daily Show’s John Oliver do his comedy routine in March, he needed far fewer words than this post to convey his reaction to seeing the launch of Atlantis from the same KSC lawn: “Holy fucking shit!”

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Describing the indescribable: the sound of liftoff

As a student of the English language, I appreciate the challenge of trying to describe something that readers haven’t experienced. It’s an honor to have your words serve as your audience’s senses, and you don’t want to let them down.

Over the last week, I’ve been observing many writers tackle a particularly difficult task of description: conveying what it’s like to hear the space shuttle lift off.

Having been privileged to witness that twice, I can assure you that no recording does it justice. (I saw Endeavour lift off in May as an attendee of the Tweetup NASA organized for that STS-134 mission, then returned this month with a press pass to write about the STS-135 Tweetup experience at Atlantis’s final launch for Discovery News and, in an article I need to finish writing, for ReadWriteWeb.)

The microphones on a lot of consumer-level gadgets are woefully inadequate to capture the finer points of nearly 7 million pounds of thrust erupting from only three miles away. But even the best audio gear available can’t recreate the feel of the shock waves blasted through the air by that energy, rushing up at spectators and thumping them in the chest. You’d have to set off explosives; pending the Air and Space Museum’s IMAX theater acquiring an ordnance budget and a long series of regulatory waivers, words will have to do.

Which words, though? Although the immediate reaction of many Tweetup attendees was that none would suffice, they found their own in the days after the launch.

Sarah Boots:

It feels like soundwaves hitting you, more than it feels like hearing something. It was completely mad.

Travis Senor:

THE SOUND! It came at us like a wave, which you could almost see coming, and hit with enough force to act on us as though we were trees bowing in the wind.

Jason Snell (you may also know him as Macworld’s editorial director):

a loud crackling sound as the air was shattered by the forces of the shuttle’s three main engines and its two solid rocket boosters.

A friend on Facebook tried this:

an intense crackling, like someone shaking a metal sheet.

Jason Major:

a growing rumble that culminated in a deep, flapping roar that you could feel as much as hear.

Among the assembled press, Ars Technica’s Jonathan M. Gitlin may have had the most creative description:

The first analogy I could think of was a washing machine full of rocks mixed over the sound of tearing giant sheets of canvas.

And me? Here’s how I described it in May:

a relentless, thunderous crackling, rumbling across the sky and through our shirts

But when I wrote an e-mail to my wife the day after the liftoff of Atlantis, I reached for a metaphor:

like fireworks erupting closer and closer and faster and faster until they’re pounding you in the chest.

I’m sad that nobody else will be able to experience this. But how we reached that point is a subject for another post.

Until then: If you’ve had the tremendous fortune to witness a launch from up close, how would you describe that sound?

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NASA Tweetup: T-0 arrives

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER–I’d said I’d be back, and here I was after a day and night of travel that had included three airports, two flights, one border crossing and 120 miles of Florida highways.

But those nine hours aren’t important. What happened next is.

Launch day had begun with my waking up after maybe 45 minutes of fitful, futile sleep, then showering, getting dressed and heading over to the Kennedy Space Center.

Even at the dead hour of 3:30 in the morning, KSC showed no signs of slumber, with the pad and Endeavour bathed in floodlights, countdown announcements echoing off the pavement and the Vehicle Assembly Building and helicopters flying overhead.

Unlike the first attempt at launch, there was no comfortable tent for myself and the other attendees of the Tweetup NASA organized for the launch. Instead, we shivered on a set of increasingly damp metal bleachers with occasional breaks to share snacks and position tripods.

A few minutes after 5, our vigil was punctuated by the arrival of the “Astrovan” carrying the crew to the pad. This time, there was no U-turn signaling a scrub (gratifying the Tweetup attendees who brought handmade signs advising against going anywhere but the pad). After a retreat to a nearby press auditorium for a presentation about a planned test of an automated docking system–a somewhat difficult thing to focus on with the monitors next to the podium showing Endeavour’s crew getting strapped into the cabin–the sky lightened.

