I was, again, stuck in Florida with a shuttle that wouldn’t launch. So, again, after several days, the Sabra decided to come down and join me. And, again, she proved to be the good-luck charm we needed, and that little Shuttle launched.
Since she was in FL anyway, we decided to take a vacation, and we stayed in Orlando for a week. It was nice; we went to Disney World, which was pretty fun. We only had one day there, so we just went to Magic Kingdom. Then we spent the next morning listing to the benefits of buying a timeshare. We were strong and didn’t buy, but we DID get a free breakfast and 2 one-day passes to both Universal Orlando parks, so I guess we did OK.
I started back at work this morning, and I noticed that even though schools are all officially back in session, the Metro was surprisingly empty. Then I got off the train at Gallery Place/Chinatown to transfer. As I walked down the platform, there was a mass onrush of people walking the opposite direction. Someone had opened the floodgates and people were pouring out and over the walkway. It occurred to me that this is exactly how salmon feel as they fight their way up against the currents of the raging rivers of the Pacific Northwest. Where once I felt like drone in the subway, today, I better appreciated the plight of the salmon. Unfortunately for me, I did not spawn at the end of this river of people; however, fortunately, I did not die as do the fierce salmon who make the difficult trek to perpetuate their species.
I merely went to work.
I like to read. I like to write. I like to travel. So, when I called National Geographic Magazine a few months back to start my subscription, I decided to accept the offer the operator made me: for an extra $5, I could also receive National Geographic Traveler. To be honest, I'm still not sure I really like the magazine, I do very much like one of the regular contributors, however: Daisann McLane. It's her easy-going writing, with just enough quirk to it that I long to throw it all away and gallivant across the globe. For instance, in this month's issue, she talks about how wonderful it is to have your laundry done (or to do it yourself) in foreign countries. I'm used to stuffing my dirty undies in the plastic bag the hotels give you for laundry service so they don't touch the clean clothes in my bag. Since I travel to FL so much and may be stuck there for longer than I anticipate, I have come to regularly pack more than I need...it never occurred to me to actually let strangers do my laundry. I think I might have to try it the next time I'm away! Thanks, Daisann!
I was in New Orleans a few weeks ago on business. I flew in on Sunday (July 20) and left the following Saturday. Sunday night, I walked the 2 blocks from my hotel to the start of Bourbon Street. I walked from Canal Street all the way down Bourbon StreetRue Bourbon until I got into the gay part of town. It was still light out, but even so, you could tell that not too much was going to happen. It was, after all Sunday.
I got a Po’ Boy at some random establishment that actually had jazz. Then, it was back to the hotel to get ready for the next day—I had to be at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to set up our exhibit. After the exhibit was set up, we had the rest of the day to goof off. So, I pulled out my camera, and my buddy and I walked all over New Orleans and, of course, the French Quarter.
I was surprised to see that every corner didn’t have some dude on a trumpet…that is how I have always envisioned the Crescent City. I was saddened to see (hear, actually) nothing but loud (and I mean fucking loud) rock & roll and dance music spewing into the street as forcefully as the air conditioning. We did pass a few joints where you could hear jazz, but they were few and far between, and they were competing with the melodic chords of Van Halen and some rave remix. What little jazz I did hear was great. I love jazz.
We went to a bunch of restaurants including Red Fish Grill, Cochon Restaurant, Ralph & Kacoo’s, Crescent City Brew house, Mulate’s, and Café Beignet. Of course, we had Hurricanes at the famous Pat O’Brien’s (although we were there early, so there were no dueling pianos. That was kind of sad). Even though I ate well, and paid dearly for it (both figuratively and literally), I have to be honest…I was rather disappointed in the food. I mean it was tasty and all, but I felt that I have had better “Cajun” cuisine up here in the District.
The rest of the time was dedicated to actual work, but in the evenings, we ended up back on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. Overall, it was a fun experience. I got to see New Orleans, which I’ve always wanted to do. I had my first taste of moonshine. I had a shot of Catdaddy first, but it tasted like Tequila, so the waiter brought me a shot of Virginia White Lightening. Man, did that taste fantastic. I also rode on a mechanical bull at the Bourbon Cowboy. So, now I have scratched 2 more things off my Things To Do Before I Die list.
