I'm sitting in a reasonably clean room in a dump of a hotel somewhere in the center of the south end of Merritt Island, Florida here in the south part of the USA. It's been a long day.
It started for me around 6:30, when I had to leave the hotel room to get into my Beluga of a transport device in order to drive northward on FL state road 3. I drove a few miles, had breakfast at a McDonalds, picked up a couple liters of water and some protein bars and Altoids at a CVS, and then continued north.
I reached a small, one-story nondescript building (only just too big to be called a hut) and pulled in to the parking lot. There was a sign out front, right between two doors. The one pointing to the right read "PRESS ACCREDITATION" and the one pointing to the left read "NASA TweetUp Registration!"
I went left.
Inside, helpful and cheery folks had me sign a couple of forms (one a standard acknowledgement that I would obey all rules and regulations while inside Kennedy Space Center or they'd pull my badge, and the other a release form so that Levar Burton's film crew could use my likeness if I turn up in any shots for their kids' program). I signed both, and was given a badge.
Then I drove north some more, reaching Gate 2 (the employee gate) for KSC. I showed my badge, got a grin and a wave-through.
I passed a (famous) sign, which has a small picture of the Space Shuttle on it and a message reading  DAYS TO LAUNCH above.
After a while, and one wrong turn, I saw the enormous and recognizable shape of the Vehicle Assembly Building ahead. I turned right, followed some cones, and ended up in a parking lot, where I parked and walked over to an even more famous slight hillside, grass-covered, which looked out over what may be the world's most recognized clock, some water which had a couple of manatee and two dolphin cavorting about in it, and (3 miles down a long crushed stone causeway) the haze-blurred shape of STS-134, the Orbiter Endeavour and its mated SRBs and External Tank sitting atop their Mobile Launch Platform on Launch Complex 39.
I was selected as a member of the NASA TweetUp. This is a (brilliant) PR ploy by NASA. They, via lottery, select 150 Twitter users to come attend a launch. The day before (which was today) we get demos and lectures and Q&A time with NASA notables (including, in our case, NASA's Chief Scientist, Endeavour's Flow Director, an Associate Scientist with the ISS Program, an astronaut (Clay Anderson), and the project lead for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer - a 15,000+ lb. science experiment that STS-134 is taking up to the ISS to measure charged particle rates and energy outside the earth's atmosphere). We got told some cool stories, some decent jokes, and some sober facts. We got to pass around an experiment containing salmonella bacilli and another one containing a live Golden Orb spider, both twins to actual experiments flying on STS-134 (they want to see how the Golden Orb spins webs in space, and also to see how well drosophila move about in microgravity. Handy, that, because those same drosophila are also rations for the Golden Orb spider). We got given a demo of the current Shuttle EMU (or more colloquially, 'spacesuit') and told some stuff about the new life-support system NASA is testing right now - the first new PLSS in 37 years. Fun fact: it won't need consumable CO2 filters; it'll have alternating vent-to-vacuum filter beds which will allow for longer and more efficient use.
Another couple of fun bits: when asked about whether anyone has done, uh, 'reproductive studies of mammals' in space, the ISS scientist said not to her knowledge - and that she's sure any such study would have to be, um, (and she did say 'um') "peer-reviewed." Nice. Also, Astronaut Clay Anderson explained that he tried 15 times before being selected for the astronaut program, and that the unofficial term for 'Astronaut Hopefuls' is 'As-Hos.' You figure it out.
After that, we broke for lunch, and most of us socialized in the tent. We met each other IRL, swapped stories, and (to avoid swamping them) took turns chatting and getting photo-ops with Levar Burton and Seth Green, both of whom were in the tent with us. I can report that both are wonderfully gracious and friendly guys, and that Seth Green geeks out about space hard. I have pics of him kneeling down to take pics of Astronaut Clay, and asking him questions about life on ISS.
In addition, I spent a deal of time chatting with an enormous man (tall and broad, not fat) who was extremely gently spoken, friendly, and looked familiar. It took me several hours to recognize him as Abraham Benrubi, who was Jerry Markovic on ER as well as working on Robot Chicken with Seth. I had just watched the Alec Baldwin The Shadow, and Abraham has a small part in it - hence my nagging feeling of familiarity. Nice guy.
