Sunday, December 18, 2011

Images of Harvard University

This semester I took a digital photography class through the Harvard Extension School.  My final project is this video, which consists of three time lapse sequences and 60 still images from around the Harvard campus.  I shot everything using my Canon 60D, and used Photoshop, After Effects and Premiere Pro to edit.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Boston SuperMeet 2011

Last night the Boston Final Cut Pro User Group hosted the 2nd annual Boston SuperMeet at the Stuart Street Playhouse in downtown Boston.  It was a dark and stormy night, with the threat of the first snow of the winter, so it was a great night to be indoors with a bunch of other video production nerds.  My coworker, Kevin McGowan, and I arrived about an hour and a half before the show so we could walk around the exhibit floor and visit some of the vendor booths.  I don't have any hard numbers, but it seems like there were more vendors this year than last year.  It's a great opportunity to talk to some company reps and get some hands-on demos of gear and software.

Michael Horton and Daniel Berube hosted the evening

Around 7pm we all headed into the theater to start the show.  Hosts Daniel Berube and Michael Horton put together a great lineup for the Masters of Light and Illusion theme.  I'm sure there will be video from the evening posted on the FCPUG SuperMeet YouTube channel, so I'll just post some pics and highlights from the evening.

Alexis Van Hurkman and Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve

First up was Alexis Van Hurkman with a DaVinci Resolve demo.  I'm always reminded of how little I know about advanced color correction when I watch demos from pros like Alexis.  I think I'm finally motivated to download the free DaVinci Resolve Lite and try my hand at more advanced color correction.

Jem Schofield talking about the Canon EOS 1DX

A couple of weeks ago Canon announced their latest flagship DSLR, the EOS 1DX, and Jem Schofield was at the SuperMeet to talk about using that camera for video production.  Wonderful looking specs on that camera, but unfortunately I don't have $6500 to drop on a body.  My real takeaway from Jem's talk is that I'm now turned onto his great website/blog, theC47.  Some interesting tutorials on there.  He said he has achieved his goal of posting five video tutorials per week!  Jem closed by hinting that we should all pay attention on November 3rd for an important announcement by Canon.  A 4K video camera, or a 5D refresh?  We'll see.

Marc-André Ferguson with Autodesk Smoke

Our next demo was an Autodesk Smoke demo from Marc-AndrĂ© Ferguson.  This must be the seventh Smoke demo I've seen, and my opinion is still the same:  it looks like a very powerful program, but just too much for what I'm doing.  For those working in high end video/film production, I think this is a great program packed with features they will use.  As always, I'm still baffled about the choices Autodesk made for the user interface on Smoke.  Maybe once you use it regularly it starts to make more sense, but I just see it as a pretty uninviting interface to work with.

Corey Tedrow giving an Avid Media Composer 5.5 demo

With so many video production pros giving up on Apple because of the Final Cut X mess, Avid seems to be welcoming all Final Cut converts with open arms.  Our next demo was an Avid Media Composer 5.5 demo from Corey Tedrow.  Avid always does a great job of pointing out all the Media Composer features that people were wishing for in the new Final Cut X.  The statement that got the biggest reaction from the crowd was the announcement that you can now export ProRes files directly from the Media Composer timeline.  With a handful of discounts being offered by Avid, I'm sure many Final Cut users will find themselves trying out the free 30 day trial version of Media Composer.

Film editor Andrew Weisblum

The next presenter was an Avid sponsored talk from film editor Andrew Weisblum (Black Swan, The Wrestler, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Darjeeling Limited).  Andrew showed us the nightclub/drug scene from Black Swan and described how Avid products helped him collaborate with others in finishing that scene.

Walter Murch

Our final presenter of the evening was Walter Murch.  His resume is loaded with plenty of well known films, but some of the biggies he's edited are: Apocalypse Now, The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Jarhead, and Ghost.  I was really pleased to hear that he edited what I believe to be the only acceptable 3D film: Captain EO.  I wasn't a film major, so this was the first time I had attended a talk from a major Hollywood film editor.  I was surprised at how grounded Walter is.  With all the major films he's worked on, and all the awards he's won, he could have easily turned into another Hollywood type with a major ego.  Instead I got the total opposite impression from him.  There was a kind of complex simplicity about Walter.  I started to forget that I was listening to a three time Oscar winner when he began telling us that it's important to put one foot on a stool while editing to reduce lower back pain.

Walter Murch and his latest Final Cut timeline from the HBO film Hemingway & Gellhorn, consisting of 22 video tracks and 50 audio tracks

I also liked the fact that Walter obviously has a wonderfully creative mind, but he's also very in touch with the technical aspects of editing.  He really enjoyed telling us about the Arri Alexa that they used on his latest film, Hemingway & Gellhorn.  I was very impressed with a picture of his Final Cut 7 timeline from that film (pictured above).  22 video tracks and 50 audio tracks is a project that I just can't wrap my head around.