As calm as it was (given that I was there during the week and it’s not Mardi Gras), it was clear that debauchery is still a constant, and that people still party all day and all night. New Orleans definitely missed out when it came to taglines. I think that “What happens in Nahlins stays in Nahlins” is much more apropos than Vegas (granted, I’ve never been to Las Vegas, but still).
All in all, I had a good time. I was disappointed that there wasn’t as much jazz as the city is known for. I was also sad that I didn’t get decent, proper Creole and Cajun food. I understand that after Hurricane Katrina the Crescent City ain’t what she used to be, but at the same time, things are happening again down there. I can only hope that the next time I go, even more folks will have returned.
”Good morning, y’all, and thanks for flying with us this morning. Listen up, OK? Cuz I got some important information to tell ya, and if you don’t pass the short quiz I’m gonna pass out afterwards, I’m gonna have ta go through it all again, and as sexy as my voice is, I know y’all don’t want that.”
With that, the thin, middle-aged woman with long, permed hair the color of auburn that can only come from a box, commences into the canned speech that anyone who has flown more than once in their life can say by heart. She ends her safety speech with the requisite reminder that it is illegal to smoke or tamper with the smoke detectors. ”Of course, if you really do need to smoke, just push your call button, and I’ll be happy to open the door and let ya smoke out on the wing. It’s a bit breezy out there, so hold onto your hat.” She laughs at her own joke even though it’s not funny; I cringe and sink my nails into my armrest; meanwhile, the little old lady covered in liver spots across the aisle from me laughs along with our flight attendant, as do many more people than I would expect.
I’m sitting at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport on my way back from a business trip to Houston. Because I work for the government, I am bound by the travel rules and must fly on the designated contract carrier. I don’t get to travel too often, but frequently enough so that I have had an opportunity to sample the various airlines that fly the friendly skies. This particular trip, it may surprise you, is not on the airline you probably expect it to be given the witticism of the flight attendant who has tried her hardest to hide the fact that she is pushing 50 and lays claim to a beautiful double-wide somewhere in a tornado-prone area of the American south. Yet, it is clear that the flying paradigm is once again changing, and I can feel that shift as it happens.
Although many people say that air travel as we know it forever changed on September 11, 2001, the simple truth of the matter is that like all things, air travel is not immune to change and like any good business, it should adapt to suit the needs of its customers and to evolve as new technology and public interest dictates. Think about it. There once was a time when the stratosphere was the unique realm of the rich, powerful, and adventurous. Not too long after, it became affordable and accessible to the masses. At that time, delicious food was served on fine china with metal forks and knives. Drinks were consumed from crystal goblets. Not too long after, we were given barely edible, microwaved food in disposable containers. (Midwest Express brought back some of the romanticism of an earlier era by reintroducing real plates and glasses.) In the 1980s, the great and mighty, His Royal Highness, Savior of the American Way and Protector of All, President Ronald Wilson Reagan, deregulated the airlines and fired countless air traffic controllers. (How few of us recognized the irony when G.W. insisted that Washington National Airport be renamed Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport?) Then came Osama Bin Laden and his minion of morons. I remember a time when I could actually meet my loved ones at the gate as they disembarked. I remember a time when I could pack a carry-on and nothing else, secure in the knowledge that I would be able to shampoo my hair with shampoo from the bottle I brought with me. I remember a time when I didn’t wonder how people could take a plane down with bottled breast milk. I also fondly remember—in yet another ironic twist—the halcyon days when I didn’t have to pay $5 to eat on a plane. Oh, to have one of those disgusting, microwaved meals they used to give us.