Layers of clouds moved in and out over the next two hours, giving the anxious among us–meaning all of us–reasons to worry about yet another scrub. But the decision from NASA at each time was the same: Go.

The last scheduled hold ended with nine minutes left, the countdown clock resumed ticking, and my heart promptly leapt higher in my throat than I would have thought possible. I walked over to my tripod and verified for the 20th time that I had the shuttle in frame and in focus.

That spot, on the nearest edge of the KSC press site to Pad 39A–only about three miles away–provided the closest view. But it also offered the least context. I could no longer see the countdown clock (though the photographer to my right had a countdown app on his phone) or hear the announcements.

With less than two minutes left, I observed through binoculars that NASA had retracted the “beanie cap” vent hood that covers the top of the external tank. But it wasn’t until the last 20 seconds were ticking away that everyone nearby began counting down aloud, and it all became even more gut-churningly real.

Ten… nine… eight… seven… six… somebody yelled “main engine start!”, and we knew the shuttle’s three engines had lit from the cloud of steam that erupted at the pad… five… four… three… two… one… an intense white light, bright as the hazy sun, shot through from the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters and Endeavour sprang off the pad.

For the first few seconds, the soundtrack was all human: cheers, whoops, applause. I did my part by shouting my fool head off–”Go, Endeavour!”–as I mashed the camera’s shutter button.

Then the noise of Endeavour’s launch assaulted us–a relentless, thunderous crackling, rumbling across the sky and through our shirts–while that white-hot glow from her boosters shot her upward, faster and faster.

On television, where the camera pans to follow the shuttle, this machine may appear to be soaring. From the ground, it looked more like it was getting thrown straight into the sky. There is a primal, visceral immediacy to its escape from gravity: The shuttle wants to fly, now.

It took no more than 20 seconds for Endeavour to punch a hole through a thin layer of clouds, leaving only the continuing racket of her ascent and a pillar of orange-tinged smoke. And an enormous grin welded to my face.

(Edits, 6/3: Gave this a slight rewrite and added a gallery of my photos after the jump. 6/27: Looked up some of my original tweets and embedded them in the post for a bit of a Storify treatment.)

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NASA Tweetup holdup

CAPE CANAVERAL–I’m back to where I was a month or so ago: I have an invitation to see a space shuttle launch but don’t know when that will happen and, therefore, if it won’t intersect in some infuriating manner with anything else on my calendar.

As you may have read by now, Endeavour will not launch on Monday after all. The Auxiliary Power Unit heater issue that forced a scrub of Friday’s launch less than four hours before liftoff was not the fault of a single malfunctioning thermostat, as we’d all hoped, but lies somewhere in a complicated junction box that has to be removed and replaced.

(It’s remarkable how Endeavour is starting to resemble our 90-year-old house in its maintenance issues. I can only hope the shuttle’s gutters don’t need to be cleaned as often as ours.)

That work, plus a wait to allow the Air Force to launch a satellite next weekend, would push the next launch date to no earlier than May 8. But NASA isn’t ready to project a new date until a meeting set for Monday. You can find more specific reports, in some cases from NASA employees, on Twitter and on various discussion sites (in this sort of obsessive readership, space enthusiasts act very much like tech enthusiasts), but ultimately I can only wait for the official word.

And I can only hope the new timing works out. Unfortunately, my schedule isn’t infinitely flexible; I’ve got a separate trip upcoming at the end of next week.

Best-case scenario, I get even more acquainted with National Airport as I fly in and out of it multiple times in the week (or the launch gets delayed until after my own travel). Worst-case scenario, I will be as mad as I was when a vicious case of the flu kept me sick at home on the day then-President-elect Obama toured the Post newsroom. (I would have told him something like, “The next time your daughters are asking for a new iPod, please check out my column, sir,” but that might have come out closer to “Hi, I’m an iPod, please ask your daughters for my column.”)