Walter Murch and his famous standing editing station

Walter also showed us a photo of one of his famous standing editing stations.  He really attested to the idea that standing opens him up for a more creative workflow, rather than losing creative energy sitting at a desk.

Walter concluded his talk with mention of the new Final Cut X.  He described it as a child that doesn't play well with others.  He said that in June he sent Apple a letter outlining why he wouldn't be able to use Final Cut X on his projects.  Walter's biggest complaints were the restructuring (aka lack of) audio tracks, no external monitoring and no SAN support.  He admits that they're slowly resolving those issues, but he was also concerned that Apple essentially killed off Final Cut 7.  If you would like to read a more detailed blog post about Walter's SuperMeet talk, Chris Portal wrote a nice post

The evening concluded with the famous SuperMeet raffle with over $50,000 in prizes.  Unfortunately, just like at the Vegas NAB SuperMeet, my coworker and left empty handed.

Once again, Daniel Berube put together an enjoyable Boston Final Cut Pro User Group meeting and SuperMeet.  If you live in the Boston area and you're into video production, you should really attend the monthly BOSFCPUG meetings.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Learning how to photograph star trails

I'm taking a photography course through the Harvard Extension School, and it was quite fitting that star trail photos were suggested for this week's project, since one of my recent photographic goals was to take star trail photos.  I'm a space exploration enthusiast, and star trails have always amazed me.  Living in Boston makes it very hard to take such pictures, due to all the light pollution from the city.  I recently took a trip to central NY, and figured that a weekend in the country would be the perfect time to take star trail photos.

Preparation:  After doing some online research about star trails, I purchased a wired remote for my Canon 60D.  This allowed me to hold the shutter open for longer than 30 seconds, as well as take multiple shorter photos for stacking.  I also purchased a tripod for this shoot.

Conditions:  I had two consecutive evenings (10/8 and 10/9) to take star trail photos.  I knew that the first evening would be full of trial and error photos.  The conditions were near perfect for taking star trails photos.  There weren't any clouds in the sky, there was minimal light pollution from populated areas, and the temperature was in the 60's, so I really didn't run into any condensation on my lens.  Even though I was out in central NY, away from heavily populated areas, light from houses and street lights still washed out sightings of stars right along the horizon.  The timing of the moon phase couldn't have been worse though, since it was nearly a full moon.  There was quite a bit of reflection of light off the moon lighting up the night.  I could almost read a book out there with light reflecting off the moon. 

Positioning:  After the fact, I figured out that it would have been best to drive way out into the country, far away from any houses or street lights.  Instead, for this shoot, I was in the backyard of a house in a populated neighborhood.  That added a bit of light pollution, washing out some star sightings.  I set up my tripod with my back to the moon, to make sure that it wouldn't enter my shot as it moved across the sky.  The moon is way too bright for these types of long exposures.  I made sure to get the north star in my shot, so I would have star trails circling around it.  Not essential, but a cool looking effect.  

First night:  After setting everything up in the backyard, I manually focused using Jupiter, since it was the brightest item in the sky that I could see on my LCD screen.  I zoomed in my LCD screen on Jupiter, and set my focus to infinity.  This wasn't at the very end of the focus ring, since (as I later researched) lens manufactures have a focal point past infinity, to account for slight variations in the lens due to temperature and other conditions.  My first attempt was simply a three minute test shot using bulb mode and wired remote with the following settings:  50mm, 180 sec, f/1.8, ISO 100.  This was unsuccessful, since there was so much light captured by the sensor and it resulted in a pure white image.  I closed my aperture down and proceeded to take my first full length star trails photo using the following settings:  50mm, 2025 sec, f/22, ISO 100:

50mm, 2025 sec, f/22, ISO 100

I was happy to capture some successful star trails, but disappointed in the photo for a few reasons:  not many stars were captured, I didn't have anything in the foreground to provide a point of reference, there was lots of digital noise in the image and I wasn't positioned properly to show the north star.  I didn't capture many stars because I was forced to use a large f stop to properly expose the 34 minute image.  The digital noise was a result of leaving the shutter open for almost 34 straight minutes.  I had read about another method of taking star trail photos called "stacking".  By taking a series of shorter exposure photos, and later stacking them using Photoshop or other programs, you cut down on the digital noise and are able to take shots with a lower f stop, resulting in capturing more stars.  My final shot of the night was taken using the following settings:  18mm, 29 sec, f/3.5, ISO 100 and I took 60 consecutive shots, effectively giving me total of 30 minutes of photos.  These shots were taken 1:30-2am.  Using a setting on the remote, I left one second between each shot to give the camera time to save the 29 second image it just captured.  I then used a program called "Startrails" to stack all 60 images on top of each other, using the lighten blending mode.  This could also be accomplished in Photoshop using layers.  I was very happy with the result:

18mm, 29 sec, f/3.5, ISO 100, 60 consecutive shots

I was able to capture many more stars due to the wider aperture, my digital noise was very low, I now positioned a tree in the frame for some reference, and I positioned the shot to capture the north star.  Other than some slight blurring in the tree (the wind was slightly blowing) and some whisps of clouds on the bottom right, I was very pleased with the result.  Stacking consecutive images definitely seems like the best method of taking star trails photos.  

