Sunday, August 25, 2013


Rocket City Again

Unk and old friend...
Given the title and the weather, which has not exactly been conducive to astronomy this summer, you might think this is a repeat, muchachos, a summertime rerun, a moldy oldie. The Astro Blog equivalent of The Beatles Again. Uh-uh, nosir. The Big Bang Theory might take the summer off, but not The Little Old Blog from Possum Swamp.

I know it seems like I just talked about me and D’s last trip up I-65 to Huntsville, but believe it or no, that was almost a year ago, last Thanksgiving, and we've just been up there again. Time flies when you are having fun, or, like Unk, getting old. We for sure planned to visit the U.S. Space and Rocket Center on this trip, but that was only the second of two reasons we had for heading north. The first was the famous Huntsville Hamfest.

If you are a ham, an amateur radio operator, I don’t have to tell you about the HH. If'n you ain’t? It’s become one of the biggest hamfests in our part of the country, and, in fact, in the whole country. "What’s a hamfest,” you ask? That’s easy:  it is like a NEAF for amateur radio operators. Tons of dealers, countless flea market tables, and hundreds of nerds like your old Uncle running around like chickens with their heads off. Why should you care if you are not a ham? Because, as I have said before, amateur radio and amateur astronomy are a lot alike and there is always something of interest to amateur astronomers going on at a hamfest.

Amateur astronomy and radio don’t just share the same people—despite the hordes, D. and I soon ran into a fellow PSAS member—the “sister” hobbies’ activities also have a lot in common. Hams are interested in the Sun, to include observing the Sun, due to Sol’s influence on radio propagation, but it goes beyond that. There is growing interest in radio astronomy, many of the people pursuing that are hams, and there is no better place to look for radio astronomy gear or information than at a hamfest.

Udder than that? You can find just about anything under the sun on a hamfest flea market table, everything from cat toys to oscilloscopes and everything in between. I’ve even seen a CCD camera or two for sale at hamfests. Miss Dorothy, a non-ham wife, an “XYL” in our lingo, actually found more cool stuff to buy at the HH than I did. Course, before either one of us could buy a thing we had to get there.

Stuckey's too tempting candy counter
I have said it before, and I will say it again:  the drive up I-65 from The Swamp to Montgomery is the most boring one in our part of the country. Nothing to see, nowhere to stop, precious few gas stations even. It’s a long three hours. Luckily, when you get to Montgomery things improve, starting for us with our traditional stop at Stuckey’s. The place has been depressed for the last several years, but seems to be on the upswing again. At any rate, Unk got his time-honored chili cheese dog, was purty happy with it, and was soon in a better mood for tackling the second half of the journey.

The only bummer remaining on the trip to Huntsville was getting through Birmingham, where there is plenty of traffic and the Interstate is in a constant state of (re)construction. We’d left at just the right time to beat the lunch traffic, though, and if we didn’t exactly sail through B’ham, we didn't get stopped in traffic, either.

The last third of the journey is actually pleasant. The land begins to rise sharply from the Gulf’s coastal plains, and you begin to see small mountains, quite a treat for us flatlanders. Shortly after we left I-65 for I-565 and the final run into Huntsville, we spotted the facility of U.S. Tower, a manufacturer who sells antenna towers to hams (and everybody else). I thought that a good omen.

Over the last year or two, we’d been having as big a “motel problem” in Huntsville as we'd had in Chiefland for a while. For years, all through the 1990s, we stayed at the original Rocket City Holiday Inn, the one frequented by the giants of the Space Age in the 1960s. But the place began a precipitous decline at the turn of the century, closing its famous Orbit Lounge and transitioning to the downscale Holiday Inn Express chain. We tried an alternative or two before stumbling on a good motel near our favorite Huntsville Restaurant, Rosie’s Mexican Cantina. Seemed there was a new Best Western right behind the restaurant and in walking distance of it. We tried the new motel last Thanksgiving and were happy.

This time, since the Hamfest was supposedly our numero uno activity, we’d planned to stay at the Embassy Suites, the event hotel. When all the hamfest-priced rooms filled up before we could get one, we settled on the nearby downtown Holiday Inn. The more I thought about that, though, the less wise it sounded.

