Sunday, July 01, 2012


Rocket City Redux

How does ol’ naysayer Unk feel about the U.S. manned space program now? In the wake of Dragon’s recent almost unqualified success? I feel better after SpaceX’s successful mission to the International Space Station. Anybody interested in spaceflight has to be elated at the performance of the little capsule that could. So I’ve changed my mind about the course the Administration has chosen, then? No, I still have my reservations, muchachos.

What the Obama troops decided to do a while back, as y’all know, was cancel a program that seemed to make sense and which had had an awful lot of money spent on it, Constellation. Most of the project’s ideas and hardware were scrapped and the U.S. manned program started over at square one. Instead of one system to handle both low Earth orbit and deep space missions, we will now have (at least) two. Constellation would have used the same Orion spacecraft (capsule) on different boosters depending on mission requirements.

International Space station resupply, and, I presume, other low Earth orbit work, will be handled by SpaceX and its Dragon starting, supposedly, in September of this year. Deep space missions (to some unnamed/undecided destination but NOT the Moon, we are told) will be NASA’s province.

The deep-space capsule will still be Orion, the sole surviving Constellation component. Constellation’s heavy-lift booster, the Ares V, was thrown out. For reasons that are anything but clear to me, Obama decided NASA should start over with a different big rocket, the “SLS” (Space Launch System”), despite Ares being well down the development path and having had bushels of money spent on it.  There were some problems, no denying that, but every new booster design has some problems. We’ll now get a different set of problems, and I guess the Administration thinks that will be better somehow.

I’m the last person to minimize SpaceX’s achievement in not just orbiting a capsule but rendezvousing with the ISS, but I’ll keep my perspective, thank you. When the company orbits a crew and/or returns one from the station, I’ll feel a little more sanguine, I reckon. But, yeah, I am considerably more hopeful and excited than I was a few weeks back.

Dragon is a plucky and versatile spacecraft, it seems. It is designed to carry up to seven astronauts and to be able to survive a high-speed reentry from Lunar (or Martian) missions. It will eventually be given the ability to set down on dry land in lieu of ocean recovery, just like Soyuz. I’ll be interested to see where that all leads, if anywhere.

What with this sudden flurry of exciting space activity, it felt like it was time to do yet more communing with the spirits of Space Projects Past. And Unk was presented with the opportunity to just that without trekking all the way back to Huntsville or to Cocoa Beach or to Houston, either. That was not the reason Miss Dorothy and I  headed west in Unk’s 4Runner, Miss Lucille Van Pelt, a couple of Fridays back, howsomeever.

The reason for us pointing the 4Runner in the direction of New Orleans was to enjoy a little R&R in that magic city.  We generally reserve our NOLA trips for Thanksgiving, but I was in bad need of a break, and New Orleans seemed like a good place to spend one. In June, it’s hot but not yet punishingly hot. How hot can it get down there? Last August, standing on the dock alongside LPD 23, which was sitting in the Mighty Mississippi, I got to thinking, “It sure will be great to get back to Possum Swamp where it is nice and cool!” That’s how hot.

In June the NOLA weather is usually cooperative and bearable. There is always a chance of scattered thundershowers, but there wasn’t even much of that forecast for our getaway weekend. I was a little weary of the cruise down I-10, since I’d just been on the road to the Avondale shipyard the previous Tuesday, but I had the wonderful Miss D. with me to talk to, so it wasn’t so bad.

Arriving in the Crescent City, we checked into what’s been our hotel of choice for many years, the Monteleone in the heart of the French Quarter. Got a spot in the parking garage with no problem, Miss Van Pelt was tucked away by the valet, and we proceeded to the storied lobby. There, Miss D. checked us in while Unk stood transfixed by the hotel’s enormous antique clock, whose august majesty never fails to fascinate him.