Second night:  Now that I had one successful star trail photo using the stacking method, I wanted to try taking more shots (to get longer trails) and increase the ISO (to capture more stars.)  I used these settings for my second shot:  18mm, 29 sec, f/3.5, ISO 200 and I took 239 consecutive shots, capturing almost two hours of star trails.  After stacking the images, I noticed the problem of airplane trails all over my photos:

18mm, 29 sec, f/3.5, ISO 200, 239 consecutive shots

Compared to the previous night, I took these photos much earlier: 9-11pm.  This resulted in many more airplanes flying through my frame.  To be exact, 70 of the 239 photos had airplane trails in them, and some of the planes took three photos (a minute and a half) to get through my frame.  I tried simply removing the 70 frames from my stacked photo, but as you can see, that just resulted in broken star trails and a horrible Morse code effect:

70 (out of 240) photos removed due to airplane trails

I finally went through the tedious process of cleaning out only the airplane trails from each of the 70 affected photos using the clone stamp tool in Photoshop.  It took a couple of hours, but eventually I had a great star trails photo:

Airplane trails edited out of 70 photos using Photoshop

My favorite part of this photo is a shooting star that I captured.  If you find the highest point of the left tree, and move up the image you can see the shooting star as a small diagonal trail.  It was easy to tell that shooting star apart from the airplane trails, since it started and stopped over only an inch of my image, rather than travel through the entire image.

Conclusions:  After trying a shot simply leaving the shutter open for 30 minutes, and trying the method of stacking consecutive shorter exposure shots, I would highly recommend the stacking method.  There was much less digital noise and I was able to capture many more stars due to the wider aperture.  I also liked the look of increasing the ISO to 200 for my second evening's shot.  The increased sensor sensitivity allowed me to capture more stars and also gave the sky a slightly bluer look to it, rather than dark black.  In the future I look forward to taking more star trails photos.  I hope to try taking four hours worth of shots and try something a bit more exciting in the foreground, like a building.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens: first impression

50mm, f/1.8, 1/60, ISO100

I'll preface this post by saying that I'm very new to the world of professional photography.  If you're looking for a professional, comprehensive review of this lens, this isn't the blog post for you.  This is the worst review of this lens, but I figured some beginners might appreciate my first impressions of it.  Consider yourself warned.

My Canon 60D came with a 18-135mm lens, but I decided that a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens would be my first lens purchase.  After reading many nice reviews about the lens, I shelled out the measly $104 for it and brought it with me to Sunday River ski resort in Maine for a test.  I was very impressed with the results.

50mm, f/1.8, 1/8000, ISO100

I'm having lots of fun with the impressively shallow depth of field I can get with this lens.  The photo above of my shoes was taken indoors with natural light coming in through a window.  No flash, low ISO, and a normal shutter speed for handheld.  For $104, this seems like a great lens.  I'll post more photos and opinions about this lens as I use it.

50mm, f/1.8, 1/640, ISO100

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Sunday River ski resort - summer 2011

My wife and I spent a weekend at Sunday River ski resort in Maine, and I had a chance to really give my new Canon 60D a nice test run.  In addition to the 18-135mm lens that came with the 60D, I had just purchased a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens.  All in all, I'm very pleased with the 60D and both of the lenses.  Click here to see all of my photos from Sunday River.  Warning:  I'm still new to DSLR photography, and I also love chairlifts.  Prepare yourself for an onslaught of chairlift photos.

I warned you

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

New York State Fair 2011

Cow grabbing a drink on a hot day

I visited the New York State Fair last weekend, and found it to be a great place to try out my new Canon 60D.  I'm new to the world of advanced photography, so I had fun constantly adjusting shutter speed, ISO and f-stop to try and capture some interesting photos.  Click here to see the rest of my NYS Fair photos, and keep an eye on this blog to watch as I learn my new Canon 60D and work my way through my first photography class at the Harvard Extension School.

Monday, August 29, 2011

NASA Juno Tweetup: reflections

Read my previous blog entry in the "NASA Juno Tweetup" series: "Day 2 - KSC Visitor Center, Astronaut Hall of Fame and Endless BBQ"
Jump back to my first blog entry in the series:  "Preview of my report"

Countdown clock at the LC-39 Press Site

Well, this is my last post recapping my time at the NASA Tweetup for the launch of the Juno spacecraft.  It was an amazing experience stuffed into two action packed days.  It's hard to imagine that I almost wasn't able to attend due to some scheduling conflicts.  Luckily, it all worked out and I was able to take part in this once in a lifetime experience.

Hanging out with space shuttle Discovery in the VAB

As I look back, I would have to say that the tour of Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station was the highlight of my time there.  The sights we saw will stick with me for many years to come.  Standing next to space shuttle Discovery, looking straight up the middle of the Vehicle Assembly Building, and driving by Launch Complex 5, where the American space program started, were the real highlights for me.

