Fifth World Art by Robert Neff
ebook - Reconnecting With Life by Robert Neff

ebook: Reconnecting with Life

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When I returned home to support my widowed mother's fight with breast cancer in 2002, I reevaluated my life's journey and direction. Read more...

7 Views of Downtown St. Petersburg


Experience the seven views from walkabout photographer, Robert Neff as they offer unique views of St. Petersburg, Florida. The postcard set or prints make a wonderful gift for the home or office. Read more...

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NASA STS-135 Tweetup: My Story

The Last Space Shuttle Launch

25 Nov 2011 by Robert Neff

On July 8, 2011, I attended the historic launch of the last space shuttle, Atlantis because NASA used social media to engage the world via Twitter.

I was one of 150 people selected to attend NASA Tweetup STS-135, a two-day event. We were exposed to guests, administrators and astronauts. All the attendees shared this experience with our followers through multiple social media apps.

This was a well-run program. Businesses should take notice of the NASA model because they ran an impressive Tweetup.

On Thursday morning, I arrived at the parking lot next to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). I met and walked with other people attending the NASA Tweetup to the security checkpoint, showed our badges and preceded across the media parking lot. This was filling up with news trucks that had large satellite dishes and great air-conditioned rooms. To the right was a plateau that housed the pressroom and would later find the restrooms. Ahead was a field and on the other side was a large basin. On the left side was the clock and flag. On the right was the NASA Tweetup Tent. We were the second tent from the water, but the largest! A raised yellow rope kept us a safe distance from the water.

The sky was overcast and hazy. Rain was in the forecast and you could see rain cells out there. On the horizon I could see the shuttle's outline rise above the green. The distance is approximately 3 miles and was already calculating camera settings.

Several tripods were standing along the yellow rope. Given the wet conditions, several tripods had rain covers. Experience told me that I needed to set down my pack and return to survey the area. I needed to find a great view of the shuttle and reserved my spot.

I walked into the tent and found an empty table. I unpacked and went back out to walk the yellow line. I found an unobstructed view of the launch pad next to a small patch of shrubs. I extended my tripod to claim squatter's rights! I attached the 400mm to the camera and took several test shots. This was my first experience with the lens that I had just rented from Lens Depot in Orlando.

The day started with greetings from the NASA Tweetup staff and the Tweetup organizer, Stephanie Schierholz. Of course, she received a long round of applause! That morning was full of presentations, an appearance by Elmo from Sesame Street, several astronauts and NASA administrators. All were passionate and had tremendous energy!

Rain continued to be an issue while we were in the tent. We experienced a steady rain and then thunder and lightening storm. Luckily the weather cleared up and we walked to the cafeteria for lunch.

The afternoon was reserved for a view of the Rotating Service Structure (RSS) and its roll back to expose the shuttle. The RSS was Atlantis' protective shelter. We witnessed the retraction from behind the fence. Next was a tour of the Saturn V on display at the Johnson Space Center and then a visit inside the VAB.

On Friday, the tripod population had multiplied and this continued until thirty minutes before launch. Media kept arriving and soon the tripods were four deep. Everyone was mounting their cameras and taking test shots. I walked back to the tent in time to listen to a fanfare for the final shuttle launch. Bear McCreary who is the Composer of Battlestar Galactica composed this piece.

About an hour before the launch, one photographer repositioned his camera. One person took notice, then others followed his line of site. About thirty yards from our spot was large alligator crossing the basin. This provided a momentary diversion as some watched, a few asked if it had been fed and others repositioned their cameras to capture the gator.

I like to pan the crowd and capture others working. This is my tribute to those you never see. Next to a two-story tent I saw another photographer shooting an interview from below. I zoomed in to capture @AndersonCooper being interviewed!

When we were minutes away, all the fun chatter slowed as we positioned and focused on the launch. Camera settings were mumbled. People were asking who was doing "Manual" and what were their settings. Some replied they were doing "Auto."

When the countdown moved to single digits, the camera line leaned into their viewfinder. Smart phones were raised to take video and snap photos.

When the ignition started, people cheered and waited for movement. I could not hear the announcer over the cheers. So the first visible sign for me was white smoke that appeared to the far right.

The rocket's rumbling increased as they worked to lift Atlantis. The flames pummeled the ground and very slowly raised Atlantis above the launch pad. When Atlantis was free of the launch pad, the rocket's flames continued to extend as Atlantis headed toward the low clouds. There was a distinct white-hot tail. A plume of white smoke marked the path traveled. The perspective of speed was lost within my viewfinder. I tracked the shuttle and framed the shuttle and its white-hot tail! However the flame was so bright that my eye wanted to zero in on the white-hot flame.

Unfortunately, I did not capture Atlantis traveling through the clouds because I stopped shooting to watch! I cannot begin to describe the shear power and force of the launch.

Below, I recall my remarkable moments from the launch:

  1. The white smoke first appeared way off to the right.
  2. Atlantis seemed to lift very slowly off the pad.
  3. The acceleration was fast once it cleared the launch pad.
  4. The intensity and depth of the rumble was deafening to the ears.
  5. The launch created a pressure wave that traveled outward through our location.You quickly felt the pressure increase in front of you. Then the shock wave hit you and continued to travel behind you. This did not last a moment but several moments.
  6. As Atlantis gained altitude, my eye was glued to the camera's viewfinder. I watched the intensity of the white glow increase and extend from the engine nozzle. My focus fixated on the white-hot flame and caused my eyes to squint.
  7. After the shuttle disappeared, the white plume left behind a cylinder of expanding white smoke. This volume had multiple expanding sections. The cylinder connected the cloud's low ceiling to the ground. The width almost filled my camera's viewfinder. After a few moments, I witnessed the wind pushing the cylinder to the North and molding the cylinder into a glob with an outreached hand. This seemed to be reaching back for the launch pad. It did not want to let go of the last shuttle launch…neither did I!

Now relive this historic occasion through the launch day photo essay!

Read more stories by Robert Neff

Launch day photo essay!

Experience the rush!

Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-135 Launch Patch #NASATweetup

Atlantis being rolled out! #NASATweetup #Spacetweeps
Vehicle Assembly Building, #NASATweetup

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