After lunch, we got on tour buses. If you ever get to go to a NASA TweetUp, learn from my mistake - the bus near the end that looks like a refurb BlueBird school bus - is. And its air conditioning unit is an afterthought, and doesn't work too well. But it was OK once we got moving. Our tour guide was Chris, another of NASA's seemingly endless ranks of incredibly patient, nice and enthusiastic (I should really say passionate) people. He is a quality assurance inspector, and engineer working in the Assembly teams - he has 22 years working on the Shuttle program and 37 years doing aircraft maintenance. We first drove out to take a quick look at the Shuttle Landing Facility (that's NASA-speak for 'honking big runway') where the Shuttle returns to earth, where it can go for a 'return to pad' abort, and where they use a gigantic crane device called a 'Mate-Demate Device' to lift the shuttle orbiters onto and off of the SCA - the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, the 747s you sometimes see it riding atop. The four T-38 trainers that the STS-134 flight crew had just arrived in a couple days before were still parked neatly on the ramp, along with several Gulfstream and Lear (I think) jets that NASA uses for weather recon and to simulate shuttle landings.
Then we drove back down the causeway to the VAB - the Vehicle Assembly Building. On the way, we passed a culvert pond where our guide pointed out the 12-foot 'gator who has apparently claimed that spot as his own. The NASA folks seem to regard the wildlife as mascots and as personal charges, which in a way they are - the Kennedy Space Center sits within an enormous (140,000 acre) National Wildlife Preserve. KSC's facilities occupy less than 10% of the preserve. This is a wonderful mix, because KSC is a big area that people need to be kept out of - so the wildlife can thrive there. Before each launch and Shuttle landing, teams walk the runway and almost always have to convince the several gators sunning themselves that they need to move elsewhere. Our guide pointed out to us an enormous Bald Eagle nest, right on the main service drive - it's apparently been there around 40 years, and the nest now weighs (he estimates) around a ton. Out at the launch pads themselves, which are less than 1/4 mile from the Atlantic shoreline, sea turtles tend to come ashore and lay eggs.
The VAB is enormous. It's 525 feet tall, which is small compared to most skyscrapers - but that's not what makes it special. Inside, nearly all of its volume is one big space with cranes and catwalks and service gantries inside it. The point is that standing in the middle of the building's floor (at ground level) and looking up, you're looking 520 feet to the ceiling. It's imposing. There are several 'low bays' and four 'high bays' where rocket assemblies are 'stacked' or mated up. When we went through today, the last (ever) Shuttle stack was in processing - the External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters for STS-135 were in High Bay 1 atop their own Mobile Launch Platform, awaiting the orbiter Atlantis. Sometime in the next weeks, Atlantis will be towed over from its snug Orbiter Processing Facility into the VAB. A giant yellow sling (which we had a look at) will be placed around the Orbiter and fastened into place, and then the Orbiter will be lifted into the air and moved to a vertical position, hanging nose-up. Then it will be turned 90 degrees and be moved sideways into High Bay 1, where it will be attached to the External Tank.
The VAB contains 150 million cubic feet of open space, which makes it something like the third or fourth largest building in the world by interior volume. The Sears Tower (or whatever it got renamed), the Petronas Towers, and now the Burj Kalifa (formerly Burj Dubai) all boast more - but they're wayyyy taller. What makes the VAB even more impressive-looking is that unlike those others, it doesn't sit in an urban setting - it's all by itself out on the scrub grass. There are some small buildings around it, but mostly, the skyline is sky, water, sand...and this huge thing.
