The shuttle and the stuff of dreams

Last week I was fortunate enough to watch from three miles away as 4.5 million pounds of spacecraft shot upward on a pillar of fire, piercing the clouds and heading for an orbital rendezvous with the International Space Station.

As I watched Atlantis make the final launch of the 30-year-old space shuttle program, I was struck by the intersection of technology and humanity that I had witnessed.

Of networks and people

Though the space shuttle did carry two iPhone 4s into orbit, that wasn’t why I was there. I was present at Kennedy Space Center for the launch of Atlantis as a part of the NASA Tweetup, an innovative program put on by NASA’s public affairs office. The NASA Tweetup program gives randomly selected followers of NASA’s Twitter streams the chance to visit the space agency’s facilities and even view launches. I was one of 150 Twitter users selected to visit Cape Canaveral (at our own expense) for the last shuttle launch.

The tent which housed the NASA Tweetup was in the same area as all the members of the news media who were covering the event. The proximity provided an interesting contrast. Most organizations rely on the news media to communicate with the public. While NASA has benefited from an awful lot of news coverage over the years, it has never been content to stop there. Since there have been astronauts, those astronauts have been making public appearances, all part of a concerted effort to generate interest in space travel.

The NASA Tweetup program is, I think, in that same spirit. It’s about using the power of these new social networks that are emerging on the Internet to reach people in a whole new way. And it’s not just about the 150 of us who were invited to the space center, but about everyone else we reach via Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks.

NASA hasn’t just embraced Twitter users, either—it’s joined them. Almost every astronaut has a Twitter account. Tweets have been sent from space for a couple of years now, first via an email proxy, and now directly. I don’t think anyone knows for sure just how big an impact social networks will have on groups like NASA, but it seems like the right thing for a government agency to do.

This approach is spreading, too. The day before I arrived at the NASA Tweetup, Macworld staff writer Lex Friedman was at the White House for the inaugural White House Tweetup. (Proud NASA public-affairs people said that NASA was, in fact, part of the inspiration for the White House event.)

A lot of people pooh-pooh social media networks, but after meeting all those enthusiastic, space-loving Twitter users in person, I can see their power. The most important factor in social-media networks isn’t the network, it’s the people. For three days in Florida I spent time with interesting people from almost every state and a dozen countries. It was a fantastic experience.

I stayed in a rented house in Cocoa Beach, just south of the space center—something set up entirely via a Facebook group. My housemates were two BBC reporters, a tech CEO, a cell biologist from Australia, a retiree, a freelance web developer, a tech blogger, and one of my Macworld colleagues.

The day before launch, NASA treated us to a full day of events, including visits from several astronauts (and Elmo) and NASA personnel. We got to see the shuttle from a few hundred yards away and walk inside the colossal Vehicle Assembly Building—something most NASA employees don’t even get a chance to do.

Three miles away, Atlantis readies for launch.

The next morning, we arrived at the Space Center at 5 a.m. Atlantis was on the launch pad, illuminated by giant xenon spotlights. The Tweetup tent filled rapidly, and we got more all-star visits from astronauts, most impressively from original Shuttle pilot Robert Crippen. And then all of a sudden, it was launch time. We had only been given a 30 percent chance of seeing a launch that day, due to unstable summer weather in Florida: There were clouds everywhere, and a massive thunderstorm had rained down on the Cape the night before.

But never underestimate the power of a 30-percent chance. At 11a.m. we filed outside and chose our personal vantage points in case the countdown came off. At T-minus 31 seconds, the countdown was halted and we all groaned. We’d be coming back the next day to try it all again. But then something amazing happened: with only a couple of minutes available to get the countdown back on schedule, the NASA flight controllers managed to verify that the alarm that had halted the countdown wasn’t actually valid. We were back on. And before you knew it, there was a huge cloud puffing up around the base of the launch complex three miles away.

What followed was an impossibly bright light, the shrieks of excited viewers, and then 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.

I made a composite of the video I shot from my camera and a few other videos from around me, as well as NASA TV itself, to give me a video souvenir of my launch experience. I’ll embed it below—someone else was shooting his reaction to the launch, and wouldn’t you know it, I’m in the shot. So I can actually watch myself watching the launch. Pretty cool.

Creativity and vision

As I watched the shuttle lift off from Pad 39A, I considered just what a feat of technological accomplishment it represents. We live in a world where people not much different from you and I build complex machines that can shoot into space in a matter of minutes. The Internet that spans the Earth, iPhones that connect to it wirelessly, all the high technology that infuses our lives… all of it is the product of the imagination and innovation of people.

Gaudi's Sagrada Familia

I may be the first person in the world to try and draw a parallel between the Space Shuttle and a church in Spain, but here goes. In February I was in Barcelona attending a trade show, and while I was there I did some sightseeing. While standing in the middle of the Sagrada Família, I was overwhelmed with the same feelings that I experienced again a few months later during the shuttle launch.

I’ll leave the spiritual relevance of this Catholic basilica to the reader’s own judgment, and just discuss the building itself. The Sagrada Família is a mind-boggling structure designed by the architect Antoni Gaudi. From the outside it looks a bit like a crashed spaceship, and the inside is even stranger. Not only is it perhaps the most beautiful man-made structure I have ever seen, but I think it speaks to something fundamental about our potential.

Gaudi was just a man—a supremely talented one, yes, but still just a man. Not only did he conceive of that incredible building, but he also realized it would never be completed in his lifetime. The Sagrada Família groundbreaking was in 1882, and it’s expected to be finished sometime in the 2020s. They’re hoping to finish it around the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death.

Standing in the middle of a church in Barcelona, and standing on swampy grass in central Florida, I felt the same thing: A reminder of just what people can accomplish if they set their minds to it, take advantage of their intelligence and creativity, and refuse to compromise their vision. From beautiful buildings to thundering spaceships, human minds conceived of it and human hands shaped the tools that make it happen.

That same spirit is thriving in the technology industry today. I’ll grant you, I don’t look down at my iPhone with the same level of amazement as the Sagrada Família or the Space Shuttle. But I think that in its innovation and in its focus on empowering the creativity of its users, Apple exemplifies that spirit better than anyone.

[Jason Snell is Macworld's Editorial Director.]

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