Category Archives: Shuttle

40 Years of Florida Christmases

My readers may remember that I celebrated my 40th birthday this year (back in April) and I made my 40 for 40 promise, which, by the way, I am happy to report has continued on track!  Donating to Relay for Life on behalf  of fellow tweeter @JenVargas, fulfilling her birthday wish, was #32.

At any rate, as Christmas approaches and I went to set up my tree again this year, I realized that this is my 40th Christmas… so of course I knew I had a blog post in the making!

Florida Christmas in the 1970s

  • Opening of Disney World Resort
  • Opening of Sea World
  • Closing of McCoy Air Force Base

Now, my family actually goes back to the 1800s in Central Florida. In fact, here’s my grandmother fishing a snake out of Howell Creek when she was much much younger!

And, when my mother was a teenager, she wanted a horse, but the City of Winter Park did not allow horses inside the city limits. So, my family moved way out in the country (at the time) and bought some pasture land down a dirt road with beautiful goldenrod growing all over.  (This dirt road is now known as Aloma Ave. and that goldenrod pasture is marked by Goldenrod the road!)  But this Lazy 3 Ranch, where my mother grew up, is where I grew up too, at the same time as the city was growing up around us in leaps and bounds.

The Lazy 3 Ranch, corner of Aloma Ave. and 436

So, my memories of Christmas at this time were typical of most children: lots of 70s era toys!  Dolls and ride-in cars for me, Stretch Armstrong and army men for my brothers, a working Lionel train set for which my father spent weeks building and nailing down a track, and even chickens. Yes, chickens…we did live on some land, after all!

And, of course, Disney toys and theme park visits were very big with our family…we lived in Central Florida! (And, boy, do I remember those booklets of tickets…especially the feared E-Ticket!)

Christmas, 1975

A young Top 5 editor Bess Auer with her beloved "Big Red"

And as soon as we had our toys, we’d rush outside to try them out, riding bikes down the driveway, skateboarding around, climbing trees with GI Joe.

Christmas 1976

Florida Christmas in the 1980s

  • Space Shuttle program launches
  • Opening of Epcot
  • Domination by Miami football

By the 80s my brothers and I were getting into our teenage years, and Central Florida saw the launch of the first Space Shuttle as well as the opening of Epcot. (I watched the opening live while home sick from school…and classmate Jody Crane skipped school to attend the opening and was featured as the very first guest!  He got lifetime tickets or some such wonderful thing!)

At any rate, childhood toys at Christmas gave way to clothes and boom boxes.  And still, after unwrapping presents on Christmas day, we’d head outdoors to the yard to have orange and grapefruit wars, or to take my grandmother to Epcot, or even to head to the beach and lay out in the sun for most of the day.  Florida Decembers have certain advantages!

Christmas day - grandmother and her beloved dog at the beach in New Smyrna...look how uncrowded!

And then, as the decade ended and I was cheering in college, sometimes Christmas days were spent traveling to bowl games, like the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.  (Not a bad place to spend Christmas and New Year’s, by the way!)

Florida Christmas in the 1990s

  • Opening of Universal Studios
  • Domination by Bowden’s FSU football program
  • Closing of the Orlando Naval Training Center

This decade saw me getting married, buying my own home, and setting up my own Christmas tree for the first time.  I have never been a fan of traditional, so I bought silk flowers for my tree, which I still use nearly twenty years later!

Our Christmas tree

And then, as the second half of the 90s began, I became a mother, and Christmas suddenly was geared to children once again. Thomas the Tank Engine, Pokemon, and Legos were tops in our house, as Harry Potter paraphernalia soon would become, too.

Florida Christmas in the 2000s

  • Ending of the Space Shuttle Program
  • Opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
  • Domination by Florida Gator football and basketball programs
  • Rise to national prominence by UCF’s football and basketball programs

And so I have reached this latest decade. This one saw the passing of my brother, the continued growth of our children, and even some of the final flights of the Space Shuttles. My son has become the teenager, and iPods have replaced boom boxes, X-Box Kinect has replaced Atari.