Almost all of the larger hamfests (Huntsville is number three in size in the USA) are two-day affairs, Saturday and Sunday, and like many hams, I find I can cover everything the first day. If we were not going to do Day Two, why pay for a downtown hotel? The Best Western would actually be closer to our fave restaurants and at least as close to the Space Center. We cancelled our Holiday Inn reservations and switched to Best Western. Checked in, D. and I were as pleased with the accommodations as we’d been last Thanksgiving: modern, clean rooms; big flat-screen TV; reasonable (cheap, actually) rates.

After we were settled, it was getting on to suppertime, and that chilidog seemed like it was a long, long time ago. We’d had so much fun at the nearby Buffalo Wild Wings last year—that’s where we’d had our Thanksgiving dinner—we decided to try it again.

Only slight irritant at the cotton-picking B-dubs? Seems as you can’t get a dozen wings anymore; you have to get fifteen. Unk loves them so much he was naturally tempted to eat ‘em all. Thank whatever gods there be that watch over silly hams, I had the sense not to try that.  All them wings slathered with WILD sauce would have made for an uber restless night—at best—and I wanted to be bright-eyed and bushy tailed on hamfest Saturday morning. Once again, just like last year, Miss Dorothy’s drink order, a glass of pinot grigio, elicited a blank stare from the server, but after a little consultation he got it figured out.

The night was a reasonably restful one after a little Rebel Yell to fill up the corners and a little cable TV.  We were up in plenty of time to hit the free breakfast and head to the hamfest at 9:30. How was breakfast? One of the better motel ones I’ve had in a while: biscuits, gravy, sausage, eggs, pastries, fruit, cereal, waffles. After the previous evening’s wings-mania, Unk certainly didn't sample everything, sticking to the biscuits and gravy. Which was better than I expected, much better, and fortified me sufficiently for a long day of hamfest bargain hunting.

The Huntsville Hamfest’s doors would open at nine, but I suggested we give it a little while to calm down. There would be a bunch of bargain-crazy hams crowding the entrance at nine, and since I didn't have anything special in mind to buy, I thought waiting for the mob to dissipate would be a good idea. The closest thing to doors-opening time at a hamfest? Trying to get into a Rolling Stones concert in 1969.

With the aid of our GPS, we made it to the Von Braun Center without incident in Unk’s 4Runner, Miss Van Pelt. Huntsville’s municipal auditorium complex, unlike the rotting one in Possum Swamp, is modern and well maintained. Miss D. had been there previously for a conference, but this was my first visit and I was impressed.  Good thing amateur radio, unlike amateur astronomy, is mostly an indoor pursuit. The weather was heading toward "nasty." It was drizzling rain and worse was on the way according to the local weather goobers.We followed the many hams walking toward the building, got inside, and paid our admission. I probably should have purchased additional raffle tickets, but just like at star parties I rarely—if ever—win anything at a hamfest.

If you are used to small hometown affairs like Possum Swamp’s hamfest, a major event like Huntsville can send you into a state of shock at first. Unk hadn’t been to a bigun in a while, and when Miss Dorothy and I entered the arena, all I could do for a few minutes was stand there mumbling:  “All this stuff…all these hams…all this stuff…all these hams.” That wore off, but I was still a little overwhelmed. There were more manufacturers’ booths at Huntsville than there were flea market tables at the last Possum Swamp Hamfest.

The question for old Unk was “Where to start?” I noticed Huntsville dealer Gigaparts had a huge booth set up, and figgered that was it. I always try to patronize our local dealers, our in-state dealers at least, and Gigaparts is a good one. The last time I ordered something from them, an LDG antenna tuner, it was on my front porch faster than I thought possible despite their location in Alabama. I left D. to puzzle out the forum schedule and map of the arena floor and took a stroll through Gigaparts.