A bit of unpacking in the room and Miss Dorothy and I made our way down to the Monteleone’s famous Carousel Bar. It’s recently been renovated, and while Unk does not like change, he has to admit the room does look more modern and open. The shades of Williams, Capote, Welty, and Faulkner still seem to haunt the place, but maybe they are a little paler in the updated Carousel. The bar itself has not changed much; Dorothy was reassured its old rotation rate, once every 15-minutes, remains the same.

After some hanging out up in the room following a few Carousel revolutions, it was time for supper in The Quarter. An unwelcome shock? The little restaurant we’ve been visiting for nigh on twenty years, Sammy’s, was closed. It didn’t look out of business, just closed. But on a spring Friday evening that is surely not a good sign. While the little hole-in-the wall is mostly known for their seafood, what’s kept D. and me coming back is their rib-eye. I have never had a better steak. Anywhere. Ever. Sigh.

OK, so we’d have to find another restaurant. We chose The Embers, which is close at hand on the corner of Bourbon and St. Peter. D. and I dined there one evening right after we were married, and I remembered it as being pretty good. It was still pretty good. OK, anyway, but not what it was nearly twenty years ago and certainly not as good as Sammy’s.

After a bit of wandering up and down Bourbon, Unk stopped at one of the many “to go” bars and got himself an enormous Hurricane. I cannot come to the French Quarter and not drink at least one of the uber sweet, uber red concoctions. This one featured the legendary “extra shot,” and after drinking but a small portion back at the hotel, it was night-night time for your party-pooping old Uncle.

Next morning was shopping and eats at Jimmy Buffet’s place down in Storyville. In quest of souvenirs for all and sundry, following lunch we visited Jazz Funeral back on Bourbon, where Unk got himself a couple of things. In addition to a bottle of hot sauce emblazoned with the label HOT SAUCE HOLOCAUST, I picked up the charmingly odd little volume of New Orleans ghost stories shown here.

When evening came, it was time for another of our French Quarter traditions, red beans and rice at Desire: An Oyster Bar. Unlike The Embers, Desire was as good as ever. Maybe too good. All that rich food and drink contrived to give Unk a restless Saturday evening, but by morning, Sunday morning, he was OK again if not quite fit as a fiddle.

“Well, that all sounds cool, Unk, but what in tarnation does it have to do with the manned space program?” I’m getting to that, Skeezix, I getting to it. On our way to New Orleans, we’d stopped at the Mississippi Welcome Station right outside Stennis Space Center, the NASA facility charged with engine testing. We immediately noticed the small visitors’ center for Stennis next door to the welcome station, where you boarded busses for a tour of the facility, was closed, and that a sign on its door directed the public to a new facility, “NASA Infinity.”

On my trips up and down I-10 to the shipyard at Avondale, I’d noticed a new, modern, and slightly puzzling looking building had sprung up not far from the turnoff for the rest stop. Livestock auction hall? Government building of some kind? I didn’t know. But now I recalled a sign had recently gone up in front of the new place, a sign emblazoned with the word “Infinity.” D. and I picked up a brochure in the welcome station that informed us this was the new NASA – Stennis visitors’ center. We resolved to stop and check it out on our way back from NOLA, since the pamphlet indicated Infinity was open on Sunday.

It’s always a bring-down to leave the Monteleone on Sunday morning and head back to the cotton picking Real World, but this time we at least had something to look forward to, Infinity, just about an hour away. Whatever the heck Infinity was. I didn’t expect much. It didn’t seem possible NASA could have suddenly built a major “attraction”—can we call their visitors’ centers that?—in our backyard.

Vehicle retrieved, D. and I headed for Mississippi. In no time, practically, we were across the Pontchartrain Bridge, over the Mississippi – Louisiana line, and taking the turn off for the welcome station, which is also the exit for Infinity. Turned down the clearly marked and new road—somebody has spent a lot of money on this deal—and we were there. The building was substantially larger up close than it looked from the Interstate, and I was immediately heartened by what I saw: a large and modern facility that had already attracted a number of folks on this Sunday morning.

