Monday, April 25, 2011

How NASA Tweetup Changed My Life

We all want to be something when we grow up.  When we dream about this as youngsters the list of choices is fairly short and lacking in nuance: doctor, athlete, actor, musician.  Astronaut.  That was mine, no question about it.  Space was just... cool.  Rockets?  Very cool.  As I got older I was able to articulate my fascination a little more clearly.  The great dark void calls for us to explore it just as surely as the high seas did many centuries ago.  The brave souls who go there are real heroes, some of the last left.  Reaching space requires us to call on the very best parts of ourselves.  Ingenuity, creativity, collaboration, cooperation.  The exploration and colonization of space represents the very best of what we are capable as a species, and I most certainly wanted to be a part of it.  Astronaut may have been a long shot, but working in the space business wouldn’t be a bad second.  After all, you have to do something while you’re waiting for new astronaut class selections.
There has never been anything cooler than this. Ever.
I had been steadily applying to space jobs since 2008 without much response, and 2010 wasn’t shaping up to be the kind of year when it would happen.  Kelly, my family’s black lab mix rescued from the local shelter 12 years earlier, reached the end of her time with us.  She’d been with the family through some very difficult times, always ready to comfort, and saying goodbye was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do.  Three months later my 77-year-old grandfather left us all reeling as, in 36 hours, he rapidly declined from rehab to hospice to funeral home with no prior warning that things were so bad.  My employer, while offering a very flexible work-from-home schedule and rewarding work, was running into typical small-business financial troubles that made every payday an adventure.  There may have been some positives, but they were definitely getting lost in the noise.
Through it all, though, I had my love of space.  A passing comment by my dad on Christmas Day 2009 took me to meet him and my stepmother on their annual vacation in Florida to try to catch the STS-130 launch.  We drove cross-state to Titusville only to be met with a weather scrub for low clouds.  Still, seeing it from Fort Myers rising off the horizon as a bright star the following night was thrilling.  In April, a well-timed cruise departure from Fort Lauderdale let me see another star, STS-131, ascend to the heavens.  And then there was STS-132 plus Soyuz and countless unmanned launches I watched on NASA TV from the comfort of home, but it was usually alone or with people who feigned interest for my benefit.  If there were other people out there enjoying these same things, it never occurred to me that they would be easy to find or even necessarily worth finding.
Enter Twitter.  In 2008 I had begrudgingly created an account, not seeing much utility for it.  I was almost exclusively a consumer of content, using it mostly as a news aggregator.  By 2010 it was proving to be a valuable tool for keeping up with launch and mission schedules.  Accounts like @NASA provided good big-picture posts describing mission objectives and launch windows, while others like @SpaceflightNow had very good up-to-the-minute coverage as launch countdowns progressed.  In August of 2010, @NASA caught my attention with an interesting post: “Would a space shuttle launch leave you tweet-less? 150 people will find out on Nov. 1. You could be one:”.  “Okay,” I thought, “I’m game.”  I filled out the short form and mused about the possibilities.  Odds were I wouldn’t hear back, but how amazing would it be if I did?  Access to personnel and facilities, plus a launch viewing from the press site?  Ridiculous.
The tweet that started it all.
On September 1st, a day after my 29th birthday, fortune broke my way and I got the email: “Congratulations, your registration to attend the STS-133 Tweetup Oct. 31-Nov. 1 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida has been selected!”  Wow.  The messages that followed laid out a fantasy-esque agenda.  Speaking engagements and Q&A with NASA personnel including Bill Gerstenmaier.  Seriously?  He was on NASA TV all the time.  Rock star.  NASA Discovery flow director Stephanie Stilson.  Wow, she works on the space shuttle.  Rock star.    Astronaut Janice Voss.  Astronaut?!  ROCK STAR.  The list went on.  For a while all I could focus on was the events and the access.  This was going to be amazing.
Nothing, though, nothing could have prepared me for the people.  One by one the follow notifications and mentions started coming in.  People just like me, enthusiastic about space, and utterly thrilled to have been selected for the opportunity.  These were the people I should have been talking to years ago, especially during launches!  It was a lot to keep up with at first, but I started to get a clear picture about what everyone had in common other than a love of space: they were all genuine.  Friendly people with stories and energy to share, and in two short months we were all going to be in the same place.  On top of it, many of them were already connected to communities of space enthusiasts on Twitter that were new to me.  Suddenly I was seeing hashtags like #yurisnight and #spacetweeps that were utterly foreign to me.  Digging deeper I found that many of these great people worked for NASA or NASA contractors and had amazing pictures and stories to share... in the first person!  Pictures of Discovery’s rollover from the OPF to the VAB, pictures of the rollout to the pad, pictures at the pad.  Some of them were taken with phones, making it obvious that these people were no more than a few meters from the vehicle.  Are you kidding me?  More rock stars and they were actually responding to my questions and comments.  That was the tipping point.  It wasn’t long before I had gone from a Twitter consumer to full-blown Twitter user, hardly believing some of the people I was getting the opportunity to talk to and how cool they all were.