Boat Anchor paradise...
What was there? A lot of everything, including a good, old Hammarlund receiver, an HQ-140-X that I could probably have had for a hundred bucks. It looked to be in good shape, and really brought back the memories. In the fall of 1957, The Old Man, Daddy, W4SLJ (now a Silent Key), used his prized Hammarlund Super Pro to let the neighbors listen to Sputnik’s scary beeping. I was awful tempted, y’all, but at this point I have sworn off what we hams call “boat anchors,” old, classic gear, no matter how much I love it and am sentimental about it.

Hokay. No old stuff. How about new? Being purty much an “Icom Man” just like I am a “Celestron Man,” I headed for the big I’s booth. What was there? The absolutely bee-you-ti-ful IC-7800. Campers, this thing has at least a million knobs and buttons on it and a scrumptious full color display that includes a built-in panoramic adapter (“band scope” in today’s lingo). Alas, it has a price to go with all that coolness, just over ten fracking K. I spent most of my time admiring the IC-7600, which is almost as groovy and has an at least imaginable price tag for your stingy old Unk.

Despite my fondness for Icom, I gave the nearby Yaesu and Kenwood booths due attention, too. Let’s face it, all the big three make some mighty fine radios. Unfortunately or fortunately, Unk was not in the market for a new rig. I am more than happy with My IC-7200, which is kinda like the C8 of HF transceivers.

Alrighty then, no big, beautiful HF rigs. My buying would be confined to the simple and inexpensive. I thought I’d like a new ballcap with my call on it, and I’d lost my last callsign badge, so I needed a new one. I also needed a wall-wart power supply to charge one of the jumpstart battery packs I use with the telescopes, something with enough current capacity to charge the battery a little quicker than the 800-mil job I’d been using. Finally, I thought I’d pick up a little Chinese 2-meter/430 HT.

I have Baofeng’s UV5R handie-talkie and have been delighted with it, but I thought it might be cool to have their UV3R, too. It’s even cheaper than the 5, about 40 bucks, really, really works, and for some reason I’d got my heart set on having a 2-meter radio in a fluorescent yellow case. You can get the UV3R in that color, in camouflage, and maybe even in hot pink for all I know.

I often say amateur astronomers are the friendliest people on the planet, and they are, but hams are a close second. As we stood in long lines to put in my ballcap and badge orders (they would be done onsite and ready in a couple of hours), we made plenty of new friends and had a good old time. After we’d placed our orders and had a quick stroll through a small portion of the flea market, it was time for the presentation/forum we wanted to see, “A Budget Limited Search for E.T. Signals.”

I don’t know if D. and I will ever get into homebrew SETI, but the presenter, William Dionne, N4DM, showed how you can do it, and do it in a pretty serious way for about 200-bucks. No, I didn’t forget a couple of zeroes. With a PC, an inexpensive low noise amp (LNA), one of them ubiquitous USB receiver dongles, a small homebrew antenna, a couple of filters, and a few other odds and ends you can be up and running in a fashion at least comparable to the Ohio State dish that picked up the famous Wow! Signal way back when.

After the talk, it was time to get Miss D. initiated into a ham radio tradition, the legendary hamfest hamburger. I don’t know why it is, but whether venue folks or your fellow hams prepare the burgers, they always have that same special taste. One that reminds me of those happy times of me and The Old Man carting amazing finds like BC-610s and Model 15 teletypes and other stuff we didn't “need” to the car, wondering how we’d explain more radio junk to Mama. Lunch was in the company of more friendly hams, and we had some FB eyeball QSOs, y’all.

Miss D. doing the hamfest flea market thing...
After lunch, it was time to get serious about the flea market. What did I see that I wanted badly? An HW-16 CW transceiver, which was my first rig back in 1969. That summer, the summer I got my first license, I imagined I’d get on the air with one of Daddy’s cast-off rigs, some pitiful little transmitter I homebrewed, or a beat up something I’d buy for a song from a local ham. That’s what I thought, till one afternoon in July when the doorbell interrupted my reading of a Doc Savage novel.

It had been rung by the REA man (UPS before there was UPS), who was bearing a big box from Heathkit addressed to me. Yep, to little Rod, no mistake. In it was an HW-16 (kit), and it was flat-out wonderful. It was hardly cheap, $109.95, but the OM wanted to start me out right and he damned sure did. Once it was assembled—Daddy did most of the work but I at least helped—I got on the air, started working 15-meter DX, and never looked back.