Charles Bolden: shuttle astronaut, NASA Administrator and head honcho

The guest speakers, demos and launch of the Juno spacecraft were a very close second, but the tour was really something special.  The best part about the guest speakers wasn't necessarily the content of their talks, but just experiencing their passion for their work.  These were brilliant scientists, engineers and astronauts taking time out of their busy lives to share their passion with 150 Tweetup nerds in a hot tent.  Pretty inspiring people to be around.

Tweetup participants in the tent

One aspect of the Tweetup I really enjoyed was talking to other participants.  It's great to meet people that share the same interests as you, and love to get in conversations about it.  There were people from all walks of life, with many different specialties, that all shared an interest in space exploration.  The comradery on our tour bus (1A/1B), the people I sat with in the tent, my dinner companions the first night, and the folks I met at the Endless BBQ were all wonderful.  All were great people, and I hope to cultivate relationships with them via Twitter and Facebook, and maybe even see them at future NASA Tweetups.

Vehicle Assembly Building

Even though I'm not one of the "NASA is dead now that the space shuttle program is finished" people, I did take away the feeling that NASA is alive and kicking.  As Charles Bolden said, the unmanned missions are the building blocks to the higher profile manned missions of the future.  In many ways, I think the data compiled by the unmanned missions is much more exciting than the manned missions.  The Juno spacecraft will travel for five years, over 400,000,000 miles from earth, and study a planet that might give us information about how the solar system formed.  That's pretty mind blowing stuff.

It's human nature to explore earth and space.  Unfortunately, society will find money for wars in the middle of a desert on the other side of the globe before they find money for space exploration.  I guess fighting is human nature too.  Many people don't realize that space exploration has had many technological advancements as side effects.  Sure, we can just save all our money, not explore anything, not advance as a society, and die not having learned anything.  I just don't see the point in that.  Some people don't see the big picture, but I'm glad to be one of the voices that shares my enthusiasm about space exploration.

I wasn't around in the 60's, but I read that the Apollo missions unified Americans as much as WWII did.  Luckily, politicians see high profile space missions as a unifying thing, so then they will find money for NASA.  When the time comes to send humans to Mars, I hope it will be like the Apollo program all over again.  Participation by both NASA and private space companies in space exploration seems like a cost effective way to push ahead.

150 NASA Juno Tweetup participants

As you may have gathered from my last ten blog posts about the Juno Tweetup, I had a blast (pun intended).  If you have the chance to participate in a NASA Tweetup, don't pass up the opportunity.  If you don't think a Tweetup for an unmanned mission will be as exciting as one of the past shuttle Tweetups, I think you're wrong.  Heck, the GRAIL Tweetup will have Sally Ride as a guest speaker!

Even though this is my last Juno Tweetup recap post, please stay in touch by following me on Twitter and keep an eye on my blog for updates. Writing these blog posts was very fun, since I got to relive all the highlights of my two days at Kennedy Space Center.  Thanks for checking out my blog, and I hope you enjoyed reading the posts as much as I enjoyed writing them. 

See all my pictures from the NASA Juno Tweetup

Friday, August 26, 2011

NASA Juno Tweetup: day 2 - KSC Visitor Center, Astronaut Hall of Fame and Endless BBQ

Read my previous blog entry in the "NASA Juno Tweetup" series: "Day 2 - Juno launch"
Jump back to my first blog entry in the series:  "Preview of my report"

Looking down the business end of a Saturn V rocket at the KSC Visitor Complex's Apollo/Saturn V Center

Day 2 of the NASA Juno Tweetup started with guest speakers and demos in the tent, followed by the successful launch of the Atlas V rocket with the Juno spacecraft.  The launch was the final event planned by the Tweetup organizers, but I didn't want my NASA experience to end just yet.  Part of our NASA goodie bag given to us on day 1 was a free two day pass to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and the Astronaut Hall of Fame.  I had been to the KSC Visitor Complex a few times in the past, but I decided to use the afternoon of day 2 to check out these attractions again.

Since this was launch day, I pulled up to the KSC Visitor Complex and noticed quite a large crowd there.  Some of my fellow Tweetup attendees were already inside and were Tweeting that they had never seen it so crowded.  That's good news for the space program, but bad news for me.  I figured that the pass was free, so I might as well take advantage of the place.

Before I entered, I tried to purchase their "Cape Canaveral: Then & Now" tour that brings you out to the original launch sites of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, as well as a stop at the Air Force Space & Missile Museum.  This tour brings you to Launch Complex 5, where Alan Shepard became the first American in space on a Mercury Redstone rocket in 1961.  We drove by this pad on day 1 on the way to our Launch Complex 17 tour, but we didn't stop there.  This tour also stops at the site of the Apollo 1 launch pad fire that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.  Unfortunately, they weren't running this tour on the day I was there.  It looks like a great tour, and it was available the next day, but I wasn't going to be in the area.  After the fact, I heard that the Air Force Station also offers a similar (but much cheaper) tour.

