Sunday, May 06, 2012


Unk and Miss Dorothy Visit Space City

No, not Steve Zodiac and Doctor Venus’ Space City, Alabama’s Space City a.k.a. “Rocket City,” a.k.a. “Huntsville.” I try to keep the subject of the little old Astro Blog from Possum Swamp resolutely on the subject of astronomy, amateur astronomy, but I do sometimes wander a little afield, mainly to the subject of space, or, more precisely, the manned space program. I’ve been following NASA since I was knee high to a gator, and I find many if not most amateur astronomers are big advocates of manned space exploration.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll recall I have reported on the state of the U.S. space program a couple of times over the last couple of years, mainly to rake the Administration over the coals on the subject. Maybe it is now time for an update—or would be if there were anything much to update.

Nothing has changed, not for the good, anyway. The decommissioning of the Space Shuttles just underlined that we now have no manned spaceflight capability. Supposedly that is coming in the form of those vaunted private spaceflight initiatives, but little has rolled out yet despite claims of lots of wheel-turning. In other words, the private space companies have not yet got as far as Project Mercury did fifty years ago, at least not as far as the Mercury orbital missions. Mojave Aerospace Ventures’ manned SpaceShipOne has completed suborbital flights.

Miss Dorothy thought the pictures of the shuttle being delivered to Washington were beautiful, and I did too. But I also found them sad. The end of Shuttle flight and Obama’s cancellation of the Constellation program basically means “Last person out of Cocoa Beach, turn off the lights.”

Will things get any better any time soon? I doubt it. The other day, NASA made noise about getting to Mars by 2030, but I find that laughably optimistic when we can’t even get to the ISS at the moment. Sure, we went from Explorer I to Tranquility Base in a little over a decade, and technology is much better today, but we now lack the political will and consensus to do stuff like that. Hell, I don’t think we’ll be able to get back to the Moon in 18 years, much less put men on Mars.

What are the prospects for a change in the space policy of our Administration? In an election year, especially an election year coming off The Great Recession, a time when Obama’s opponents are all making huge noises about SPENDING LESS, I don’t see much hope. Especially given the fact that surveys reveal Mom and Pop America believe NASA consumes somewhere around 25% of the national budget instead of the just over .5% they actually get.

How about the current candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination? Romney made great sport of Newt Gingrich’s call for the building of a permanent manned Moon base. Does Mitt really think going back to the Moon is a big joke? Or was that just a way to get in a dig at his opponent? It’s hard to know what he thinks. Gingrich? I don’t agree with him on much, but he is right all down the line on space. For better or worse, though, he doesn’t have a prayer of getting the nomination much less winning the Presidency.

Will things get any better after the election? Maybe. With the economy slowly, ever so slowly, on the mend, and him not having to face reelection, it’s possible Obama would be more space-friendly in a second term. Romney?  Other than laughing at Gingrich’s space policy statements, he’s said vague things about “a new mission for NASA.” Unfortunately, he’s also making budget cuts a central part of his platform, budget cuts big enough that he’d certainly take money from easy-victim NASA, maybe a lot of money. I’m afraid the best we could expect from a President Romney would be another round of nonsensical “studies.”

That’s the story on manned spaceflight. How about unmanned? I hate to be right all the time, y’all, but you will recall I warned the unmanned-is-better crowd they would soon be out of the frying pan and into the fire, too. So it has come to pass. In addition to the dismantling of manned spaceflight, huge cuts in unmanned programs are now underway.

When the space program’s been at low ebb in the past, I’ve always found myself drawn to revisiting its past glories. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Seeing the greatness—and the occasional not-so-greatness—is instructive, and relearning what can be done with the crudest tools does give me hope for the future. If we could get to the Moon 40 years ago with spacecraft made with stone knives and bearskins, we—or somebody else—can set sail on that great dark ocean again someday and keep going.

Anyhoo, what better place to relive the heady days of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo than The U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville? Contrary to what some folks think, it is not a government run deal. Well, actually, it is, but not by the federal government. The State of Alabama operates both the Center’s museum and Space Camp, which is based on the same property. While it is not run by NASA, the Center has always received much cooperation and support from them. As well it should, since The Space and Rocket Center and Space Camp are doing a bang-up job educating the public about outer space these days.