Yes, I was sorely tempted by that Hot Water Sixteen sitting right in front of me. I’d sold that first rig, just like I sold my first telescope, to finance the “better” and I regret it just as much. Maybe more, since the HW-16 was a dang sight better than my 3-inch Tasco reflector. I stood there considering for a long while, but finally gave into reality over sentiment. Even if it worked or I restored it, the little rig would just sit. I had Miss D. take a picture of me and the HW-16, and I moved on.

There seemed to be miles of flea market tables, but we covered all of ‘em. What did Unk find? Well, I got a 1.3 amp wall wart for 5-bucks. I also glommed onto a new laser pointer, a violet one. I’m not sure whether it will have enough oomph to work well as a sky-pointer, but it might. While I saw a few UV5Rs, I didn’t see a single “3.” Shoulda scarfed one up at the Possum Swamp hamfest this past spring when I had the chance, I reckon.

Can't believe I let this get away...
One last temptation: a dude was selling genuine 1960s Civil Defense radiation meters. And he was selling them in their original boxes with the CD logo, practically giving them away. Again, I (probably wisely) concluded that it would just be something else to gather dust at the Old Manse. Wouldn’t you know it, though? I changed my mind half-an-hour later. Alas, when went back they were all gone. Dadgummit.

As Dorothy and I said our “73s” and finally headed for the entrance, late afternoon was coming on despite us having imagined we’d stay a mere two or three hours at most. That’s how it is with hamfests: mobs of your friendly fellow hams, tons of gear, lots and lots of fun, and you lose all track of time.

We rested up for a while back at the motel, but not for too long, and soon walked over to Rosie’s for a Mexican fiesta of goodness in the grand style. What’s to say about the place? Rosie’s is big, staffed by friendly folks, and their Tex-Mex rocks. Unk, as usual, went for the shrimp fajitas. Only bad thing? I thought I’d rearrange my plate to make room for a great big draft Dos Equis on the table, and my fingers contacted the hot iron skillet the fajitas were sizzling in. Talk about a major league Owie. I was tempted to dip my poor digits in the cold beer, but was afraid Miss D. would think I’d been shanghaied into the execrable Deal with It reality (that’s what they call it) show.

Supper was great despite my burned paddy-paw, and the rest of the evening was good, too, but I have to admit the motel bed was getting to me. I hated the pillows. From now on, I am taking my own with me on road trips. I simply cannot abide a pillow that is too soft in my increasingly curmudgeonly old age. I was frankly relieved when Miss D. suggested we ditch our original plan, which was to do the Space and Rocket Center on Sunday and drive home Monday.  Instead, we’d leave for the Swamp from the Center Sunday. Bad pillows aside, I would teach my first astronomy class of the semester Monday night, and driving home and going almost straight to the University didn't have a whole lot of appeal, y’all.

Having fun at Rosie's...
Up early the next morning, another Best Western breakfast consumed, we were off to the Space Center, arriving there before nine, just before the doors opened. While waiting, we had a look at the Blackbird on static display out front. This SR-71—actually the A12 variant, its sign says—is in good shape and awful photogenic. After admiring the Blackbird, I moseyed over to the grave of the famous space monkey, Miss Baker, which is just outside the main entrance. I was touched to see someone had left a little offering, a banana, at her headstone.

After we’d got in and picked our Imax movie, Hidden Universe, which would play at eleven, it was time to tour the exhibits. I told Miss D. that while the Space Center doesn't have as nearly much as the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, which we’d just visited, they have plenty, and I don’t get to feeling overwhelmed like I did in DC. It hadn’t been long since we’d been to Huntsville, but they've been changing traveling exhibits and swapping out permanent displays frequently. The traveling show this time was “Black Holes: Space Warps and Time Twists.” Its interactive exhibits were fun for us and surely delighted the few kids we saw in the Center on this early Sunday morning at the end of summer right before the start of school.