Miss Dorothy and I parked and headed to the entrance. While there ain’t no rocket park, there is some hardware on display on the grounds including a beautiful and massive Saturn V first stage F1 engine. Standing next to and enjoying this giant, I was becoming more and more excited. There were also several interesting robotic data-buoys on display, no doubt thanks to that other Stennis resident, the Naval Oceanographic Office.

Just before entering the spanking new 72,000 square foot place, whose official name is “Infinity Science Center,” we noted the area in front was paved with numerous bricks bearing the names of donors. While I have no doubt NASA contributed substantially to the establishment of the place, and Infinity is for sure “affiliated” with Stennis, it’s obvious much of the undertaking was funded by farsighted individuals and companies from Gulfport, Mississippi and the surrounding area. Good on ‘em.

Inside, we paid our fare, which was a very reasonable 8 bucks. The nice young woman—most of the staff appear to be volunteers—at the desk told us the admission price also included a bus-tour of Stennis, but that she was sorry but the first bus didn’t run till 1 p.m. on Sundays. I doubted we’d be able to hang out that long; it was not yet 11 and we were tired from our days and nights in the French Quarter. That was OK. “Next time.”

First stop on entering is what the Infinity folks call “Science Express,” a sizeable area in the front of the facility that is currently occupied by an exhibit called “Great Nations Dare to Explore.” This is a mostly static—large display panels—exhibit enlivened by audio and occasional video and hands-on activities. It does a nice job, comparing U.S. and Soviet pioneering in space to the exploring done by former world powers like Spain and Portugal. Was it the best thing of its kind Unk has ever seen? No, but it was good and interesting if not quite as “immersive” as the Infinity website makes it out to be. I liked it.

After “Great Nations,” it was good stuff all the way. Starting on the ground floor—this is a two story facility with the second floor accessed by a beautiful glass elevator—you are treated to a journey through sixty years of space adventures. In addition to big models of Saturn boosters, there’s a near life-size replica of a Gemini capsule hanging from the ceiling. There’s lots more, but not much in the way of real hardware other than a Shuttle Engine and some spacesuits. I have no doubt that will change if Infinity thrives.

This being space giant Wernher Von Braun’s centennial, I was not surprised to see an exhibit devoted to the Great Man. Not surprised, no, but pleased. In addition to a mockup of Von Braun’s office, a miniature of the famous long-time exhibit at The Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, there were numerous interesting documents and memorabilia concerning this pioneer.

What else? There’s a “section” of the ISS, a mockup of part of one module visitors can walk through. Nothing overly special—I believe this exhibit or one just like it used to be on display in Huntsville—but the public loved it, with the little Disney-bound families who were trouping though Infinity on this Sunday morning walking through it again and again.

Although, just like at Huntsville or in Houston or at KSC, there’s an emphasis on NASA’s glory days, there is also quite a bit of forward-looking. There’re displays concerning the Orion spacecraft, its SLS booster, and even a little about SpaceX’s Dragon. Like the Administration, NASA seems hesitant to actually come out and say “WE ARE GOING TO MARS!” without the “maybe-might-someday” qualifiers. But at Infinity the thrust of the future, NASA’s and ours, is clearly pointed in the direction of the angry red planet, as in manned exploration of Mars. There is a polite nod to unmanned missions, but the visitor is not left wondering where NASA intends to go next. If there ever is a “next.”

Was there anything I hadn’t seen before? Actually, there was. Right next to the ISS module was a cool hydroponic-like plant growing module intended to show how future deep space missions can, if nothing else, at least supplement their food and oxygen stores. This was not just a static display—real plants were growing in it, and the woman docent in charge was handing out little samples of the lettuce and other stuff being grown. I declined munching leaves, but the little folks clustered around the exhibit were so enthralled they actually tried the vegetables.

And that was that for Infinity’s exhibition floor, leaving, you guessed it, the gift shop and restaurant. “Honey, let’s go buy more SPACE STUFF!”  I hadn’t expected much and was bowled over by what we found. No, the shop wasn’t as big as the humongous one at The Space and Rocket Center, but it was big enough and had some stuff Huntsville didn’t. The Apogee books for example.

