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If You Tweet It, They Will Come

Though I wasn't going to outer space myself, I used the power of Twitter to get as close as I could without, you know, getting three Ph.D.s and being able to withstand hanging upside down for hours.
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The last article I wrote about Twitter (What Twitter Taught Me), was about my neophyte adventures in cyberspace. So, it's fitting, I think, that my second Twitter-themed outing should also be about space -- actual space this time. And though I wouldn't be going to space myself (though I haven't quite given up on that dream, alas, alas), I'd use the power of Twitter to get as close as I could without, you know, getting three Ph.D.s and being able to withstand hanging upside down for hours, etc. (For a comprehensive and funny catalog of such tests, read Mike Mullane's Riding Rockets or Mary Roach's Packing for Mars)

What am I talking about? Well, its official name is a Tweetup (i.e. when a bunch of people, who met on Twitter, meet up), a type of event NASA's been hosting for several years now to drum-up enthusiasm for the space program. I'd won a place, along with 150 others, to attend NASA's 31st Tweetup in celebration of the launch of its Mars Curiosity mission -- NASA's latest unmanned mission to Mars.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. What was I, a writer whose books have nothing to do with space or science, doing attending such an event? Well: (1) I've had a life-long fascination with all things space that was rekindled as the shuttle program was winding down, and (2) like many writers, I often find myself doing things I wouldn't otherwise do just because it will give me something to write about. (At the top of this category: a pole-dancing class. But that's another story.)

Anyway, when I saw that NASA was holding another Tweetup (I'd been wait-listed for the final shuttle launch), I put my name in without any expectation. Then the email arrived saying that I'd been chosen. If I could get myself to Florida at the end of November, I could...well, I wasn't quite sure what it was I'd be doing, but was I willing to find out?

Hell, yes.

So, I left on a cold November morning, under a sliver of moon, to take off into the great blue yonder, to boldly go (yes, all clichés will be employed), to watch others go boldly into space...well, not others, exactly, but really smart machines controlled by humans who had, I hoped, remembered to convert their calculations from the metric system.

An inauspicious beginning: the launch was delayed by a day, taking it to the outside of my launch/travel plan window. If it was delayed again, there would be no launch for me. But as I disembarked into the Florida sunshine, the -7C Montreal morning a faint memory, I'd formed a plan to fill my time: "Harry Potter World."

And now for our commercial break: Welcome to Universal Studios on U.S. Thanksgiving, where, after paying $120 U.S-no-longer-at-par dollars (this is tax deductible, right, since I'm writing about it and all?), I was free to roam the claustrophobic streets of Hogsmeade. After waiting 20 minutes for Butterbeer (I opted for cold; my fellow Tweet-uppers -- I refuse to call them tweeps -- informed me more than once that I should've gone for frozen), and pushing half my body into Honeydukes, I realized I'd go mad waiting 120 minutes for the dragon fighting roller coaster thing, and opted instead for a ride located elsewhere in the park, the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. The beginning does indeed simulate a rocket ride -- 30 seconds of straight up, up, up before being released into a series or twists and loops -- though I'm pretty sure it's 1/100th of what real astronauts go through.

I kept my eyes closed.

And now it was Friday, the day before the launch, where I was finally going to the Kennedy Space Center to get a behind the scenes tour. And meet the 149 others who had come for the same reason.

We started off in the "twent" (I swear, I'm not making these names up!) for an hour of us introducing ourselves. It was like an AA meeting, only our anonymous names were our Twitter handles.

I'm pretty sure I was the only person in the room who couldn't break the Mars rover down and put it back together again sans instructions.

In the afternoon, we boarded a series of buses. I chose bus #1 based on the fact that the Tweetup organizer was going to be on it. I chose wisely -- according to my seatmate -- he'd heard (through Twitter, of course) that bus #1 would get the most time at all the stops.

He proved to be right (pretty sure buses #2-4 hated us by the end of the day), and what amazing stops those were. After a short visit to the Saturn V exhibit (the rocket that took us to the moon - man, that thing is huge), we got to go inside the VAB building -- a massive structure that I can only compare to a Vegas hotel in size, though much more utilitarian. It's big enough to house all four space shuttles at once, and we were lucky enough that Space Shuttle Endeavour was still in there.

And then something funny happened.

To be honest, I'd been feeling cynical and detached all day (I didn't want to be called a tweep, or live in a twent, or do anything that started with a "t"), but somewhere between entering the massive warehouse and going out to the launch pad where the Mars Curiosity rocket was standing upright, ready for blast off, my cynicism fell away. By the time we stopped at Complex 34 -- where the Apollo 1 mission ended tragically in a fire -- I was running around the site laughing and snapping pictures, all cynicism left behind.

The shot of the day was a fluke one of a palm tree silhouetted against the setting sun over Space X's launch pad. My tweet of the day: Felt like a kid again today. Pure joy. Thank you @Nasa #Nasatweetup.

The next morning we had to be there very, very early -- like still-dark early -- to listen to a parade of NASA celebrities, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and a very special guest: from the Black Eyed Peas. Seriously. Apparently, beneath his gold-framed (but glass-less) glasses, he's also a space-geek. (Though he wouldn't, disappointingly, do the Astronaut chest-bump the real guys had done.)

And then it was launch time.

While the majority of the Tweeps (okay, okay I said it) stayed in the tent to Tweet (see, it doesn't need a "t" -- you all knew what I meant!), I went out to the bleachers and staked a seat at the top where I could see the tip of the Mars Curiosity rocket through the trees.

The hour 'til lift-off passed quickly; we were "go for launch" (I have always loved that phrase). Everyone emerged from the tent, and we counted down from 10, our cameras at the ready. The rocket rode up on a plume of fire, slowly, slowly, and soundless until the sonic boom reached us. I almost couldn't hear it above the shouts of joy surrounding me, which included my own. The rocket passed the trees, scorched into the sky and disappeared into the clouds and...that was it. It was on its 8.5-month journey to the red planet, and all we had to show for it was a plume of vapor, our smiles and the videos we'd shot on our iPhones.

Oh, and the tweets of course.

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