My son does not rush out to the front yard to race around on his skateboard or ride his new bike, as my brothers and I did when we were young.  Instead he plops on the couch, puts on his headset, and connects with twelve different friends around Florida who all got the same video game to play online. It is a strange new world in which I live, one ruled by indoors, electronics, and air conditioning, but I wouldn’t miss it for anything!

Forty years of Christmases… what do you remember?


Filed under disney, Just for Me, Sea World, Seasonal, Shuttle, Uniquely Florida

NASA Tweet Up STS-133: It’s Awesome, Baby!

I was one of the lucky chosen few who was invited to attend the NASA Tweet Up STS-133. After 26 years of service, this launch is Space Shuttle Discovery’s last flight. And I have finally begun to understand the significance of this when I went to Kennedy Space Center today for Day #1 of the NASA Tweet Up.

Some readers may remember the Top 5’s previous trip to KSC. This was before any cuts were made to the Space Program’s funding, before thousands of people lost their jobs, and optimism over the new rocket program was still in the air.

Today, optimism was very much in the air, but I could not help but taste the bittersweet celebration of those gathered for  the tweet up.  150 space enthusiasts from 38 different countries assembled to experience, learn about, and toast the American Space Program. However, the roads of KSC were much less crowded, and it was apparent there were fewer workers and personnel.  Central Florida is definitely feeling the pain of NASA’s reshuffling.

However, NASA certainly did the tweet up right! From the very first official email and pass accreditation to the uber-cool parking space (right by the VAB) and the air conditioned VIP tent, we were treated first class all the way!

Top 5 editor Bess Auer in front of the VAB as photographed by Chris Gent.

From getting to listen to several NASA “big wigs” and astronauts, and then meeting Jason Goldman (A really big deal at Twitter!), we were given thrill after thrill!

NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier

We were then privy to two incredible demonstrations: 1) ACES Suit (think massive survival suit) and 2) Robonaut 2 (think Robocop in real life!).

Just being around all these space nuts was enough to be thankful I spent the day at KSC.  From NASA Flow Director Stephanie Stilson saying, “The most important thing is for NASA to finish the Space Shuttle the right way until the very end,” to astronaut Ron Garan saying, “Everyone should have the right to dream to go to the stars,” what an inspiring time!  I definitely want to go into space in my lifetime!

Astronaut Bess Auer!

The countdown...

Enjoy this recap video of my incredible day and check out the totally awesome Robonaut 2:


Filed under Education, Fun, Just for Me, Shuttle, Space, Tourist, Uniquely Florida

NASA Tweet Up STS 133

And here’s the official press release… Top 5 Editor Bess Auer was one of only 150 tweeps who was lucky enough to be selected to attend! Woot!

Oct. 18, 2010

Stephanie Schierholz
Headquarters, Washington

Allard Beutel
Kennedy Space Center, Florida



WASHINGTON — At the next space shuttle launch, NASA will host 150 people from around the world and provide them with a behind-the-scenes perspective to share with their followers via the social networking service Twitter.

Reporters are invited to cover the NASA Tweetup and the liftoff of shuttle Discovery, targeted for 4:40 p.m. EDT on Nov. 1, from the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. To cover the launch on-site, U.S. reporters must request credentials from Kennedy by Wednesday, Oct. 20. Media representatives should submit requests online at:

Participants at the NASA Tweetup on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 will tour Kennedy and meet with shuttle technicians, managers, engineers and astronauts. They also will get a demonstration of Robonaut, a human-like robot similar to the one that will be delivered to the space station with this mission. The Tweetup culminates with the viewing of the shuttle launch. At 2:15 p.m. EDT on Oct. 31, NASA will use UStream to broadcast an hour of the Tweetup program at:

People are expected to attend from 38 states, the District of Columbia, Australia, Canada, Chile, England, Japan, Latvia, New Zealand and the Philippines.

Tweetup participants are coming from Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin. Attendees were selected from more than 2,700 online registrations.