Not that the place hasn’t had its ups and downs. There’ve been some years of doldrums, and one bad period at the end of the 1990s when it was so deeply in debt it looked like it might not survive. I always liked the Space Center, but I had to question the wisdom of letting their real Saturn V (the Dynamic Test Vehicle used by NASA for vibration effects tests) rust away on its side outdoors in the rocket park while spending oodles of money on a mockup that would sit on its tail fins out front.

But it all worked out. The towering fake Saturn may not have been the obvious way to spend so much money (almost 9 million bucks), but out there looming over the Interstate it sure is eye-catching and can be seen for miles.  Obviously it caught the eye of donors, since just a couple of years ago the Center completed a huge “rocket hall” in which their fully restored real Saturn V now resides. “The Davidson Center for Space Exploration” is beautiful and is much like the similar facility at Kennedy Space Center.

How far back do me and the Space Center go? To shortly after Miss Dorothy and I got hitched. She was appalled, simply appalled, to learn I had never been there. I was, too, but I had never had anyone to go with before. Miss D. set about to rectify the situation, and we have been doing Huntsville every year or three since. There was a short intermission while D. was battling cancer, but it has once again become her annual birthday treat.

Which brings us to this year’s trip. In the past, you were pretty much guaranteed of seeing the same old exhibits every time. That was OK if slightly ho-hum. Things are different now, with the Center more focused on bringing in good new stuff. A look at their (still slightly sub-par) website showed  we were in luck; a new exhibit had opened, one in honor of Wernher Von Braun’s centennial, “100 Years of Von Braun: His American Journey.”

So it was that Miss D. and I hopped in the 4-Runner and headed north one Friday morning some weeks ago. The drive is not that bad, about 6-hours, the same time it takes to get to Atlanta—or The Chiefland Astronomy Village. The only bad part? That cotton-picking boring stretch between Possum Swamp and Montgomery. It is flat. There is nothing to see. It seems to take forever. When we got to Montgomery, Miss Dorothy and I stopped at the good, old Stuckey’s on its outskirts for lunch, a tradition with us for dang near twenty years. After that stultifying stretch of I-65 even Stuckey’s is heaven.

Chili dogs consumed and gee-gaws browsed, it was on to Birmingham. After you pass Montgomery, the land begins to change, rising to foothills, and the scenery is much more interesting. It seemed like no time at all before we were waving goodbye to Vulcan’s statue receding in the rearview mirror. Our destination, Huntsville, was soon upon us.

Years ago, we used to stay at the Space Center Holiday Inn. It was a real relic from the glory days, with plenty of pictures of Redstone Rockets and Mercury capsules on the lobby walls and a bar called “The Galaxy Lounge.” The spirits of the giants of the 1960s were a palpable presence. When I looked out of the corner of my eye, I seemed to see The Seven sitting at the bar. Then, a couple of years back, when the economy really hit the skids, the Holiday Inn went downscale to Holiday Inn Express, the cocktail lounge was closed, and the once uber modern motel began a dowdy old age.

Searching for an alternative, D. remembered she and Miss Beth had stayed at a nice La Quinta years ago when they’d visited, not long before D. and I met. We decided to try that motel, which (we thought) was right across from the old Holiday Inn. How was it? It was immediately obvious it was not four-star. It was not three-star. It was two-star. But it was OK. Reasonably clean, with friendly staff. The room was not much different from what we are used to in Chiefland, Florida. Except there was neither fridge nor microwave. That was OK with me since there was a nearby icemaker with plenty of ice for the Rebel Yell.

Settled in, it was getting on to five, so it was out to University Drive and our favorite Huntsville eatery, Rosie’s Mexican Cantina. There is a place where I’ve gotten better Tex-Mex, but only one place, Mamacita’s in Kerrville Texas (on the way to TSP), and it is not much better. On this night I ordered one of my all-time faves, the cheese chile relleno—I mean what’s not to like about a big poblano pepper stuffed with cheese and deep fried and smothered in more cheese and salsa and sour cream and guacamole? It was accompanied by “several” draft Dos Equiis. “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do…yadda…yadda…yadda.”