I’m not going to lie to you; this delay is upsetting and disappointing. But I’m not out of this thing yet. Please, wish me a little more luck.

In the meantime, I’ve got a day and a half to be a regular tourist at KSC and maybe check out some of the no-tech sights here. And then it’s back to D.C., back to my occupational networking, back to my kitchen and garden and–most important–back to my family.

The weight of the wait

CAPE CANAVERAL–If all goes well, we’ll launch on Monday. If all does not, we might not. I don’t know more than that. And trying to research the issue further won’t provide any more information, since NASA only opened the shuttle’s engine compartment earlier this afternoon.

So instead of letting the weight of the wait build, I’m going to do something I can’t do at home: Close the laptop, leave the phone charging, and walk one block to the beach with a book, a towel and a countdown to a nap.

But even there, the scenery on the horizon may bring to mind the possibility that has us  waiting in joyful hope. [Edit: Or writhing in agony.]

Nerd spring break: NASA Tweetup

I have had this afternoon’s flight on my calendar for 30 years, in one form or another: I’m going to Florida to see a space shuttle launch.

I woke up absurdly early on an April morning in 1981 to watch the TV broadcast of Columbia’s liftoff. Witnessing that in person wasn’t something that a 10-year-old boy would necessarily imagine doing next, but it wasn’t too many years later that one of my best friends in grade school got to see a launch. The idea got set aside during my years of collegiate poverty, but then as other friends made the same trip and returned with photos and stories (I remember one housemate describing the launch as the loudest thing he had ever heard), it kept creeping up my to-do list. 

As the end of the shuttle program became obvious, this to-do became a must-do. But how? A few years of sketching out and then scrubbing plans made me realize that seeing a liftoff isn’t an easy thing. The schedules change, then change again–good luck selling your boss on repeated shifts in your vacation time. Just getting a good viewing spot can be tricky enough to require a 4,000-word explainer.

Fortunately, NASA provided an elegant solution to my problem: Two years ago, it began hosting Tweetups–meetups for people following its Twitter accounts. For the space agency, which has been craftier than most government organizations in telling its story through social media, they’re smart PR. For attendees, they represent a chance to gawk at some nifty, expensive hardware up close and talk to the people who make it work.

(Having attended the Tweetup NASA held at the Goddard Space Flight Center in March, I can attest that this kind of event also serves as a singularly effective nerd trap.)

A launch Tweetup brings something extra: a viewing spot about 3 miles from the pad, on the lawn by the countdown clock you’ve seen on TV. That’s about twice as close as the public can get. So when I met NASA’s social-media manager at CES, mentioned my interest and was encouraged to go to the next launch–hell yes, I needed no further invitation.

Barring a last-minute scrub, Endeavour is scheduled to lift off at 3:47 Friday afternoon. (I’m staying through Monday and could extend the trip further if necessary; as you may have heard, my calendar is a lot more open these days.) Between now and then, NASA has a full agenda for all 150 of us Tweetup attendees. Thursday, we’re spending the day touring KSC, from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the Shuttle Landing Facility, seeing a few demos and hearing various NASA types talk about their work. There are more talks Friday morning, and then what I suspect will feel like an endless wait before Endeavour takes to space.

The 10-year-old inside of me could not be much more excited about all of that.

The social-media-observer part of me, meanwhile, is fascinated at how quickly an online community has self-organized around the Tweetup. Within weeks after the confirmation e-mails went out, my fellow Tweeps were introducing themselves and cross-posting blog items on a site set up for the occasion,  sharing e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers in a Google Docs spreadsheet, renting group houses together and sending checks in the mail to complete strangers, and chatting on an increasingly busy Facebook group. It’ll be interesting to meet all these people face to face.

But not nearly as interesting as seeing Endeavour fly. Not even close!