Reporters interested in interviewing Tweetup attendees should contact Stephanie Schierholz at 202-358-4997 or

To follow the Tweetup participants on Twitter as they experience the prelaunch events and shuttle liftoff, follow the #NASATweetup hashtag and the list of attendees at:

NASA also has a website where anyone — including those not on Twitter — can follow along with the events:

To follow NASA on Twitter, visit:

For more information about space shuttle Discovery’s STS-133 mission, visit:

To follow STS-133 crew member Nicole Stott as she tweets during the mission, visit:



Filed under General Info, Just for Me, Shuttle, Space, Uniquely Florida

NASA: A Historical View

Editor’s note: Yes, I use the more-modern “a” historical view instead of the older “an” historical view. Get over it!

I was so excited to receive confirmation (and then the press credentials!) for the upcoming STS133 #Nasatweetup…it is just a few weeks away! (Only 150 people were selected to attend…alas, @swimmerjoe was not so lucky!) He and I had a wonderful visit with @AndreaFarmer when she invited us to visit Kennedy Space Center’s Visitor Center. (Well worth the trip!)

However, the last (and only time) I was up close and personal for an actual launch was when I was in middle school (think early-80’s) and I was on movie-maker and director Jesse Wolf’s family’s sailboat on the Intracoastal Waterway. And, if memory serves me correctly (since it was one of the early launches) we were able to go much closer than boats would be able to today…I still have the image of the brilliant comtrail against the blue sky burned into my memory banks!

So, when I heard NASA had released some historic photos via their “Commons” account, I just had to check them out. They show some of the very earliest pictures from NASA, including President John F. Kennedy touring Cape Canaveral.  My favorite? Tough to choose but I think the one of President Richard Nixon braving bad weather with the masses (under umbrellas) to witness the launch of Apollo 12.

Enjoy this walk down memory lane…

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Filed under History, Just for Me, Politics, Shuttle, Space, Uniquely Florida

Dear President Obama…

I eagerly await your Space Summit here in Florida on April 15. I suppose the significance of the date is to remind us that we are discussing our tax dollars and how you will spend them. I was most upset when you first announced that you would not be funding mankind’s mission to return the Moon and that you would be changing NASA’s budget. I wondered how any American could decide upon such a course for American engineering; how your ideas about space could be so different from mine… and then some ideas came to me.

Your Childhood
Although you are only nine years older than me, your childhood was vastly different than most American children of the time. You were born in Hawaii, which while it is one of the United States, let’s face it; it is a world of its own over 2,300 miles from the continental states. In the 1960s, just how much and how quickly did news travel from the mainland (Florida particularly) all the way to Hawaii? Then, from age 6 to 10 you lived in Indonesia, so who knows what kind of coverage man’s first steps on the Moon you even heard about?

And while I was standing outside my house watching the very first Space Shuttle blast off to go into space, you were in New York City going to Columbia…and how much attention does a typical college student–especially those who may be partying–really pay to current events?  (The space shuttle may have been no more than a blip on your radar.)

Your Work
And once you graduated from college, your focus turned to helping develop communities, a very worthy cause. You helped those in need get job training, prepare for college, work for tenants rights…these are very lofty goals and I applaud your work, but once again we differ…your eyes were looking down at the homeless man sitting on the sidewalk, while mine were looking up at the shuttle’s comtrail glowing a dazzling white against the bright blue.

And when the Challenger exploded in the skies above me, your eyes were not tuned toward the sky. How long did it take for you to learn of it in Chicago?

Your Dreams
I’m imagining that while you were growing up, space travel was little more than science fiction to you. You may have heard about it, seen a clip or two on TV, but how real could it seem to a child on the other side of the world?  While I grew up here, knowing the moms and dads whose sweat made space travel a reality. I knew teachers who were in the running to travel on the Challenger; I dreamed one day I would travel into space, too.