On the way back to the motel we noticed another La Quinta, which turned out to be the one D. and B. had stayed at those many years ago. We decided it didn’t look much better than the one we were in, and that as long as we were not awakened by the sounds of junkies and johns in the parking lot, we would be fine where we were. We did notice a nice looking and new Best Western next door to Rosie’s, and we will likely stay there next time—and be within walking distance of all that food and beer and margaritas.

The evening was quiet and restful. I spent a few minutes browsing the Cloudy Nights bulletin boards—the La Quinta’s wi-fi was surprisingly speedy—had a nightcap of Yell, and drifted off watching Monsters and Mysteries in Alaska on the dadgum Discovery Channel on the room’s brand-new flat screen TV.

Next morning we were up and out reasonably bright and early. After a little of the motel’s (OK) continental breakfast, we were off to the Center, which was just a few minutes away. When you get there, have your camera ready, because as you walk up to the entrance of the original building, you will encounter a splendid photo op: the faux Saturn V rising over the Center with a NASA tracking dish in the foreground.

Before you go through the doors, stop and look behind you and you will see the grave of Miss Baker, one of the monkey-nauts who rode Jupiter Cs into the unknown in the late 1950s. I always like to spend a few minutes paying my respects to brave Miss B., who lived a long life for a little squirrel monkey, nearly thirty years.

Inside, the first thing you will encounter is the big gift shop, and it is a good one, muchachos. I browsed around a bit while Miss Dorothy got our tickets, but decided to leave the shopping till we were almost ready to depart. I intended to buy lots of SPACE STUFF and didn’t want to carry it around all day. The Center has an IMAX theatre, a nice one, and we always make time for the show if it is of interest. One of the films playing this time was Hubble, and while we didn’t know a thing about it, it sounded good, natch, and we got tickets for that, too.

The movie would not run till eleven, so we had a couple of hours to wander around, which was about right. The older complex is dwarfed by the new rocket hall, but it’s still plenty big, and is packed with mucho cool stuff; everything from a Gemini (pronounced “Geminy,” young folks) capsule to a whole V2. The big draw this time, however, was the Von Braun exhibit.

Its designers have done a good job of telling the story of Wernher Von Braun’s American years, and especially his Huntsville years, and have some impressive items on display. The Center has always boasted a recreation of Von Braun’s office filled with original items and looking as if The Man’s just stepped out, but that was now supplemented by a replica of his living room at home. What’s playing on the vintage TV set? Why, Lost in Space, of course.

The displayed documents and journals are fascinating, and I was particularly taken by a meticulously drawn star map done by Von Braun (it doesn’t feel right to call him “Wernher”). The documents and the rest of the exhibits paint a good picture of America’s top space scientist, but don’t tell us too much about his work in Germany and on the V2 as a weapon. Not surprising, perhaps, since his conduct during World War II has grown more controversial post Cold War.

Even more intriguing for Unk was a little display over in a corner, the tube of a 12-inch Newtonian telescope (looked to me like; the primary was not present). It is skillfully crafted of wood, and while the poster accompanying it concerning Von Braun and the Von Braun Astronomical Society (“The Rocket City Astronomical Association” back in The Day) is vague and confusing, this may have been Dr. Von Braun’s personal telescope.

When Miss D. was able to drag me away from that, we continued our tour of the original Space Center, but did not tarry. There was still the rocket hall, The Davidson Center, to cover. To sum up, the Von Braun exhibit was very good, the permanent displays were in great shape, and all the center personnel, including the Space Camp cadets who serve as docents, were friendly and knowledgeable. Incidentally, Space Camp was originally conceived of by Dr. Von Braun.

Before visiting the Saturn V, there is the outdoor rocket park to see. Not much has changed there in years, but that doesn’t mean it is not incredible. There’s a towering Saturn IVB and a whole array of U.S. ICBMs, IRBMs, and NASA boosters. Hell, there is even a freakin’ V1 buzzbomb, and that has just got to be rare. One of the most valuable and impressive things is the park’s array of Army anti-air/anti-missile rockets and missiles (Redstone Arsenal, where The Marshall Space Flight Center is located, is an army installation). There’s a Nike X, a Nike Zeus, and much more.

