Monday, December 20, 2010

December 20: The US Space and Rocket Museum ... then on to New Orleans!

Today’s Temperature (on the road):
8:00 am – 32 degrees
11:00 am – 46 degrees
12:15 pm – 54 degrees
2:30 pm – 61 degrees

The land grows flatter making the sky seem huge.

Can you tell I am headed south?

Time Zones

Last night as I prepared to go to bed, I was setting the hotel alarm clock when I discovered it was an hour earlier than I anticipated. I quickly realized that I’m now in the central time zone. This happy occurrence means that when the alarm goes off at 6:00 a.m., my body will think it is 7:00. In a way, I can trick my body into believing I’ve been granted an extra hour of sleep. Illogical? Sure. But it works for me. There are four time zones in the contiguous United States, so when it is 4:00 pm in Florida, it is only 1:00 pm in California. If you include Alaska and Hawaii, how many time zones are there?

Each time zone is roughly 15 degrees of longitude. There are 24 longitude lines on a globe, and there are 24 hours in a day. You can quickly figure out the current time for any place on earth simply by counting lines of longitude. Begin with your time zone and count one hour for each line of longitude you cross until your reach the location you have in mind. If the location is east of where you live, you add an hour for each line of longitude, but if the location is west, you subtract an hour for each line of longitude. Try it. How many hours difference is it between you and Japan or you and Italy? What time is it in each location?

 Yes, the United States Space and Rocket Museum is the favorite place in Alabama that people visit.
 Nice T-shirt, eh?
What makes a rocket go? Why, liquid air. Yes, LIQUID air! How in the world do you make liquid air? You cool it to 300 degrees BELOW zero.
 United States Space and Rocket Museum

After a quick breakfast, we made our way over to the United States Space and Rocket Center. After paying admission—adult tickets are $20 each—I headed over to the Guest Services counter with my first question: Why was Huntsville, Alabama chosen as the site for the development of NASA rockets. At first I was told it’s because there’s an arsenal nearby. “But there’s an arsenal where I live and we don’t have a rocket center,” I countered. “Well, then, let me check,” said the nice lady manning the desk. She quickly returned with an answer. A little history lesson was in store. 

Werner Von Braun was a German scientist who developed rockets for the German military during World War II. These weapons were used against the Allies in Europe. The United States, too, was a member of the Allies. After the war, the United States government lured Von Braun to the United States so that he could develop rockets for the country that was once his enemy. Apparently, Von Braun thought the geography of Northern Alabama most suitable for his research and selected it as his base. The rocket industry developed as a result. Rockets seem to be used for two main purposes: 1.) Military defense 2.) Space exploration. The museum highlighted both, and I noticed quite a few ads urging young people to enlist in one of the branches of the U. S. military.

 President Kennedy sent us to the moon.

There was an enormous amount to see at the Space and Rocket Center but our time was limited so we chose to skip the I-MAX movies and the Narnia exhibit opting instead to focus on the US space program. Heading through the exhibit devoted to the Saturn 5 rocket evoked many memories. The Space Age began during my childhood, and because I lived in Florida, it was common to see and hear huge, thunderous rockets blasting by overhead with rocket trails billowing across the sky. In 1961, I marveled when President Kennedy announced that the United States would try to put a man on the moon before 1970, not because it would be easy, but because it would be hard. That can-do spirit made Americans proud. Sure enough, in July 1969 we landed the first men on the moon. I remember climbing to the top of a science building on the University of South Florida campus in Tampa to watch the rocket as it zoomed overhead. Then, in a grainy black and white TV picture, I held my breath as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. His first words still ring in my ears: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” WOW! Sadly, President Kennedy did not live to see his dream fulfilled, but millions of Americans cheered in his honor. 

 The Apollo 11 Astronauts

   The lunar command module
The lunar excursion module (LEM)
A model of the lunar rover Neil Armstrong drove on the moon.
 This model shows the lunar rover folded up as it went to the moon.

 Here the model is unfolded just like the real one was.

 These toys were popular in 1969 when men were exploring the moon.

The giant Saturn 5 rocket was used to blast off our astronauts to the moon. The thing is so massive it was hard to take a photo of it. It is 363 feet tall, as high as a 33-story building! It generated 7,500,000 pounds of thrust at liftoff, enough thrust to launch 40 Boeing 747 airplanes. Seeing the Saturn 5 up close made me realize just how brave astronauts have to be. Then, when I was inside the museum, I saw the tiny space capsule that our very first astronauts used to come back from space. Holy cow! I could not imagine being cramped inside that tiny little module hurtling through the earth’s atmosphere and then splashing down in the huge ocean. As I looked at it, I tried to think about how I would feel bobbing around in the ocean while I waited to be rescued. I realized that all of our astronauts have to be exceptionally brave and bold from takeoff to landing. Could you be an astronaut? Would you enjoy that challenge? If so, be sure to work hard studying science and math, and when you get to high school and college, take the time to learn a lot of physics. We need good astronauts, so I hope you will consider becoming one. Remember, if you work hard, you can achieve most anything you want.

The bottom of the Saturn 5 rocket
The brains of the Saturn 5 rocket.

This tiny capsule was used to bring early astronauts back to Earth.

In the early 1970s NASA sent up Skylab, the first American space station where astronauts could live in space while studying what’s “out there”. After a couple of years, Skylab was deserted. It fell to Earth in 1979 and broke up as it entered the atmosphere. Pieces fell into the ocean and some landed on deserted areas of Australia. The picture below shows the largest piece of Skylab that was recovered.

This is the largest piece of Skylab recovered after it fell to Earth.

 On the left is a Russian space shuttle and on the right is an American one. We were once rivals in the space race, but now we collaborate.