When my grandmother was young, she took the day-long trip by horse and wagon from Orlando to New Smyrna Beach. By the time she was an old lady, she had seen the man travel into space in less than 8 minutes.  So, I could not even dream of what mega-leaps into the future mankind would achieve during my lifetime.

The Debate
I am betting that whenever you read arguments about how we should be focusing on solving problems here on Earth before we explore space, you whole-heartedly agree with them because that makes sense to you. When I read those arguments, I shake my head thinking how ignorant these people are not to realize that exploring space IS helping to solve problems here on Earth: cell phones, medical advancements, satellite technology, etc.  (The list goes on and on of life-altering and saving achievements gained or aided through the space program.)

When I hear President John F. Kennedy challenging man to go to the Moon–not because it is easy but because it is hard–I feel the blood in my veins light on fire!  And, so I am wondering, Mr. Obama, why don’t you? Is it really because of your unusual upbringing and focus on the community?

Well, I of course believe in helping the community, too, just as many past Americans and Presidents have done. In fact, even while paying for the Vietnam War and funding the Great Societies programs, President Johnson still found a way to give 5% of the Federal Budget to make the Space Race a success. Right now, NASA accounts for less than 0.58% of the Federal Budget… how mush less do you want to give to Space?  For every $1 spent on space, $98 go to social programs. (And I haven’t recalculated this amount to accommodate for the billions just approved for the healthcare bill!)

So, in conclusion, Mr. President, I make a small request. Before you make any final decisions and recommendations for the NASA budget, perhaps step into somebody else’s shoes for a while.  Somebody whose upbringing was a bit more typical for an American child of the 60s and 70s. Somebody who had their eyes on the stars rather than on the sidewalks. Somebody who shakes her head sadly when Vice President Biden comes to Central Florida to talk up how the stimulus bill will bring a few hundred jobs to Clermont while his President’s actions will be eliminating 23,000 jobs at NASA. Please, oh please see beyond your personal experience, and appreciate the American experience… and understand why funding space exploration is so important!

Like every American President, you aspire to do great things and I hope you will… so make the right decision not only for Americans, but for mankind as well.

This editorial was written by Top 5 editor Bess Auer, native Floridian and avid dreamer.


Filed under Just for Me, Politics, Shuttle, Space

Top 5 in Space (Part II)

When you first arrive at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, one of the most dominant aspects is the Rocket Garden. Here, real rockets tower into the sky, pointing upward as if a constant reminder of the ultimate goal: SPACE.

The massive rockets allow you to see just how large an undertaking the space program was when the US first set its collective mind on reaching the stars. Enjoy this video for a glimpse of the Rocket Garden and then the Early Space Exploration Center.

Next we got an opportunity to eat lunch with an astronaut. I absolutely loved this! First of all, the food was much better than my family would get at home. [Note: I don’t cook.]

Next, the audience was kept small in order to give an intimate feeling as Astronaut Sam Gemar made his rounds, patiently answering questions, shaking hands, and kissing babies. [Okay, he probably didn’t kiss anybody.] 

We shared our table with a family from South Africa who brought their three young boys to KSC.  Gemar spent quite a bit of time with us, sharing his incredible knowledge. Fast fact: 1 in 15 astronauts are killed in the line of duty. So, yeah, they deserve our utmost respect!

Gemar then gave a brief general Q&A session, where the favorite question was whether there are aliens in space.  He explained that he hoped there were, as space is a pretty large place, but as of now we had no aliens on Earth. To which a boy of about four years old loudly exclaimed, “Yes, there are aliens on Earth!” [Note: Could have won $10,000 if I had caught that on video…too funny!]

After lunch, we were greeted by Lesley Llerandi who graciously drove us around the property to see some exciting things up close:

  • The Vehicle Assembly Building–VAB, which is absolutely mammoth!
  • The “crawlerway”…tracks still visible from the last time the Shuttle was brought out
  • Launch Pad #39B, close-up drive by and then from a special viewing place by the beach
  • We also saw Launch Control

Some of these close-up stops are available to the public for a slightly elevated tour price; it’s well worth it!