I said “not much had changed,” but one thing has. In addition to the Saturn V having moved indoors, the park’s Titan II has disappeared. The Titan II was used both as a U.S. silo launched ICBM and as a space launcher for Project Gemini, and the one at Huntsville was not just any Titan, but one I knew, a hangar queen I’d trained on at the U.S.A.F. Ballistic Missile School in Texas many a long year ago. The Association of Air Force Missileers urged the Center to apply for a grant from them to help restore the Titan, but this was in the Center’s bad old days, and they were not interested. I hope the old warhorse has gone to someone who can give it a good home.

Rockets lovingly admired, it was time for the piece de résistance, the Saturn V in The Davidson Center. I like to think I know enough about liquid fueled boosters to know when one is looking good, and this one is. It has been meticulously restored and is suspended above the floor in all its glory. You could easily spend hours walking from one end of the thing to the other, seeing new details every pass, “That’s the oxidizer turbopump for those big F1 engines, honey.”

The Saturn is ringed with plenty of interesting to astounding exhibits, including a Lunar Module, a Moon Rock, and the restored Apollo Mobile Quarantine Facility, which was the modified Airstream trailer in which the returning crew of Apollo 11 was housed till NASA was sure they hadn’t caught any Moon bugs. A depressing thing? Last time I was at the Center there were plenty of Constellation exhibits. They are all gone now.

By the time you’ve finished a few laps around the Saturn V, you will be ready for a sit and a bite to eat. Miss D. and I sure were and headed back out across the rocket park to the rear of the main facility and the Center restaurant, “The Rocket City Grill.” This was formerly known as “The Lunch Pad” (yuk-yuk), and was renamed in an effort to make it seem a little more upscale, I guess.

It is a little fancier now, I reckon. It still has the old-timey burgers, fries, and dogs, but also serves rather good salads today. Salad? Feh! Naturally, Unk chose the Stargazer Burger with Bacon. What has not changed? My little alien friends still watch me in the form of weird-looking drink bottles. Do these little suckers follow me everywhere?

Next destination was the IMAX theatre for Hubble. This 2010 film is in part about the space telescope, but its main focus is the Shuttle repair missions that brought the crippled Hubble to life and which kept it going over the years. I liked the movie, though I was disappointed to learn the film, which was originally in 3D, would be shown flat. On that towering dome of an IMAX screen, it almost looked 3D, though. Yeah, I liked Hubble, but its chronicle of the Shuttle’s greatest triumphs left me feeling almost as blue as those pictures of the spacecraft being ferried to their final resting places did a few weeks later.

One last stop, the gift shop

Buying space stuff is almost as much fun as buying astro stuff, and me and Miss Dorothy went hog wild. The fact that we’d economized on the motel made us feel a little less guilty than we otherwise might have. We loaded up, y’all. What did Unk get? Bunch of stuff, but, most of all, a cool space toy. You know I still like space toys, and even in these latter days you can still run across some cool ones. Like the little set of plastic spacecraft that spoke my name. It was not your everyday box of plastic spaceships, either. It included not just a Titan II and an Atlas F, but—get this—a Dyna Soar!

And that was it. All that remained for this trip was a couple of good steaks at Huntsville’s Longhorn restaurant, a restful night of cable TV, and a bearable trip home. It had been a great visit, maybe our best ever, and we hope to make it back next year.

Reliving all those marvelous days thanks to The U.S. Space and Rocket Center did leave me a little sad, yeah, but mostly it gave me hope, muchachos. It’s only been 40 years since our greatest triumphs, those triumphs were achieved in a little over a decade, and we could easily do it all again. We could do it even better today given the tools we have now. We and our leaders just need the will—there’s that word again—and the courage.

Next Time:  Frankenscope!