The fact that we are no longer served meals aboard a flight has nothing to do with national security or terrorism. 9/11 caused a chain reaction that was, in reality, already waiting to happen. The dominos had been lined up and ready for someone to flick the first one since deregulation. With everyone afraid to travel in the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack on American soil, the airlines were forced into bankruptcy, and they did whatever they could to cut corners in an effort to stay aloft. The first to go, of course, was the succulent cuisine. Years later, after the companies settled down and things returned to a tenuous normality, CEOs and their bean counters realized that the only thing removing dinner did was boost revenue; while we poor folk in steerage may have griped, we continued to buy our tickets, and even paid ridiculous amounts for Pringles and granola bars. In all fairness to the airlines, it was smart business not to bring food back if it didn’t cause a loss in ticket sales. (I offer a suggestion to the major airlines: At the time of ticket sale, offer us a meal for $5, $10, even $20. If I’m already purchasing a $400 ticket, I’ll be much more content to add on another $20 at that moment than later, while I’m in the air.)
And that’s what it’s really all about: good business. As demands for certain services wax and wane, industry should adapt, as long as it doesn’t adversely affect the bottom line. Indeed, if it was to increase overall revenue, and a competitor appears to be profiting from it, why not absorb that business model into yours?
And that’s why we see this love-fest occurring on planes. It was bad enough when Southwest Airlines started taking liberties and talking to us like we were old chums, but now it seems that everyone is doing it. I have nothing personally against Southwest as a company. In fact, I’ve flown with them multiple times, and each time, I arrived safely at my destination. Only a few times were we ever significantly delayed. Yet, every time the flight attendants would get on the mic, I’d want to gouge out my eyes or poke a hole in my eardrum. (I sat next to a SWA pilot once, and he said that the first thing most SWA pilots did when they got into the cockpit was turn off the switch that allowed them to hear what was broadcast in the cabin. I felt vindicated.) I make no pretense that I’m not an elitist, nor do I pretend that I like people, so it probably comes as no surprise that I find this chit-chattiness particularly abhorrent.
I pay a lot of money to fly, and the last thing I want to be reminded of is that I’m trapped in a tin can at 36,000 feet. There’s no other way to describe it, but when that flight attendant gets on the mic and starts in with her “y’all”s or his “hey gang”s, they stress the fact that I am in fact little more than a captive audience. I am paying for their service, not their friendship. I don’t want to be chummy with them. I don’t want to be friends with them. In fact, I almost always bring a book and at least one crossword. Sadly, for the first ½ hour that I’m in the plane, I can’t read or work on the puzzle because the flight attendants are so busy gapping away on the mic (of course, they would say it’s “entertainment.” I say it’s odious drivel). I do bring my iPod, so I can plug in and disappear into a good sonata, quartet, or concerto, but again, I am deprived of this escape route because I am not allowed to listen to my iPod until we have reached a certain level (and the flight attendant is more than happy to, once again, get on the damn mic to let me know that approved electronic devices may now be used).
People don’t like formality these days. We live in a time when people wear ripped jeans and tee shirts to school, church, and even court. We no longer wear morning coats to breakfast or dinner jackets to supper. Within a generation or two, the esoteric knowledge of the ancient ways of crafting the For-in-Hand and Half- and Full-Windsor will be lost forever. Even in restaurants, we see this trend from formal to fraternal. How often do you look up from the menu only to see your server sitting across the table from you? In school, more and more students call their professors by their first names instead of Dr. So-and-So. Even the grocery store clerk wants to know how your day was, and too many of us will tell them, like they really care. Another clear indicator of this trend toward informality is on our buses, trains, and metros. How many of us have sat next to someone who is on their cell phone talking about topics that should be discussed only in the privacy of their homes: I’m talking about the lady who is discussing her Pap smear or the old man informing the world of the results of his colonoscopy.
I don’t think it’s too much to ask to be waited on, to be pampered, to be serviced. There are precious few places left in this country where we can truly be treated like we are someone important, and we, the customers, should be demanding a return to this sort of treatment. If I’m going to pay a ton of money for an airline ticket, a hotel room, or an expensive dinner, I feel that being served and treated like I’m a valued customer is part of the price of the ticket, room, or plate. I’m not asking that they should grovel and wash my feet, but a few more “yes, sir”s and “thank you, ma’am”s would increase the tip far more than “hey buddy”s and “fer sher”s could ever hope to.