The black hole exhibit was nice, but what lit Unk’s fire was that the Center had gotten their hands on a brace of Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury simulators. Both ingress/egress simulators, and actual procedures trainers. Unk managed to somehow squeeze his poor old bod into a Mercury capsule. It wasn’t easy, let me tell you. If the astronauts felt like spam in a cam, Unk was for sure ham in a can.

After we’d covered every inch of the main building and the even bigger Davidson Center for Space Exploration (which houses a real Saturn V that has been beautifully restored), it was lunchtime. The cafeteria, which used to be called “The Lunch Pad” and is now known as “The Mars Grill,” was in its off-season sleepy mode, it appeared. The counter-folks at least verged on the disinterested, but Miss Dorothy was happy with her Solar Salad, and Unk was delighted with his Fourth Planet Combo (a cheeseburger with plenty of crispy B-A-C-O-N). Gotta admit, it put the hamfest hamburger to shame.

Then came the finale, The Hidden Universe in the Imax. The film, which was mostly about the VLT down in the Atacama Desert, was spectacular. Dorothy just loved the sequences of the ESO’s big, beautiful telescopes Antu (Sun), Kueyen (Moon), Melipal (The Southern Cross), and Yepun (Venus). I’ve seen a lot of Imax films over the last twenty years and this was definitely one of the best. If you get the chance to see it you dern sure should.

Quick run on the gift shop for a T-shirt for Unk and a little something for D., and that was that for our 2013 Huntsville expedition. I’d hoped to find some of the classic 1950s spacecraft model kit reissues the Center used to sell, but no dice this time. Despite that disappointment and the 6-hour drive back down I-65 that had to be faced, Unk was feeling good, real good. Big hamfest and the Rocket Center all in one weekend with Miss Dorothy at my side. It just don’t get better than that, muchachos.

Nota Bene:  You can see many more pictures from our trip on Unk’s Facebook page, in the “Albums” section of “Photos.” For (a little) more on my ham radio activities see my (AC4WY) page on

Blog News:  The Little Old Blog from Possum Swamp is now on the air in Poland in Polish. Don’t believe it? See it rat-cheer

Next Time: Tricks of the trade...

Hi Rod,

I've been in amateur astronomer for 23 years, and amateur radio for only 18 months. I fell into it due to curiosity and a desire to understand why my late grandfather enjoyed the hobby so much. It wasn't long, of course, before I noticed that several amateur astronomers are also active hams.

A few months ago I gave a presentation on solar astronomy to my radio club and started off by detailing what I believed to be the similarities between the hobbies. In addition to the shared subject of the sun, here is what I came up with:

-- We have a love for understanding. Understanding optics, stars, galaxies, planets, circuits, propagation, radios, antennas.

-- We are fascinated with light and energy that is barely there at all. Light from distant galaxies, just a few watts from around the globe.

-- We are constantly trying to push our equipment to the limits. How good is your mirror? How good is your SNR?

--We have a history of tinkering and trying to make stuff do things it really wasn't initially designed to do. DSLRs, Mallincams, ATM, Rasberry PIs, built-your-own QRP.

-- There is a quasi-loner aspect to both hobbies. We're all in the dark at a star party; we're talking to people all over the world but we don't see them.

--If we're not careful, our equipment can easily cost as much as a small car. 20" Obsession, IC 7800.

--Michael, KT5MR
Hey Rod, how about an article on to build the SETI Signal Chaser on the cheep (for us non-technical types)in a future column?

Hey Rod how about a column on building that cheap seti signal chaser for the non-techs?

It seems those of us attracted to amateur astronomy are also drawn to ham radio, and also to aviation. I've met a number of people into all three. I recently got my ham license, the last element of the troika. Even got my UV-5R as my first 2m radio too.

You don't fly airplanes as well, do you Rod?
I started to. When I was in the AF, I joined the aero club and started working on my license, but in the process of getting my engineering career started, I never finished it up.
HI Jeff:

I hope to. But it may be a while. It will take me some time to get comfortable with these new SDR receivers. In my book, an R-390 is still state of the art. LOL
By light of day,
By darkest night,. . .

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