Rod, I enjoyed this article so much... brought me back to the days of our youth when you used to tell me about all things "space" - made me think of you and dad photographing the moon, our trip to see 2001 when it first came out, your "moon base", the one and only Matt Mason, and of course Fireball XL5. You educated me well, I am a huge proponent of the space program and am as distraught as you are about the current trends - I go to the SpaceX web-site often, and feel hopeful that maybe one day these ventures will amount to something. I grew up in the shadow of a brilliant big brother, but one who was always willing to share his knowledge, and even though my life is busy in vastly different areas, I still love to read and learn from your writings.
Good, old Major Matt Mason! Hadn't thought about that rascal in many a Moon! Thanks for your very kind words, Danny.
Rod, your right on about the current state of NASA and the space program it is depressing A lot of really good people are gone from the program due to the Downsizing, I work for a Sister Agency that is experiencing severe budget cuts that affect our ability to perform our mission even aviation research is affected. These cut effect our National Technical Capabilities the Shuttle Program produced a capability that cannot be easily replaced it will take years probably a generation to get back where we now are . They people in charge a taking a short sighted out look and are not thinking long term. We went to the Moon in just nine years , we had the Best example of Goverment / private partnership (project Apollo) that had ever been attempted.. Countless thing we use every day were direct spinoffs of this program that probably cost the average tax payer less than a dollar over a decade of time when Poject Apollo was at its peak. Not counting the young people who were inspired to pursue careers in Engineering and Science that is what made this country great. Dare to Dream that Yesterdays dreams are today hopes and tomorrows realities.
I remember a speech given after a really bad day in January 28 1986 that incident is forever burned into my syche at 11:39:13 AM that morning. The future does not belong to the faint hearted it belongs to the brave.

That sounds like a great museum I didn't know much about. Von Braun's hand-drawn star map and possibly even a 12-incher! Congratulations on your shiny new Dyna-Soar.

That space exploration and manned programs specifically are far from the national priorities now is obvious (except for the Chinese). And yet this may not be the reason the American program is by and large scrapped. My simplistic "Marxist" hypothesis would be that NASA's private contractors divested and _as a result_ there is no space program to speak of - they stopped lobbying for it in earnest. If the capital wasn't moved out of aerospace altogether, it was probably moved into missile defense, judging by how that program is being pushed through at all costs.

By contrast, then, the Russian manufacturers did not divest (perhaps were unable to divest), and _as a result_ that manned space program is chugging along regardless of whether it is a true national priority. Of course it is also buoyed by a little monopoly revenue and the pleasant feeling (correct or not) that the space race can be won by simply staying in it.
Rod, I call it a terrible tragedy that we no longer have the political or economic will to go into space like before. I would think that designing a new, heavy-lift Saturn V-like rocket would be easier and less expensive now that we have computers and CAD programs, but it seems like we can barely design anything to go into space.

The trouble is partially political. I recall that President George H.W. Bush once made a speech where he told NASA to send a man to Mars by the end of the decade: the 1990s. But he didn't back it up with any money.

Presidents since have made lavish space proclamations -- especially on trips to areas like Huntsville and the Cape -- but then refuse to fund NASA adequately to carry out these missions, and they die on the vine.

Back in 1984, there was a documentary program called "Spaceflight" that was shown on PBS, and it noted that the Department of Defense was -- at the time -- spending more on space than NASA was. I wonder if maybe NASA should go under the Department of Defense since that's where so much money goes. That, of course, would be filed under my suggestion to rename all the schools as state prisons because the Florida Legislature back in the 1990s was obsessed with funding prisons, but not schools.

The problem with believing that the private sector can do space better than the government is that the private sector starts out less expensive, then gradually increases its costs until it's more expensive, but would cost even more to get the government back into the space business. And let's remember that while NASA was a government agency, it contracted out building the rockets to the private sector.

The big problem is that most elected officials are not visionaries, and can't see the romance of space. I mean, ask Romney or Obama if they've ever looked through a telescope. To them, NASA is just another government agency with overpaid bureaucrats driving the country to ruin, with their enormous $50,000 a year salaries, pensions and health benefits. Better to invest that money in Afghanistan or Foggy Bottom, where at least there's a possibility of something useful. (Sorry, sarcasm doesn't transmit via email.)

I used to watch the shuttles go from Palm Beach County, then Vero Beach, then Sarasota, then Manatee County, as well as on TV. All we have now is the history and the memories to fall back on.

It's so sad, but it's the reality we have.
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