Sunday, February 25, 2018

NASA Johnson Space Center, TX: Houston, We Have No Problems Here!

NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston is one of 10 space centers in the U.S., the most famous being Kennedy in Florida (from where most shuttles take off), and this one, for the popular but erroneous quote, "Houston, we have a problem."  (Actually said: Houston, we've had a problem here.)

JSC is 1,600 acres of geek heaven, but at this apex in human history, even non-geeks can get excited about outer space.  To wit:  Elon Musk recently launching his own personal cherry-red Tesla into orbit, with a dummy named Starman behind the wheel.  Now that's space excitement!

The science center has lots of cool, hands-on exhibits, but the real draw (at least to us) was the tram tour of JSC.  This is not a replica.  It is the actual home training base of the nation's astronauts, International Space Station mission operations, Orion program, and more ... the real deal!

Mission Control is run out of this 1950's-era building, with 1950's-era furniture and actual drinking fountains (didn't those go the way of the pay phone?).  For the "future" of space, it's definitely the "past" of appearances.

We were sat in the viewing gallery of the actual historic Mission Control from which NASA led Gemini (which we learned is "Ja-Mee-Nee," not "Gem-Ah-Nigh") and Apollo missions, including the famous Apollo 13 as depicted in the terrific Tom Hanks movie.  It's retired now, but retains all the actual vintage stuff, which only looks fake because it's so dang out-of-date.

The viewing gallery is where the important people and astronaut's families would come to get information about what was happening, in the pre-cell-phone, pre-texting era.  Many important people have sat in these seats, including sitting presidents from Eisenhower to H.W. Bush, and even Queen Elizabeth.  And now we have too!

Also part of the tour is a huuuuuuge Space Vehicle Mockup Facility.  It's got an elevated path with full glass windows so visitors can look down and watch them at work.  This is one of the places where astronauts train for missions, and where scientists are developing ever-more amazing space exploration vehicles.  Again, not a museum ... a working facility!  So exciting!

Robots, anyone?  These are just a few of the interesting looking space explorers under development.

The tour also takes visitors to Rocket Park (euphemistically named:  actually a huge warehouse in a cow pasture), where one of of only three of the remaining actual Saturn V rockets is displayed.  It is impossible to properly convey how huge this is!

The shuttle replica Independence is mounted on top of the historic, original NASA 905 shuttle carrier aircraft.  Tally marks on the outside commemorate her many missions as a high-flying pack mule!  

This is the world's only shuttle mounted in a shuttle carrier aircraft, and the only one the public can enter.  Exhibits inside share the history of one engineer's vision:  "HEY let's just mount the shuttle on top of an airplane to move it around!"  After much mockery, the "it's so crazy it just might work" mentality kicked in, and the rest is history.

Interactive exhibits and presentations really bring space life to real life!  This show, about life on the International Space Station, was my favorite.  The brown fabric on the left represents "bed" since without gravity, you have to be tied to the wall to sleep (including a fabric band across your forehead).  The exercycle represents the two hours DAILY, every day, that astronauts are required to exercise (thereby ending my desire to be an astronaut) to keep their bones and muscles from atrophy.  And the tube on the toilet is used to, uh, well, suck the pee or poo out of you, since zero-gravity means zero-ploppability!  Then they recycle it!  Don't ask! At least everyone has their own personal attachment for sanitary purposes.  

The ISS was constructed over 40 missions and to date, 15 nations have partnered and/or sent astronauts here to live and learn.  Whether geeky or not, you should skim this fascinating National Geographic article:  "These Astronauts Saw Earth From Outer Space and How It Changed Them." (click link to read)

Leaving Houston, we took a very quick spin through Louisiana on our way to Mississippi.

The small town of St. Francisville is home to a number of plantations offering tours, including The Myrtles, which is rumored to be amongst the most haunted in Louisiana.

Chief amongst the haunters is a young slave girl named Chloe.  She was the reported mistress of the plantation master, but when he eventually grew tired of her, she was sent back to slave quarters.  In an effort to "save the day" and get back in his favor, she decided to make the children of the house just a little bit sick and then nurse them back to health.  However, she did so by baking a cake with enough white oleander in it to kill a team of horses, so when the children of the house fell over dead, she was hanged immediately.  Her ghost roams this property and we heard lots of fascinating tales of the goings-on here.  A representative cake of the original culprit reminds us her Chloe's error in calculation.

One interesting feature of the house is the "brag button" on the first bannister of the home, right at the entryway.  If your house was full paid for, you inserted the deed into the banister and sealed it up with a decorative button.  Thereby announcing to all who enter that you are rich enough to own your property free and clear, without actually saying so.

Lastly in Louisiana, we did some hiking as Philip is finally enjoying the fruits of his four back surgeries in the last three years:  pain-free walking!  Hurray!

The Clark Creek Natural Area has beautiful bayou trails and baby waterfalls!  (In Louisiana, these are considered BIG waterfalls, but once you've been to the Pacific Northwest, you've got perspective on what's a big waterfall, and what isn't).