I guess that I really shouldn't be surprised, then, that the men and women working in the airline industry see the trend toward informality and instead of walking upon the well trod path, they are blazing the trail, hacking away at pretence and stuffiness with their machetes of howdys and hiyas. It definitely seems to be working for Southwest Airlines, so why shouldn’t other airlines be incorporating this new, hip, fun business model into theirs?
Wow. It occurs to me that a lot of shit has happened to me, and I have been remiss to post it here. I was going to go back and post it in the proper place, but LtL told me that that would be stupid, and I should just post it here as a new post and be done with it.
Ok, so here goes:
It all started back in August *screen ripples*
From August 23 – September 4, I was in the city of Denver, the Mile High City, in the state of Colorado, The Centennial State. From August 22 – 24, NASA had an exhibit, the Vision for Space Exploration Experience at the Rocky Mountain Balloon Festival in Chatfield State Park. I was invited to staff the exhibit, and as my boss was in a particularly good mood when I asked if I could go (oh, and as another office paid for my travel), I got to go out to Denver. What I wasn’t told, however, was that I had to be at the exhibit ass-early everyday. I had to be there at 6:30 in the morning. This wouldn’t be too bad, but some brainiac decided that it would be best if we stayed on the other side of town.
We stayed at the Embassy Suites, which was a great hotel. They had just finished renovating it, and everything was fancy and clean and working. Each morning, they provide guests with complimentary issues of USA Today and breakfast. At least that is what I was told…I left the hotel each morning long before I had a chance to partake in such frivolous luxuries. I was, fortunately, able to participate in the Manager’s Happy Hour in the evening where the liquor flowed free (as did the mixer to water it down). Ne’ertheless, I still had to get up at the ridiculous time of 4:30, and what with being so far above sea level, it was bone-chillingly cold at the crack of dawn. This would have been OK had I thought to ask about the temps—instead, I only packed summer attire. Likewise, I failed to recognize that a mile above the ocean the mosquitoes would be even fiercer. They have vampire skeeters there, and I was bitten up like a mofo!
The Rocky Mountain Balloon Festival was pretty cool. The closest I’d ever been to a hot air balloon before that was the “hot air balloon” my mom made for me to “ride” in when I played the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz in first grade. That was a laundry basket that she had cut the bottom out of and attached suspenders (à la the cartoons where the dude is naked and wearing a barrel). She also attached balloons on strings to simulate the sandbags, and somehow (my memory is foggy this many years removed) she hitched an oversized umbrella to make the balloon. (My mother is much more creative and resourceful than she has ever given herself credit for.) So, imagine my surprise when I learned a) they don’t use sandbags, b) balloons are really fucking big, and c) the baskets don’t have holes in the bottom!
Of course I wanted to go in one. I had just come off the rush of hang gliding (read all about it here: What I did on Saturday), and I wanted to tick off another thing on my Things to Do Before I Die list. I had no idea how to do this. Did one just walk up and ask? Did I have to pay? Was there any chance at all? I mean, what’s the insurance liability on that, and besides I was there to work. Well, the Hombre (our truck driver) has a special way with people, and he had befriended the organizer’s husband. Said husband had offered Hombre a ride, and his response was, “No Fucking Way!” He suggested that I go in his place, and the husband said that shouldn’t be a problem. I was a little concerned to ask my supervisor (and I use that term VERY loosely) if I could go, but it turned out that she had also scammed her way into a ride. Suddenly, the trip was worth the 4:30 wake-up calls and the killer skeeters…I was going to go for a ride in a balloon.