If you are a space nut, you owe it to yourself to sample this publisher’s stuff. The Apogee tomes tend to follow a formula; most books covers a single mission and include and are sometimes completely composed of actual NASA documents. Of particular interest is The NASA Mission Reports series.  Most of Apogee’s books are accompanied by a CD (the early ones) or a DVD (more recent offerings) to supplement the text. Infinity’s gift shop had a whole rack of these fine books. Huntsville? I don’t believe they had a single volume. If they did, it was well hidden, since I did look.

I chose Lunar Module Orientation Guide. It is slightly wonderful, being, yes, NASA’s actual basic familiarization guide for crews. In addition to plenty of pictures and drawings, there are some fold-outs of instrument displays that are just freaking crazy. Only down-check? The included DVD is composed of interviews with the Apollo 11 crew. Historically important, yeah, but not directly related to the Lunar Module. I’d have preferred interviews with Grumman folks who designed/built the LEM. Time is passing and many of these people have passed on, so I hope someone has preserved their memories of the Lunar Module’s development and construction.

Couldn’t leave it at just a book, of course; y’all know me. I hunted around. There were a few interesting space toys, but nothing on the order of the set I got at Huntsville. Nice enough t-shirts, but nothing that lit my fire. Then Miss D. spotted a kit that spelled “Uncle Rod,” a little put-it-together planetarium projector. The thing really works and is quite cool looking, with the only caveat being that, while it is ostensibly aimed at kids, the construction involves much intricate cutting-pasting-taping in the course of assembling the cardboard star ball. I am a sucker for home planetarium projectors of any kind, and this new one now has an honored place in my small collection.

Finally, there was “The Café,” which was surprisingly elaborate. It’s a large, attractive, and airy place that’s more like a food court than it is like Huntsville’s Rocket City Grill (formerly The Lunch Pad). What you get depends on which day you visit. On Sunday it was minimalist (but surprisingly tasty) Domino’s pizza.  Yeah, it’s like a food court, but with a difference: each day of the week features one food vendor. Monday is coastal cuisine, Tuesday is barbeque, Wednesday is salads and sandwiches, etc., etc. The pictures of the Monday – Saturday food were doggone appealing and I look forward to sampling it.

After our deliciously greasy Dominos pepperoni pig-out we hopped back on I-10 for the rest if the journey home to Chaos Manor South. To say I was surprised that Infinity has sprung up next door is an understatement. No, it’s not even in spitting distance size-wise of the other NASA affiliated visitors’ centers, but it shows promise. What would I like to see added? As above, more real hardware. Maybe even a rocket park. Miss D. and I will follow Infinity’s progress and let y’all know all about it, since this is one we can visit more often than we can the biggies.

One of NASA’s strengths is, a little surprisingly, its ability to tell its story and sell itself when it wants to or has to, and it’s a Good Thing to see them with another opportunity to do so. Now, if they’d just do something to ramp up and round the edges off the cotton picking NASA Channel on the cable TV.

Anyhoo, with at least some of the space business going to private companies like SpaceX (it should be remembered private corporations have always built NASA’s spacecraft), maybe the most important job for NASA right now is promoting space. If Infinity is a sign of the direction that is going in, I give ‘em a big thumbs up, muchachos. If you find yourself cruising the east-west I-10 corridor in our area, stop in; you will be glad you did.

Next Time:  My Favorite Star Parties: TSP 2001…

Excellent Herschel Project article but I was puzzled by the minimal mention of your cameras. Your blogs have sounded like the cameras were an integral part of the project. Not so in S&T.

Bill McDonald
Watch for my forthcoming article on deep sky video cameras in good old S&T. :-)
As this weeks blog is about the space program,
you may be interested in a March 2012 article
in Popular Science "No Pulse: How Doctors have
Reinvented the Human Heart".

Apparently some of the technology from the
space shuttle's main engines was used to design
a new type of pump for an artificial heart.

The article is an excellent read.

About the LM story from Grumman folks you might be interested in:

Good Book
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