Since the 1980s NASA has used space shuttles, huge space ships that can travel to space and back many times, unlike earlier vehicles that could be used only once. But soon, the space shuttle will become passé and the NASA will replace it with something newer. What do you think that will be? Maybe you can be on the team that helps design it as it seems our next goal is Mars.


 This is where the space camp kids work. We weren't allowed to go in here.

Space Camp got off the ground after I was an adult, so I never had the opportunity to attend. But I would have loved to have had that experience. Signs for Space Camp were everywhere, and in one of the buildings you could see through a wall of glass where the space camp kids get to work. But those places were off limits, so I couldn’t explore them. It was exciting, though, to read about the exploits of the Space Camp participants and even more exciting to learn that the girl pictured below is the first Space Camp attendee to become an astronaut. At first, NASA did not allow women to become astronauts, but thankfully, they came to their senses and that changed. Both men and women have successfully served as American astronauts. Would you like to be an astronaut? Maybe Space Camp is for you!

On the Road Again

As I write this, we are heading down I-65 toward New Orleans. The Interstate system makes traveling by car a breeze … until you enter a heavy traffic zone like the beltway around Washington, DC. Did you know that there is a clever numbering system for the Interstates? Ones with odd numbers run north and south and the even numbered ones go east and west. Also, you can guess where you are in the United States because of how the Interstates are numbered. For the north-south Interstates, the low numbers are in the West and the high numbers are in the East. With the east-west Interstates, the low numbers are in the South and the high numbers are in the North. I-4 cuts east and west across the middle of Florida, while I-95 runs from Southern Florida to the North hugging the east coast. (A similar numbering scheme was used for the US highway system, the main roads that preceded the Interstate system. You can tell you are on a US highway by the shape of the sign. It is a black and white sign with a shield shape. Interstate signs are red and blue.)

I’ve always been fascinated by place names. When I see an interesting place name I wonder who chose the name and why. I also find it interesting the number of locations in the United States that share the same name. We just passed a sign for Decatur, Alabama, but I know there is also a Decatur, Georgia, and a Decatur, Illinois. I wonder how many Decaturs there are in total in the USA. Gainesville is another common name, and I suspect most of them were named for General Gaines. Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, and Florida all have a Gainesville. Are there others? When I moved to Virginia I learned that all of the places named Montgomery are in honor of the same Revolutionary War hero, General Richard Montgomery, who was felled in a battle in Canada. While we drove through Montgomery County, Virginia yesterday, today we were heading towards Montgomery, Alabama. Does where you live share a name with another other place in the USA? For what or for whom was your hometown named? And how in the world did Warrior, Alabama get its name?

As we go further into the warmth of Southern Alabama—we’ll soon be in Mississippi—an old Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys’ tune keeps running through my head:

My window faces the South.
I’m almost halfway to Heaven.
Snow is falling, but all I can see
Are fields of cotton that are smiling back at me.
My window faces the South,
And tho’ I’m so far from that Suwanee,
I’m never frownin’ or down in the mouth
‘Cause my window faces the South.


Kudos to Mississippi for having free Wi-Fi at its welcome center, along with free coffee and friendly hostesses who greet each visitor. “What state are you from?” was called out many times as I sat checking my email. Responses included Tennessee, Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, and Virginia. This was the nicest welcome center I’ve experienced on this trip. Mississippi is flatter still and even warmer than either Alabama or Tennessee. Between the cities are miles and miles of scrubby pine trees like much of the Deep South. This would be a good place for a paper mill, but I’ve not had the acrid aroma of one yet fill my nostrils. Paper mills are mighty stinky places. I’m aware that Mississippi is known for farming, but I’ve yet to see any agriculture production. In 1860 Mississippi was the richest state, but by 1870 it was the poorest. What happened to cause such a dramatic change in economic status? Can you figure it out?

I find it interesting that there seem to be few, if any, holiday decorations displayed. Other than the reindeer antlers and Rudolph noses on cars, the towns and cities seem undecorated. At night, few houses have had any type of special lights or yard ornaments. In Northern Alabama, there were a few large wreaths on chain link fences, but that’s about all. Perhaps New Orleans will make up for the lack of holiday cheer elsewhere.

Signs seen today along AL and MS highways

·      “Rocking Horse Celebration Arena”
·      “Piggy Express Combo”
·      “Flea Mall with 80 dealers”
·      “Alabama Adventure Freeway”
·      “Foundry Super Thrift Outlet”
·      “Join the Craneworks”
·      “Coming: Buzz Saw Falls”
·      “Buffet City—All You Can Eat!” (No price listed)
·      “Paul W. Bryant National Championship Museum—Thirteen National Championships and Counting” (Yes, the SEC rules here. Bear’s checkered hat was the only icon needed on the sign.)
·      “Tom Beville Lock and Dam”
·      Cuba, Toomsuba, and Demopolis, MS
·      Chunky River
·      American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (on work projects)
·      “No Skinny Burgers Here!”
·      “Boot Country”
·      “Dixie Gas”
·      “You can’t fix stupid, but you can vote them out.”

Tomorrow, New Orleans city tour ...


Rach said...

I always thought Space Camp would be a fun experience, although I always knew I was too much of a chicken to ever be an astronaut.

What a wonderful museum visit you had yesterday, and I'm glad you have arrived safely in New Orleans.

My favorite signs:
"Piggy Express Combo"
"Chunky River"
"No Skinny Burgers Here!"

Thanks for the smile. :o) I look forward to New Orleans. Maybe I'll get there some day...

laurayne said...

Dr. M. You packed so much inot one day. I love the way you share the pictures and funny little quips of trivia. It makes the reading fun and interesting. Bon Voyage. I can't wait to hear about your other adventures!