I wandered into the KSC Visitor Complex and was pretty blown away by the amount of people there.  I got a lay of the land, and headed toward the Imax theater for a screening of the space station film.  The line for the film was extremely long, and I just wasn't in the mood to wait on it.

Rocket Garden

My next stop was the Rocket Garden, which is various rockets used by NASA during the early years of the space program.  I love the history of the space program, rather than the flashy stuff like the Imax or rides, so this is really what I was hoping to see.  It was interesting to stand next to a Mercury Redstone rocket and imagine a human on the top of it waiting to launch into space.  Those were pretty brave guys to climb aboard those older rockets.  The Saturn IB (rocket on its side in the picture) was the kind of rocket that the Apollo 1 crew were in when the launch pad fire killed them.  Testing that rocket led to the developemnt of the massive Saturn V, which you'll read more about in a bit.

One part of the Rocket Garden is the actual service structure from the Apollo missions, namely Apollo 11, which was Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins heading to the moon for the first moon walk.  I made this little cell phone video of me walking the same service structure that the astronauts did when it was time to load into the capsule atop the Saturn V rocket on Launch Complex 39A.  At the end, you can see the tiny capsule they had to climb in.  They would be loaded in on their backs, looking up toward space.

One part of the KSC Visitor Complex that is a "must see" is the Apollo/Saturn V Center.  I have been to it before, but I really wanted to go see it again.  You have to take a bus over to it from the main Visitor Complex, and the tour usually includes a stop at the gantry that KSC built along Saturn Causeway that overlooks the Launch Complex 39 (shuttle) pads.  That part of the tour wasn't happening due to the Atlas V Juno launch earlier, but I wasn't too disappointed, since I drove right by Launch Complex 39A on my day 1 tour of KSC.  After waiting on a long (30 minute) line, I finally got bussed past the Vehicle Assembly Building over to the Apollo/Saturn V Center.

Saturn V rocket at the Apollo/Saturn V Center

Your first stop at the Apollo/Saturn V Center is a reenactment of the launch countdown of a Saturn V rocket.  They have the actual firing room computers that were used during the Apollo program.  The video and show is quite entertaining.  Then you head into the main room, and are greeted with the sight in the picture above:  the business end of a Saturn V rocket.  NASA had already produced Saturn V rockets when the program came to an earlier than expected end, so the rocket on display here is one of those unused rockets.

The Saturn V rocket is so long (36 stories tall), it was impossible for me to get the entire thing in my camera frame.  It's raised up about 15 feet off the floor, so you can walk right underneath it and examine all the different sections.  It's just absolutely massive.  It's funny to see how small the crew capsule is compared to the rest of the rocket.  This rocket contained an incredible amount of power to break free of earth's gravity and propel humans 235,000 miles to the moon.  I've heard that the Saturn V rocket was the loudest man made object.  This rocket contained as much explosive energy as a small atomic bomb.  I would have loved to see a Saturn V launch in person, but I suppose that without a time machine, the Apollo/Saturn V Center is the next best thing.

I decided that I would leave the KSC Visitor Complex and head across the NASA Causeway bridge to the Astronaut Hall of Fame.  This is included with your KSC Visitor Complex ticket.  The Astronaut Hall of Fame does contain a little hall of fame area with pictures of the inducted astronauts, but it's really a great museum showcasing the history of the space program.  I really liked this museum as much as I liked the Apollo/Saturn V Center, if not more.  They had great exhibits showing the progression of the space program, along with many interesting items to look at.  I didn't take a single picture in there, since I was obviously engrossed in the displays the entire time.  I was able to join up with a tour group going through the museum, so I got a great dose of NASA history.  A couple of times I wanted to correct the tour guide, but I bit my tongue.  I stayed there until closing time, and really need to go back to see everything I missed.  I highly recommend you spend some time here if you have an interest in the space program, and I assume you do since you're reading my blog post.

Bad cell phone pic of the Endless BBQ

The last day of the Tweetup ended like other NASA Tweetups have ended, with the Endless BBQ at someone's house.  The gracious hosts were shuttle technicians that live in Merritt Island.  From what I saw, the crowd was about 50% Tweetup attendees and 50% current or former space program employees.  I only took this one picture with my phone, which you can see above, but it really sums up the evening. @CraftLass was singing the Big Bang Theory theme song with NASA TV playing in the background. This BBQ was the perfect way to end the Tweetup experience with a bunch of genuinely nice, fun and interesting people.

That was the end of day 2, and unfortunately, the end of my time at the NASA Juno Tweetup.  My next blog post will be the last in my NASA Juno Tweetup series, wrapping everything up with my thoughts about the whole experience. 