The steeper parts of the trails are developed with long, tall staircases, and we tried not to think too hard about why a bra was laying out in one place, a pair of shorts in another, a sock somewhere else.

Happy hikers, indeed!

As we leave Louisiana, our next stops are all in Mississippi:
Natchez, Vicksburg and Jackson!  Great stops for some Civil War history!
Thanks for following along!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Galveston Island, TX: Danger at Every Turn!

Danger!  Danger!  DANGER all around!  At the southernmost point of our trip, along the Gulf of Mexico on Galveston Island, Texas, there was something to worry about at every turn! 

We thought we'd do some kayaking at Galveston Bay State Park, but no!  DANGER!!!!

OK, forget the kayaking --- let's go hiking instead!  Or .... maybe not! DANGERous snakes!

So, we decided to stay with safe(r), touristy things.  First up, a visit to the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum.  It was exciting to be on an actual, retired jack-up drilling rig!  

We like to watch "relevant" movies on our trips (hence, we've watched Deadwood in Deadwood, Tombstone in Tombstone, etc.)  Relevant to this trip, we watched Mark Wahlberg in Deepwater Horizon (an excellent movie) -- but if you've seen it, you know DANGER when you see it!

Lifeboat.  For when, you know, things go very very wrong on the rig.
We learned all about everything related to drilling and oil production and all the many, many things than can (and do) go wrong with these buggers.  Am I right, BP?  It was cool to be able to crawl all over the rig and be all the places that the actual workers would go.

Here's the real DANGER on an oil rig, however:  a half-hinged oil drill worker with too much time on his hands!  Beware this creeper!

Galveston is a port town, with cruise ships docking regularly and discharging swarms of happy tourists into the streets.  (DANGER: they take all the reservations at every restaurant.)  This shows the port, all in one simple shot:  cruise ship, tall sailing ship, and oil rigs in the distance!  

That tall sailing ship in the foreground is the spectacular 1877 ship, "Elissa."  Battered, abused, stripped and forgotten, Elissa was in real DANGER of being dismantled in a Greek scrapyard, until her dramatic rescue and meticulous restoration by dedicated volunteers.

Elissa was identified by Lloyd's of London, which began her long adventure of restoration, via this plate showed that she was built by Alexander Hall and Company, one of the world's best ship builders.

Walking the ship, you can really feel her rich maritime history.

The Historic Strand District is home to lots of good shopping and entertainment and was also the site of Galveston's extravagant Mardi Gras celebration, which we missed by literally a week, but for which the downtown buildings were still wearing their most festive party clothes.

DANGER to your pocketbook:  since 1906, the Galveston "Pleasure Pier" is full of restaurants, shops, and a ton of amusements rides (many of which are over the water).

Like Chicago's Navy Pier, or Coney Island's Luna Park, the Pleasure Pier is just waiting to relieve you of all those $20 bills cluttering up your wallet.

The greatest DANGER in Galveston occurred in 1900, when the hurricane-driven "Great Flood" swooped down upon the unsuspecting town and created the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, with over 8,000 people killed and the whole island basically decimated.  You can see the water level in the top marker.

It was bad.  I mean really, really bad.  Besides the people who were washed out to sea, there were still 6,000 dead people (men, women, babies, children, old people, animals) all over the island.  They started lining the bodies up and realized there were too many.  So they decided to tie weights on them and do a mass dumping at sea.  Guess what?  The angry ocean washed them back onto the island, weights still attached.  Finally they piled them onto the destroyed wooden buildings and set fire to everything.  A turn-of-the-century sh*tshow, if ever there was one!

After that, they spent six years building a seawall and drainage pipes to help with the problem.  But there are still regular threats to the island, including just this winter, when Hurricane Harvey roared through. Since the great danger of 1900, however, houses (and businesses) are now built higher, sometimes up to two stories higher!

Even the most recent DANGER from Hurricane Harvey, which destroyed nearby Houston, did relatively little damage to Galveston's little army of stilt houses.

This guy is no chump, he's immune to any imminent flooding danger!  Close the door and you've got at least 20 feet of water rise before you have to put down your Mai Tai and do something about it.

Even the birds know better than to be low to the ground!

Galveston was the "Wall Street of the South" because many wealthy businessmen made their fortunes and built grand mansions here.  The "Bishop's Palace" (circa 1886) is one of the few buildings that survived the 1900 flood disaster, perhaps because it was "divinely protected" as the future home of the Bishop of the Catholic Church next door.  The American Institute of Architects considers this home one of the 100 most important buildings in America.

DANGER (to your cholesterol level): Fresh-from-the-ocean shrimp, grilled at your RV and drenched in garlic butter!  Mmmmmmm!

More DANGER (to your visibility):  fog!  Lots of it!  Something we don't see in Arizona.

Even worse DANGER (to your ego):  straight-up 99% humidity that makes your hair look like this!

All joking aside, the only real DANGER with Galveston Island was that we might stay forever and never return!  This is our only ocean stop this entire trip, and despite reports of a gritty, dirty oil town beach, it was quite the opposite ... beautiful, tranquil, and uncrowded.  Galveston Island, we'll be back!