UD's Doug White, left, and astronaut Clay Anderson with Flat Samantha.

A real blast

University research associate blogs NASA Endeavour launch

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8:37 a.m., May 25, 2011--The University of Delaware’s Doug White was selected from a pool of 4,100 applicants to watch in person as the space shuttle Endeavour made its historic final launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center April 29. That morning, he stood among a crowd of onlookers as a caravan carrying the astronauts drove by, stopped and turned around before ever reaching the launch pad. 

The mission had been scrubbed

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“We were all a tad disappointed,” he wrote on his blog, “but I heard a good quote along the lines of, ‘it’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than to be in the air and wishing you were on the ground.’”

White and the other 149 @NASA Twitter followers taking part in the launch event, known as a NASA Tweetup, had no choice but to pack up and head home. But White, a research associate at UD’s Hugh R. Sharp Campus in Lewes, had the good fortune to be able to return for the shuttle’s rescheduled launch on May 16. It meant a lot of travel and even more logistics but he joined just over half of the original Tweetup attendees in viewing the launch. 

“It was definitely worth it,” he said.

The launch itself lasted only about 20 seconds before the shuttle disappeared behind a curtain of clouds. During that time though, White and his fellow onlookers furiously snapped as many photos as possible. He’s still processing his footage, which he has been posting on the Ocean Bytes blog. 

“To appreciate the video you really have to crank up the subwoofers,” he explained. “It’s weird because you’re standing there and it’s going up and going up and you can kind of hear it a little bit but then all of a sudden the sheer base of it starts to hit you and you can really feel it as well as see it.”

In addition to watching the launch from only about three miles away, he and the other Tweetup participants got back-stage access, which included meeting astronauts and others close to the project. The launch was a real opportunity to come together with people from all kinds of backgrounds and witness a truly memorable event, he said. 

“It doesn’t matter who you work for, what you do during your day job, or anything else,” he said. “It just acts as a coalescing force to bring everybody together regardless of their politics, beliefs or background.”

White also got an opportunity to introduce a special friend and fellow space fan to his new acquaintances. Before his trip, White heard from Samantha, the 7-year-old daughter of colleague Matt Oliver, assistant professor of oceanography. Samantha asked if a flat version of herself could come along for the adventure. She had watched in January as Flat Stanley traveled with her dad to Antarctica to study penguins and thought it would be cool to try something similar. White loved the idea. He agreed to help @FlatSamantha share her adventures via Twitter during his travels and even asked his NASA contacts whether his friend might be allowed to make the flight to space.

“UD researchers were able to help Flat Stanley get to the ends of the Earth,” he said. “Samantha wanted to take it one step further and see if we can get her flat creation into space.”

Currently Flat Samantha is in digital form with the astronauts 200 miles above the planet. White is crossing his fingers that astronaut Gregory H. Johnson (@Astro_Box) can take time out for a quick photo with Flat Samantha smiling on-screen beside him. It might not be possible with the long list of maintenance and other tasks the astronauts have before them but if it happens you’ll be able to see the proof here.

NASA is planning another Tweetup for July, when Atlantis is scheduled to be the final space shuttle launch.

Article by Elizabeth Boyle

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