Hallowed ground.
Two months later the dream became reality as we all descended on Kennedy Space Center and the Space Coast.  I arrived late at night and quietly claimed my space at the house share that had come to be called #betahouse.  The next day we went to pick up our badges and meet Stephanie, NASA’s Social Media Manager who had already conversed with all of us extensively via email regarding planning items for the NASA Tweetup event.  Everyone was just as friendly and upbeat as they’d been on Twitter.  Turns out we’d need it.  The launch had been scheduled for November 1, but “Diva” Discovery, as we came to call her, had other plans.  A series of technical glitches and weather delays gradually bumped the launch date from Monday to Tuesday to Wednesday.  Each time Stephanie valiantly shuffled the agenda to accommodate the delay and assured us we’d still have access to the KSC Complex 39 Press Site.  By the time Thursday rolled around and the launch was bumped to Friday, November 5, nerves were starting to wear thin.  We were coming up on the end of the launch window and none of the updates sounded good.
A group of us from #betahouse and #bighouse spent Thursday roaming around the KSC Visitor Complex, alternating between riding the Shuttle Launch Experience and just generally trying not to think about the fact we may not see a launch.  Outside the SLE we walked past an exhibit for the Orion capsule with a scale mockup of the vehicle that would be taking astronauts back to the Moon and Mars, plus a table full of information.  Tending to the exhibit was Olivia, a representative from the NASA contractor responsible for Orion.  She was more than happy to answer all of our questions and had some of her own about what NASA and Twitter had to do with each other (a lot, as we explained).  It was at that point that Kate, a member of #bighouse and a freelance reporter from the UK not afraid to ask for things, suggested that Olivia join us for dinner.  We were all in from out of town, we were all probably headed out for dinner, it might as well be together.  As usual, I found myself looking forward to spending more time with these remarkable fellow space enthusiasts who had already changed my outlook on life.  I had no idea they were about to change my career.
At dinner, we talked about everything from our hometowns to our plans for return and our apprehension that Discovery might not launch.  We drilled Olivia about working on a human spaceflight program.  Everything she talked about sounded amazing.  Slowly, I started to feel the self-serving question bubbling up inside of me.  Sprung at the wrong time, it would be completely obnoxious.  So I tried to wait for the right time, a lull in the conversation.  Finally, I blurted it out.
“How do I get your job?”  Oops, not the phrasing I was looking for.  I don’t want to take your job, I just want one a lot like it.  “I mean, how do I get to do what you do?  You work on a spaceship.  That will carry people.  In space.  That’s incredible.  I want to do that.  It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
Olivia patiently explained to me how to go to the company website and update my profile, list her as a referral, and submit for jobs.  There had just been a major spaceflight contract award in Denver, and there would likely be some openings there.  It wasn’t the magic bullet I was hoping for, but it was something, and I’d take it.  I added it to my growing to-do list that likely wouldn’t get tended to until after NASA Tweetup was over.
GUCP, a.k.a. party pooper.
The next day our fears were justified as a massive GUCP breach during tanking grounded Discovery for the remainder of the November launch window.  We would not be seeing a launch.  Everyone was disappointed, I think none more than Stephanie, but we knew this was a risk when we made the trip.  Human spaceflight is a technical symphony that requires the cooperation of many complicated systems and it doesn’t always stick to the schedule.  Over the next few days, we all headed home unsure of the next time we’d get together and whether or not it would include Discovery’s climb to the heavens.
I arrived back in Philadelphia with a frighteningly long to-do list.  A lot of it was mundane: laundry, catch up on email, catch up on snail mail, catch up on sleep.  I did smile a little, though, as I made my way down to “update job profile and apply for space jobs.”  It seemed surreal in its casual notation, as though it were on a par with clean socks.  By this time it was mid-November and I knew if I didn’t get to it soon, it would get lost in the holiday din.  I took several hours spread across multiple days and did exactly what Olivia suggested, making painstaking updates to a profile spread across multiple unwieldy web pages and following it up with at least a dozen applications to the program in Denver.  By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, I had nearly forgotten about it.