So, I get to the pilots’ tent around 6:00 the next morning, just like the dude told me to, and he looked around and randomly selected a pilot for me to go with. I have to be honest, I was a little apprehensive, not that he didn’t look like he was competent, but he didn’t look all that interested. Just as I finished shaking hands with the Captain who I would be trusting with my life, the morning announcements began, and as I didn’t want to lose site of the Captain, I stayed by his side. As the announcements were being made, they said something I didn’t understand. I must have made a face, for the Captain leaned in and explained. He seemed to have an air about him now that he was excited about having a ballooning virgin to take under his wing. After the announcements, we headed out to where his balloon was, and I ventured a few more questions. I had been mistaken. What I took for nonchalance now seemed more like lack of coffee or that he still needed to wake up a bit, for as we walked across the field, he became more animated and excited to fill me in on the goings-on of the ballooning world.
We finally arrived at his trailer, and I learned the name of the balloon that would be taking my virginity from me (it’s always nice to know her name as you never forget your first). I also met the rest of his crew. It never occurred to me that there would be so many people involved. Our balloon (yes, I said “Our”—I already was beginning to feel a sense of kinship) was a relatively small one, and the basket only held 3 people. But, there were still 6 crew. It took several people just to get the basket out of the trailer. Then you needed someone to drive the chase van, for you never really knew where you were going to land. In an ideal world, I learned, you land as close as possible to where you took off, but the winds don’t always cooperate, so you need to be prepared. Also, the envelope (balloon-speak for the balloon itself) weighs a freaking ton, so it, too, takes several people to haul it out of the truck or to stow it back in its place. The crew was busy pulling out the balloon and laying it out, situating the fan (another thing I learned…they “cold inflate” the “envelope” first with a large, high-powered fan before using hot air), and generally getting everything ready to go. We all had to sign a waver, of course, and I dutifully complied. I also took a ton of pictures of the balloon being inflated and getting ready to go.
Once the balloon was cold inflated, the person who assigns lift-offs walked around and did whatever needed to be done. Once we were ready, we could take off at our leisure. The Captain had just tipped the basket upright, and in so doing got the envelope to stand up, when the crew told me to jump in. Seconds before taking off, someone stuck a baseball cap on my head…it was a good thing. It gets freaking hot when the burner blows.
So, the question that is on everyone’s mind who has yet to go in a hot air balloon is, “how was it?” I’m not really sure how to answer it. Anticlimactic is the best I can do. Sure it was fun and I had a great time, but honestly, there was something missing. I think it didn’t have that adrenaline rush feel that you would think would come with being suspended in the air by nothing but a few ropes attached to a large balloon. By the time you get into the basket, the balloon is already filled with hot air and ready to go. As such, all that was needed once we were cleared for take-off was another blast. I was so busy looking around, I didn’t notice that the ground was receding. That, I think, was the problem: you don’t feel anything. It’s so incredibly gentle. Because balloons glide with the wind, you don’t feel the air. In fact, they say that you can light a match, and it won’t go out because there is no wind in the basket. The Captain’s wife (who was the third person in the basket with us) said that she loves to go flying because it is so calm, gentle, and serene. She is absolutely right. We were just sort of floating there in the air 1,000 feet above the ground, and at 7:30 in the morning, the world was calm, peaceful, and beautiful. Then, in an effort to keep that moment, the Captain switched the burners on.
Now, you need to understand that the Captain is firing the burners regularly. I didn’t realize that you have more control over the balloon than one might think. You use the wind and shifts in the wind to help you go up and stay aloft, but you also use the burners to get you up and down to find the wind currents. But you also use that to keep the air hot. Don’t forget that at 1,000 feet above the ground (and don’t forget the ground was already over 2,000 feet above sea level), the air gets cold, so it takes a lot of heat to keep the air inside the envelope hot enough to keep you in the air. So, as I said, the burner is going regularly. The upside is that you get to stay in the air. The downside is that it’s really f’ing loud, and you can’t really anything when they’re firing. Also, it’s crazy hot…and when you have a really bad sunburn on your face and arms…yea, not so pleasant.
We flew about a ½ hour to 45 minutes, and we climbed to about 1,200 feet but averaged about 1,000 feet.