We got to look at the new Mobile Launcher, built originally for Ares but now due to be modified for 'whatever comes next.' It's sitting out behind the VAB, near where one of the Crawlers is parked (I couldn't tell if it was Hans or Franz). All around this place, enormous pieces of hardware, too damn big to be believed, are placed carefully around the landscape, waiting to be used again to help send people into space. Our guide explained that the VAB, the crawlers, and indeed the launch pads themselves - all of them were originally built for the Apollo program and the Saturn V stack, and were just repurposed in order to serve the Shuttle program. Inside the VAB the 'low bays' have sat unused since the last days of Apollo - they were only used to mate Saturn V sections. On the floor is a giant grey circle of paint - it was used to align the bottom of the Saturn V boosters during their mating procedure. As our guide explained, you can read the history of the American space program in the VAB and the huge objects scattered around it. On one wall is a large Shuttle emblem, surrounded by the signatures of everyone who has worked in the VAB over the 30 years of the Shuttle Program.
After the VAB, we went over to the Apollo Center - one of NASA's tourist attractions. It's a good one, though. Some of us (me included) chose to enter via the Apollo Presentation - a show about the Apollo Program. It starts in a standing theater, with three screens showing video. It's narrated by a gent who was a launch controller for Apollo, and it's a good short film - I was pleased to note that it explained the U.S. priority for Apollo as a result of the fact that the USSR was busily beating the pants off the U.S. in the 'space race' although the line "Back then, two superpowers were locked in a Cold War..." made me feel old. It told the story (briefly) of Sputnik and Gagarin, and the U.S. declaration to go to the moon. President Kennedy's speech is shown:
We do not choose to do these things because they are easy, but because they are hard.
Following, the Apollo 1 tragedy is remembered, and then the program primes you for the main show by leading you up to the impending launch of Apollo 7 - the first mission to actually leave Earth orbit and go to the moon, orbiting it before returning home. Moving into the next room, we found ourselves in a duplicate of the Apollo Launch Control room - constructed, we were told, using the actual consoles and equipment from the Apollo Launch Control, not replicas. A countdown clock was set, status boards illuminated, and more screens took us through the actual final 3 minutes of countdown and the launch of Apollo 7, to ass-shaking subwoofers and loud sound systems.
I cried. I do that at space launches.
Finally, we moved into the main center, which has one of the best exhibits ever - in fact, it's constructed around it.
An actual Saturn V, all sections - one of the ones built but never used as the Apollo program was cancelled to release funds for the Shuttle - is mounted on its side just above head height. You can walk underneath it for its full length, and marvel at the engines of each stage, all the way up to the nose cone and abort tower. Also in the building are a LEM, demo versions of the Lunar Rovers, various models of Apollo spacesuits, and in fact the command module of Apollo 14, which brought its crew back to earth. Almost more important, to us, was the fact that as you approached the nose of the Saturn V you walked into the smell of French Fries from the cafeteria - which also sold (wonder of wonders) beer. So I had one of the most American moments I've had in months - I sat under a Saturn V, ate a hot dog and fries, and had an Icee and a Budweiser.
Then I walked across the building and reached into a display case to rub my fingers across a rock brought back from the moon's surface.
Not a bad time.
By this point it was 5:30pm. We got back on buses and went back to the Twent (TweetUp Tent, where NASA had thoughtfully laid on air conditioning, power, and WiFi) and waited for the last event of the evening - the Rotating Service Structure was due to be pulled back from Endeavour at 8:30 pm, and we were to board buses at 7:45 to go out to the pad to watch this and take pics some hundred yards from the shuttle. Unbelievable.
Unfortunately, it was to remain unbelievable. A thunderstorm system swept through the Cape, and although we delayed, hoping that it would clear in time, NASA had to send our escorts and bus drivers home so that they would be able to work tomorrow on Launch day. So we didn't get to go out. While taking shelter from the storm, though, we all scurried into the official Press Briefing auditorium and continued to socialize, tweet, and generally muck about having fun. One of our number, a teacher, had brought some 30 pieces of artwork by her students done in honor of Yuri's Night - Gagarin's anniversary - and we offered suggestions as to winners. Finally, we acknowledged that we weren't going to get to go out to the pad, and (somewhat disappointed but all still really really excited by the day) we dispersed.
And here I am.
That was my day. Tomorrow morning, assuming they get the RSS moved tonight, we'll all go back for a group picture at the clock, and for some more talks and Q&A - and, all going well, we'll get to stand closer than any other humans to the Space Shuttle Endeavour as she leaves earth for the last time before her retirement.
I can't wait.