November 8, 2010

The STS-133 NASA Tweetup-The Survivors

By Brian Williams NASA STS-133 Tweetup Attendee


After a full week of anticipation, the NASA Tweetup was unceremoniously canceled Friday morning. We awoke Thursday morning to cloudy skies and a downpour of rain and it was announced that they could not even begin fueling of the external tank in the weather so it was announced that there would be yet another 24hr hold.

Image left: Brian at the mission countdown clock sporting a serious case of “Launch Scrub Boo-Boo Face”.
Friday morning was cloudless and beautiful and we were all excited and confident that we would see a launch that day. All of the attendees that were left  (at this point we hangers on had taken to being called the “STS-133 survivors” for sticking around when half of the attendees had already returned to their homes) left their hotels and house-shares with the excitement of kids on Christmas morning. It was as we were getting out of our cars at the press site, that the news started to trickle in from people who had sources at the launch pad. There was another leak, and it was bad enough that repairs might push Discovery out of her launch window all together.

tweetup-tent-friday.jpg Image left: NASA Tweetup Director Stephanie Shierholz delivers the bad news that Discovery’s launch would be postponed due to a leak on the external tank.
We slowly made our way to the “Tweetup Tent” with our heads held low, because we knew the news that was soon to be announced, and after waiting 30 minutes for confirmation, the director of the event, Stephanie Schierholz came in to give us the bad news. Her eyes were brimming with tears as she told us that the launch had been put on hold for another 72hrs to fix a 7 inch hole in the external tank and that this meant the end of the event and possibly a scrub for the launch all together as a similar problem had taken nearly a week to fix last time it occur ed. Even as she was speaking, a security guard drove out to the countdown clock and removed Discovery’s flag from the flagpole.
Some people took it in stride, others had no choice but to be heartbroken by missing the launch. Phylise Banner, whose father had worked on the Apollo program and had died earlier this year, had come to see the launch as a tribute to his memory and would now not get the chance for closure that she sought. The crew from GM, brought Robonaut out one more time, for pictures and a short demo, but that did nothing to help the mood. The rest of the day was spent consoling new friends and enjoying the last few moments together before we all went our separate ways.

robonaut.jpg Image left:  As Helen Bensen would say “Gort! Klaatu Barada Nikto!”.
For the most part, its hard to be disappointed at the end of what was a wonderful experience. We got to hang out with numerous astronauts, got to be the first non-press allowed into the VAB since 1979, got right next to the pad for a closer look at the shuttle than most people ever get before a launch, we even got a special demonstration of Robonaut, and most of all, we were introduced to fellow space enthusiasts from all around the world, who shared a passion for the future.
As someone who has been following the space program since I was a kid, I took something from missing the launch of Discovery that is almost as much a revelation as I feel I would have had if I had seen it up close. With the numerous and completely unrelated problems that delayed the shuttle time and time again until the final delay, it just goes to show that as much as the shuttle program has achieved over the years, it is a dated and very overly complicated vehicle.

The Space Shuttle is a beautiful piece of equipment, but the specters of Challenger and Columbia still hang over every launch and so even the slightest irregularity is cause for major concern and delay. The future of mankind is in space, but we need to find simpler and safer ways of getting there, whether that is through commercial spaceflight efforts like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, or a new NASA centralized government program like the now dead Constellation program. It may be easy to romanticize the shuttle for its years of service, but the Human Spaceflight Program is too important to allow ourselves to hold onto antiquated and temperamental equipment out of a sense of nostalgia, or even to keep ourselves from relying on others for a while.

 Image left: NASA security lowers Discovery’s flag following the announcement that the Mission Management team scrubbed the STS-133 launch until at least November 30.

Regardless of missing the launch, I will never forget my week of being a VIP at the agency that put man on the moon. It was once in a lifetime, and I will cherish the memories and friends that were made for the rest of my life.

Note from Mark, the StarGeezer: Brian Williams is a freelance writer who lives in the Louisville area. He was selected as a NASA STS-133 Tweetup attendee in an online drawing. I greatly appreciate Brian sharing his experiences at the Kennedy Space Center. Contact Brian here. Click any image to enlarge

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