We settled gently down in a field about 3ish miles from where we took off. We hung out in the basket waiting for the chase crew to come pick us up. Once they arrived, we laid the basket on its side, dropped the balloon, and started to pack it up. At this point, they put me to work to earn my ride. I was eager to help, and after they snapped a few pics of me “working,” they pushed me out of the way and got to work in earnest. We folded the balloon and put it back in its bag. In an effort to pack it in, we all grabbed a piece of the bag and lifted the outer edges, then we did it again, then we started to do it a 3rd time, and as we began to lift, everyone let go…everyone but the uninitiated, and that would be me. S’all good, though.
After getting back to the show site, I was informed by the crew that I needed to head back for initiation and breakfast (yes, don’t forget that the clock hadn’t even struck 9 am at this point). I was a little concerned because I still hadn’t reported for work, but neither had my friend (excuse me, my Supervisor). She reported to her balloon, and was told that it didn’t look like she was going to make it, but at the last minute, she was able to climb aboard and got to go as well.
I hung out at the exhibit for a few minutes, and then the Captain came to get me. We headed back over to where the balloonists’ trailers were now situated for tailgating, and I hung out while everyone got things ready for breakfast. Breakfast consisted of omelettes made in Ziploc® bags. They were pretty awesome. But before we could eat the omelettes, there was the matter of initiation. As I mentioned, I was a ballooning virgin, and as with most specialized communities, there are initiations for the neophyte.
I think that tradition and ritual are extremely important, and if you are going to do them, you really ought to do them right. As I said, the actual flight in the balloon was great, but was less thrilling than I had expected. I am so incredibly grateful that I had the captain and crew that I did because while I can talk about the actual flight as an independent experience, I really feel that the whole time I spent with the group is all part and parcel. As such, because they welcomed me to fly with them, because they took me in and invited me to their tailgating, and because they took the traditions so seriously, the overall experience was an incredible one, and I won’t soon forget it. After comparing notes with the Supervisor, I definitely had a better overall experience.
So, as most initiations are supposed to be a surprise to the initiate, I will not go into details. All I will say is that it included the history of ballooning, an explanation of why champagne is important to the hobby, and, of course, a champagne toast. If you want to know more, go in a hot air balloon, and you will get initiated. The initiation, like this post, ended with the Balloonists prayer:
May the sun bless you with its warm hands.
May you fly so high and so well that God
joins you in laughter and sets you gently
back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.
My nephew was born today!!!! I'm an uncle!!!!
Because I was still on travel in Ohio when he was born, I decided that I was going to start a tradition that I stole from RC. She sends postcards to her neice and nephew when she travels. I did the same thing, but I made sure that it was postmarked in Ohio (something I kept trying to get her to do when we were together). My sister thought that was realy cool.
We're still waiting for the other sister to pop...more on that anon.
I was in Seattle all last week at the National Conference of State Legislatures’ annual conference. It was pretty good, and NASA had a damn fine booth (I actually got many compliments for all of my hard work to make our booth such a success).
Anyway, the important part of this particular entry is to post this great picture taken of me. It was taken as we were tearing down the booth. We had several planets (the Moon, which isn’t really a planet; Mars, Venus, and Jupiter) mounted on the top of the walls. When Venus came off, I decided to do my best Atlas impression.
After being pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to return to Florida to see the launch, I found out Friday that I was going to be able to go. Of course, I already had my tickets to go to St. Louis to see RC. I was supposed to leave there on Monday anyway, so I figured that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I left at 10 am instead of 1 pm. Fortunately, I was right, and RC wasn’t too mad at me.
RC and I had a very nice time while I was out there visiting, and we ate in some very nice restaurants. We went to BARcelona, a tapas restaurant. It wasn’t too bad, but the party next to us (we were actually in a makeshift table, so we were sticking out into the aisle) were very loud and rowdy, but they were somewhat friendly and having a good time. The food wasn’t too bad, but they forgot one of our dishes, so we had to wait a while. I think the tapas places in DC are better. We also went to Duff’s for brunch. That was quite yummy, and it’s always nice to have ancient lesbians wait on you. (Returning home from there was when we passed the S & M Groceries.) We went for a long drive to who-knows-where (which is when we stopped at the gas station with the very possessive bathroom). At some point we turned around and headed home (which is when we passed the best billboard I have ever seen). We ate dinner at Phil's Bar B Que in Eureka. It was pretty good, but the joint was filthy (but then again, I guess that that is how greasy spoons got their name, right?).