December came and went with no responses on my applications, although I was too busy to think about it much.  Christmas shopping, Christmas, the New Year.  Fast forward to February.  Still no responses on my November applications, but Diva Discovery was ramping up to a February 24th launch date after a rollback to the VAB and a re-rollout to LC-39A.  Most amazing of all, Stephanie had somehow managed to get us invited back for the launch.  At this point, Twitter was as much a part of my daily life as morning coffee, and the #NASATweetup hashtag lit up as though it were selection day all over again.  Everyone was in agreement: this time felt different.  The issues were nailed down, we were going to see a launch.
I headed back to the Space Coast from Philly on February 22nd, this time on a long road trip to avoid the headache of rescheduling flights.  It was “Pegula Day” in my native Buffalo as new owner Terry Pegula took over the NHL’s Sabres with promises of a new beginning, and I felt like I had one myself.  #NASATweetup 2.0, as we were all calling this, was going to wrap up the unfinished business of 2010 in spectacular fashion and everyone was certain of it.  I rendezvoused with fellow NASA Tweetup optimist Flux in South Carolina for a bite to eat and a sprint of the final 6 hours to Merritt Island.  We coasted in just before midnight to the sight of familiar faces fresh from the airport.  NASA Tweetup 2.0 was on.
The next day was a schedule of re-acclimation to the Space Coast before a triumphant return to the KSC Complex 39 Press Site in the evening.  Stephanie had somehow managed to book us for a visit back out to LC-39A for RSS retraction the night before launch.  Overachiever.  As I ran through my morning routine at #betahouse 2.0 (everything got the 2.0 tag), my phone rang with an unfamiliar number.  I sighed at the inconvenience and sent it to voicemail.  A few minutes later it was followed up with an email.  Apparently my updated profile had caught some eyes and they were interested in bringing me in to interview for a job outside of Philly.  Not Denver.  With skepticism I did some research on the program referenced in the email.  Within moments Google started spitting back information on satellites and space vehicles.  I could hardly sit still, and it incredibly had nothing to do with the launch the next day.  I called back immediately and scheduled my space job interview for March 4th.  For the rest of the day I couldn’t stop smiling.
That night we went to 39A for RSS retraction and some incredible photo-ops.  The next day brought the kind of clear blue skies and soaring temperatures that are unseasonable in February even for Florida.  Unsatisfied with simply bringing us back on grounds for the launch, Stephanie had arranged another full day’s agenda for us with engineers and astronauts, plus a flyby by the Astrovan headed to the pad.  It was a flawless day, with a flawless countdown -- well, almost.  After an unprecedented T-5 minute hold during which no one breathed, the clock started running again with only seconds to spare and ticked smoothly down to zero.  Months of anticipation melted away as everyone shared a perfect moment of pure awe.
If a picture is worth 1,000 words, it's still not enough.
Seeing a shuttle launch from three miles away defies all explanation that can adequately capture its power and majesty.  First, puffs of steam silently appear above the treetops followed by the gentle liftoff of the stack from behind the obstruction of the launch tower.  As she comes into view, the first thing that strikes you is that you’re close enough to pick out detail, from her white fuselage and wings to her black nose.  And yet, still no sound.  You forget that even at three miles, sound takes fifteen seconds to reach you.  You watch as she elegantly rolls into a heads down position and pitches away from you.  The blinding white light slowly takes a backseat to the quiet rumbling that gradually crescendos to a crackling roar.  The sound became so intense I could see the t-shirt on the person in front of me rippling from the compression waves.  I was speechless for minutes.  It was easily the most incredible single event I’ve ever witnessed.  Seeing a shuttle launch from the press site is an unparalleled experience that I wish everyone could have.  There are just no words.
Many of us lingered at the press site after launch for as long as we could.  This was hallowed ground, and who knows when we would be back?  Maybe never.  This was as close to space as many of us would come.  Or maybe not.  I returned to Philadelphia and on March 4th I interviewed for my space job.  With head-spinning quickness, I received an offer on March 15th and started on April 18th.  I’ve only been on board for a week, but already I’m becoming acclimated to tasks that include planning for satellite solar conjunctions and updating ephemeris data at ground stations.  My software development tasks include the use of a graphical planning tool that draws orbital paths in Google Earth.  It’s something that just eight months ago I would have seen as worlds away from possible, and yet here I am doing it.  I am fortunate beyond my wildest dreams, and I have a giddy optimism that the best is yet to come.
NASA Tweetup at its core is nothing more complicated than a meeting.  People with a common interest coming together to share their enthusiasm in one place for a few days (or months, as the case may be).  But the amazing things that can happen when people come together cannot be overstated.  I went to Florida expecting to meet some astronauts and see a shuttle launch.  I never could have anticipated that those things would only be one part of a much larger picture.  The first thing NASA Tweetup did was change how I used Twitter.  I never expected it would change my life.