Read my next (and last) blog entry in the "NASA Juno Tweetup" series:  "Reflections"
See all my pictures from the NASA Juno Tweetup 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

NASA Juno Tweetup: day 2 - Juno launch

Read my previous blog entry in the "NASA Juno Tweetup" series: "Day 2 - guest speakers and demos"
Jump back to my first blog entry in the series:  "Preview of my report"

Photo courtesy of NASA

After a great day 1 of guest speakers and a Kennedy Space Center/Cape Canaveral Air Force Station tour, and the guest speakers and demos on the morning of day 2, it was finally time to watch the launch of the Atlas V rocket with the Juno spacecraft.  I was quite excited for this, since it was my first live launch.  I have watched plenty online and on TV, but never in person.

After Bill Nye wrapped up the guest speaking portion of the morning, we took a short break and started to get ready for the planned launch time of 11:34am.  We had NASA TV on inside the Tweetup tent, all looked to be on track and the countdown was proceeding as planned.  We made our way out of the tent to the bleachers on the Launch Complex 39 Press Site lawn.  Only four miles away, we could see the tip of the Atlas V rocket peeking above the trees at Launch Complex 41.  It was amazing to think that less than 24 hours ago, I was standing next to a rocket that will be launching in minutes.

As we stood in the hot, humid Florida air waiting for the launch, some people in our group had their iPhones tuned to NASA TV and were giving us updates.  All of a sudden, at T-4 minutes, someone announced that the launch team had a problem with a helium leak on the ground, so the countdown was holding.  Apparently it wasn't a leak on the rocket, but rather a problem with a helium tank on the ground at Launch Complex 41 that's used to supply the Atlas V rocket.  The launch team had to meet to assess the severity of the leak, and discuss the effects of the leak with a rocket launching next to the tank.  This is when I sent out my first Tweet about the hold:
The launch is holding at the moment. Only 1 hour launch window today then we have to wait until tomorrow.
Since the launch window was only open for one hour, we were starting to get a tad bit nervous that they wouldn't be able to fix the leak, and they would have to scrub the launch and try again 24 hours later.  About 15-20 minutes later, we heard an update that the leak situation was still being discussed by the launch team, and now there was a boat that wandered into the hazard area cordoned off by NASA off the coast of Cape Canaveral.  A fishing boat clueless about the launch, or some people trying to get a good view of the launch from the ocean?  Not sure, but whoever it was, they were now part of the countdown hold until NASA can clear them out of the area.
RT : countdown clock has been reset with a new liftoff time of 12:13 p.m. EDT!
As my Tweet shows, we had hopes that the 12:13pm launch time would stick, but that came and went with the countdown still holding.  The launch window closes at 12:43pm, so we were about 30 minutes away.  By now many of us had moved out of the sun and back into the tent, to stand in front of the A/C units and watch the NASA TV feed for updates.  We could see the Atlas V rocket on the launch pad venting its liquid oxygen tank, ready to leap off the pad and into space.  Finally, at 12:18pm, the launch team polled all the different individuals involved with the launch, and the launch was a "go" for 12:25pm.
Nothing like cutting it close! Getting all of us people a bit nervous with a new launch time of 12:25 ET
My Tweet seemed a bit skeptical, but this seemed like the real deal.  The launch team determined the leak to be fixed and it was safe to proceed, and the range cleared out the lost boater.  We all made our way out to the lawn for the launch.  Since this was my first launch, I decided that my cameras would stay in my pocket for the initial liftoff, so I could soak in the experience.  My little Canon point and shoot couldn't capture the moment like the professional NASA photos anyway, so I'll just show you some of those.

As we approached 12:25pm, it was apparent that this would be a "go", and we wouldn't have to worry about a scrub.  We all chanted 5-4-3-2-1 and all of a sudden, the Atlas V rocket began to rise above the treetops.

Photo courtesy of NASA

This was an Atlas V version 551 rocket, so the five solid rocket boosters strapped to this thing made it just jump right off the pad.  Even though we were four miles away from the launch pad, this baby appeared to be moving very fast.  The Atlas V rocket achieved mach 1 about 30 seconds after launch.  It was an intense flame, almost too bright to look directly at.  A few seconds after launch, the sound came rolling across the Turning Basin lake and hit us.  It was a powerful sound like I had never experienced before.  Like I mentioned, I've watched many, many launches on TV and online, but microphones and speakers just can't accurately reproduce the sound, and the feeling of the sound, that you experience in person.  I loved feeling the rumble of the solid rocket boosters pushing Juno toward space.

Ten seconds after launch.  The black line you see on the left side of the smoke plume is a shadow cast by the plume.

Ten seconds after launch, when I snapped out of my awe induced trance, I pulled out my camera and shot the picture above.  The smoke plume was so thick it cast the black shadow you see on the left side of the photo.

The Atlas V rocket with the Juno spacecraft at the tip of the smoke plume

The rocket moved so fast, it was a tiny dot in the sky before you knew it.  We had perfect weather, with no clouds to obstruct our view of the Atlas V rocket heading up into space.  A handful of the last shuttle launches had to deal with low, thick cloud ceilings, so those people viewing the launch only got to see it for a few seconds before disappearing above the clouds.