We ended at the Apollo/Saturn V Center. This was my husband’s favorite stop. It gives you a great review of the historical importance of the early space program, which was nice for my son and nephew to hear. Then you get to see the actual launch control of the first missions before moving on to see a real Saturn V rocket…larger than a football field in length! Whew!

All in all, the Top 5 was so honored to have been shown around Kennedy Space Center. Not only do we recommend it as a “must-do” stop for tourists, but for any locals, if you are like me and have never been before, be sure to do yourself the favor by visiting this Central Florida gem. And, if you have already been , I strongly recommend going to see what’s new.

It’s hard to keep in mind in our magical city, where so much make believe is fantastically brought to life, that Kennedy Space Center is the real deal. It’s our history, our present, and our future!

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Filed under Shuttle, Space, Tourist, Uniquely Florida

The Top 5 in Space!

The Central Florida Top 5 was invited to tour Kennedy Space Center this past weekend, and what a wonderful time! First of all, I am an Orlando native, and I am ashamed to admit I had never been to Kennedy Space Center before, and I suspect I am not alone! [Note: We Floridians tend to become immune to the theme park and attraction advertising, sending our visiting relatives to go without us, nodding our heads because we think we know what is basically there…well, I was wrong about KSC!] It is well worth the short drive down the Bee Line. From the giant rockets and life-size shuttle that greet you, to the interactive exhibits and unique artifacts, KSC is much, much more than I ever realized.

Upon arrival we were greeted by Public Relations Manager @AndreaFarmer, a Twitter friend whose updates I love reading. She graciously showed us around the visitor’s center, instructed us on “must-see” things, and then joined us for the Shuttle Launch Experience. Similar to a theme park ride, this simulator reproduces what it feels like to blast off into space, rumbling seats and all! [Note: 0 to 17,500 mph in a matter of mere seconds!]

The best thing about the simulator, though, is the feeling of weightlessness it miraculously recreates…totally mind blowing! I was joined by my husband @SwimmerJoe as well as my teenage son and nephew. This shuttle ride was their absolute favorite! [Note: The simulator magically transported me back to feeling like a teenager, remembering why I dreamed of becoming an astronaut in the first place.]  [Note 2: This dream was shattered while sitting in Astronomy 101 at the University of Florida where I learned Astronomy is basically the title of a really, really advanced math.] [Note 3: Yeah, I dropped the class after the second week.]

Shuttle Launch Experience Highlights:

  • Ultra-slick welcome by astronauts who have actually “been there, done that”
  • Quick queue for boarding the simulator
  • Realistic countdown from Launch Control
  • Awesome blast off and then that feeling of weightlessness
  • Eerie yet breathtakingly beautiful view of Earth through shuttle bay doors and then again through a giant window in the floor after the ride
  • Individual shuttle mission information
  • Signatures of those astronauts who have actually achieved Mach 25 (17,500 mph!)

Check out the video below for the video of the first part of our trip.

Next we visited a bit of a “soft opening” for the Exploration Space: Explorers Wanted, an interactive exhibit geared toward the two teenagers in tow. An ultra-cool display greeted us in the size of a giant revolving planet, so real it felt like we were standing on the bridge of the USS Enterprise. [Note: I am allowing my inner-geek to show, aren’t I?]

Astronaut Bess (at last!)

The Exploration Space exhibit also had different controls/gadgets for the boys to try as well as a neat social media aspect. We could create a post card and then email to friends and even upload it to Facebook.

<——Here’s Top 5 editor Bess standing on the moon!  [Note: Ain’t I cool?]

Finally the area had a live show where actor “Ken” told us about plans for future space exploration. The only thing that stands in the way of the Constellation Program going forward is funding. [Note: Congress, please support 40,000+ Florida jobs, the state economy, a pioneer spirit, and the survival of the human race!]

 Here’s video of Exploration Space as well as the Hubble Display:

Stay tuned for the second part of our trip…more video and photos coming!


Filed under General Info, Shuttle, Space, Tourist