Almost out of sight

It was very cool to watch something climb so high, it just disappeared into space.  I tried to capture the picture above just as the Atlas V rocket was too small to see.

The smoke plume was so tall, it was hard to get it all in the frame

After a successful launch, as the smoke plume started to slowly dissipate, all of the Tweetup attendees hung around the bleachers for a few minutes excitedly discussing what we just witnessed.  The adrenaline rush of watching the launch was great.

We all eventually made our way back in the tent, and many of us stood around the monitors showing the NASA TV feed.  About 30 minutes after launch, we watched NASA TV as the Juno spacecraft detached from the Centaur upper stage and started its five year journey to Jupiter.

Unfortunately, we were also faced with the fact that this was the end of the Tweetup's officially planned activities.  The two days flew by, but my NASA experience wasn't over quite yet.  Check out my next blog entry for highlights from my trip to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, the Astronaut Hall of Fame and the Endless BBQ.  I'll leave you with some Juno launch videos courtesy of NASA and United Launch Alliance:

Read my next blog entry in the "NASA Juno Tweetup" series:  "Day 2 - KSC Visitor Complex, Astronaut Hall of Fame and Endless BBQ" 
See all my pictures from the NASA Juno Tweetup

Monday, August 22, 2011

NASA Juno Tweetup: day 2 - guest speakers and demos

Read my previous blog entry in the "NASA Juno Tweetup" series: "Day 1 - Vehicle Assembly Building tour"
Jump back to my first blog entry in the series:  "Preview of my report"

Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator and astronaut

After an intense first day of guest speakers and a great Kennedy Space Center/Cape Canaveral Air Force Station tour, the Juno launch day was upon us.  Day 2 of the Juno Tweetup consisted of a morning filled with more great guest speakers, some demos and interactive sessions, finally culminating with the launch of the Atlas V rocket with the Juno spacecraft.  My next blog entry will be about the Juno launch, since this post is all about our guest speakers and demos.

The NASA social media team really worked hard to put on a couple action packed days for our Tweetup.  I'm guessing that one of the most challenging aspects of setting up the Tweetup was coordinating the guest speaking portions of the two days.  Both days consisted of some very important people involved with the Juno spacecraft, the Atlas V rocket, or with NASA in general.  Trying to schedule all of these people to speak to 150 space loving nerds in a tent the day before launch and the day of launch must have been difficult.

This day's guest speaker lineup was:
and the demos we saw were from:

    Andy Aldrin from ULA

    The morning started with a talk by Andy Aldrin, who works for United Launch Alliance.  He talked about United Launch Alliance's role in the future of space exploration, and he even talked about his father.  Looking at Andy's last name, it should be pretty obvious that his father is Buzz Aldrin.  Looks like the space program runs in the blood.  When asked about growing up with Buzz Aldrin as a father, Andy said that he lived in Houston on a street where all his friends has astronaut fathers.  Hearing the way Andy talked about his father, you can tell he really admires Buzz's accomplishments.

    Waleed Abdalati, NASA Chieft Scientist

    Next up was Waleed Abdalati, who is the Chief Scientist for NASA.  He gets to set the course for NASA's scientific endeavors, and is the face of NASA in the scientific community.  He is a very funny man and an engaging public speaker.  He made a statement that many Tweetup participants took notice of (via a flurry of Tweets) stating that your job shouldn't be draining, but rather it should be energizing.  If you get home at night and you're physically drained, you body is telling you that's not the job for you.  After hearing Waleed's talk, you can tell that he's energized about his job.

    Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator and astronaut

    Our next speaker was Charles Bolden, the NASA Administrator (head honcho) talking to us about NASA's future.  He's also a former astronaut, flying on the shuttle for four missions.  In 1990 he was the pilot of STS-31, which was space shuttle Discovery (which we saw in the VAB) deploying the Hubble Space TelescopeDuring his speech, I thought to myself "this is the closest I've ever been to someone that's been in space."  A goofy thing to think, but true!  If you would like to see a video of Charles Bolden's talk to all of us in the Tweetup tent, it's posted on YouTube.

    The main theme of Charles' talk was making the point that just because the shuttle program has come to an end, that doesn't mean NASA has also come to an end.  He promoted the unmanned missions (robotic missions, as he said) as the building blocks to the manned missions of the future.  He said that without the unmanned missions, we wouldn't have the data and research to carry out the higher profile manned missions.  He also talked about either SpaceX or Orbital Sciences sending up a cargo ship to the International Space Station in early 2012.  Charles also mentioned that in early 2012, NASA will put out a request to the private space companies for proposals on their crew capable spacecraft ideas, with the goal of returning American crews (on American spacecraft) to orbit sometime between 2015 and 2017.  He also pointed out that there has been (and continues to be) Americans in space aboard the International Space Station for over 10 years.  So the U.S. is still committed to space exploration and is in the beginning of a new chapter in the space program.

    Charles made a point about the importance of Juno using solar cells to power the spacecraft, rather than nuclear power, like many other unmanned spacecraft.  When asked by a science teacher in the Tweetup crowd how he would respond to students that say they want to have his job when they grow up, Charles joked "be careful what you ask for."  I can understand that comment, in a time when funding is being cut and he constantly has to explain that the shuttle program wasn't 100% of what NASA was doing.  He wrapped up his talk by thanking us for our enthusiasm for NASA, and used a fellow space program enthusiast and previous NASA Tweetup attendee, Kate Arkless Gray, as an example of the power of using social media to promote NASA.  Kate's an avid Twitter user and space fanatic that has traveled from her home in the U.K. to experience shuttle launches and NASA Tweetups.  As he was mentioning Kate, I knew that the NASA Administrator remembering her and mentioning her name would make her year.  After his talk, Charles Bolden agreed to join all of us in front of the Vehicle Assembly Building for a group photo.

    Group photo with Charles Bolden, Waleed Abdalati and Andy Aldrin.  You can find me by looking at the water tower to the left of the VAB.  I'm in the orange shirt, about four people to the right of the water tower.

    Doug Ellison demoing "Eyes on the Solar System"

    After our group photo in front of the VAB, we headed back into the tent for the demo portion of the morning.  The first demo I attended was from the JPL's Doug EllisonDoug is a Visualization Producer at the JPL, and one of the creators of the "Eyes on the Solar System" website.  This is a very cool website that allows you to see visualizations of all the items (naturally formed and man made) in the solar system.  If you want to see Juno on its way to Jupiter, this site will show you.  How about the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn?  You can see that too.  I can see myself spending lots of time on this site.

    Preston Dyches showing us some of the materials used on Juno

    I spent the rest of the demo period listening to Preston Dyches, from the JPL, talk about some of the materials used on the Juno spacecraft.  It seems the keys were finding lightweight materials that would also withstand the harsh environment in space, as well as the healthy dose of radiation that Juno will receive around Jupiter.  Preston passed around some of these materials for us to see.

    Titanium used on Juno

    One such material is titanium, that is used on Juno to protect many of the scientific instruments.  A couple of speakers on the first day also talked about the 1/2" thick casing of titanium around Juno's electronics.

    One of Juno's solar cells

    As Charles Bolden pointed out, as did other speakers on the first day, Juno is a solar powered spacecraft, rather than nuclear powered.  Preston passed around one of the solar cells that make up the large solar panels on the spacecraft.  Preson reiterated that Juno needs such large solar panels due to the low intensity level of the sun's rays at Jupiter.  Since Jupiter is so far away from the sun, compared to earth, the solar panels near Jupiter will only produce 4% of the electricity that they would if opened on earth.

    A couple other speakers we heard from during the morning were Rex Englehardt and Mike Ravine.  Rex is from NASA's Launch Services Program.  As Rex described it, he "buys rockets for a living."  The Launch Services Program is the group within NASA that contracts the private space companies, like ULA, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, to provide launch vehicles for NASA's unmanned spacecraft.  Mike Ravine is the individual responsible for creating JunoCam, which is the camera attached to Juno.  It seems that the biggest challenge to creating JunoCam was to create a camera than will withstand the super high levels of radiation that surround Jupiter.


    I'm going to jump ahead real quick (post launch), since this is a demo that should be included in this section.  After the launch, Stephanie Smith from the JPL passed around a piece of the lightest man made solid substance called Aerogel. It's essentially spun glass that looks like a block of frozen smoke. It was used as a lightweight insulation on spacecraft Stardust as well as on the Mars Rover. It was a very odd sensation holding it. Hard to describe how light it was. Even though it has the name "gel" in its title, it's a solid.  OK, now flashback to before the launch, for the last speaker of the morning.

    Bill Nye, The Science Guy

    Our final speaker was a big crowd favorite:  Bill Nye, The Science Guy.  He was at Kennedy Space Center to watch the launch, and agreed to talk to all of us in the Tweetup tent.  He's a very enthusiastic guy, and is exactly like you've seen him on TV.  If you would like to watch his talk to all of us in the Tweetup tent, it's posted on YouTube.  Bill talked about the importance of teaching children math and science, his enthusiasm for the Juno mission and future NASA missions, and talked quite a bit about The Planetary Society, of which he's executive director.  He was in a room full of 150 space nerds, so he was in his element.  He took plenty of questions from the audience, and even stuck around after his talk and came back after the launch to take pictures with us.  He was a big crowd favorite.

    After Bill Nye's talk wrapped up, we had about 30 minutes until the launch of the Atlas V rocket with the Juno spacecraft.  Well, it turned out to be more than 30 minutes until launch, but you can read all about that in my next blog entry detailing the Juno launch.

    Read my next blog entry in the "NASA Juno Tweetup" series:  "Day 2 - Juno launch"
    See all my pictures from the NASA Juno Tweetup