The next morning we had to be up early because I had received a message on Saturday when I landed that the travel people at work had not received my signed orders, so there was a possibility that I wouldn’t have my tickets in time. They told me to call at 7:30 eastern time, so I was up at 6 central time. Anyway, as you can imagine, it all turned out OK. Since we were up early anyway, we went for breakfast at First Watch, which is RC’s favorite place for brunch.
I got there, found my co-worker, got some Chick-fil-A, and rented the car. We headed straight for KSC. The rest of the day was spent talking about logistics, and it was then that I discovered that I needed to be in the same place I was last week. I needed to redirect folks from the Causeway to Banana Creek, as everyone got an upgrade. Actually, I already knew that part; what I didn’t know was that I needed to be there at 5:30 in the friggin’ morning! Oh, well, it actually wasn’t all that bad. After the meeting, several folks went out to dinner, but I knew that I needed to be up early so I headed back to the hotel (yes, you guessed it, I was stuck at the stinkin’ Best Western again), got some carry-out, and then walked up and down the beach for about an hour and a half. I was truly amazed at thhe number of fat people on the beach. The number of those people who were wearing bikinis was rather desturbing. But the saddest part was that so many of them were children. I mean, I have no one to blame but myself for being fat, but these little girls and boys can't fend for themselves. My mom says that that is akin to child abuse. Anyway, after walking along the beach for a good long time, it was time for me to go to bed.
I didn’t actually get to sleep until after midnight. The damn walls in that hotel were paper thin, and the kids above me were playing tag or something…running around and stomping their little piggie feet. I finally went up there and begged them to stop running around. I tried to be nice and acknowledge that it wasn’t really their fault, it was that dump of a hotel we were staying in.
Anyway, I made it to my designated spot on time and less cranky than I expected. It was pitch black, and it was absolutely beautiful…expect for the fucking mosquitoes who were enjoying the smorgasbord that was me and the two women I was with. Finally, as the sun rose two cops came by to hang out with us, and one of them had bug spray that seemed to do the trick.
Finally, the time came for me to part ways with the women and the cops, and I drove over to the place where I was to meet everyone and get on the bus to head out to Banana Creek. I arrived in time to find out that some folks were stuck in traffic, and that I was the person assigned to wait for them and drive them out to the viewing area. Fortunately, they weren’t that far away, and they were all very friendly. Once they arrived, we piled into my car and drove out to Banana Creek and found a nice place to park and got to the bleachers with no problem.
Did I mention that it was like Africa hot out that day?
As the clock ticked ever closer to launch time, the bleachers began filling in earnest. Laura Bush, and her brother-in-law, Jeb, walked right past me and sat down about 5 seats and 1 row up from me. OK, so I didn’t vote for her husband, but it’s still pretty cool to be a stone’s throw (sorry, I should probably use a better term than that) away from the First Lady of the United States.
Finally, after 2½ years in the making, the shuttle lifted off as gracefully and majestically as ever: “3... 2... 1... and liftoff of Space Shuttle Discovery... beginning America's new journey to the moon, Mars and beyond... and the vehicle has cleared the tower.” You could feel the electricity in the air as the crowd cheered, hooted, applauded, and otherwise expressed elation over seeing the shuttle clear the gantry. Now, I have never been to a Shuttle launch before, but I have to believe that there was something different about the crowd’s reaction to this launch than to many of the previous ones. This launch was the culmination of years of work, it represented NASA’s return to space exploration. I realize that I really didn’t have anything to do with getting that thing off the ground, but damn if for that moment I wasn’t really proud to work for NASA.
I can’t even begin to describe what it was like to be there. You hear the voice over the loudspeaker tell you that the Shuttle has lifted off, but you don’t actually see anything. Then all of the sudden you notice that the Shuttle is slowly rising, and you watch it creep up ever so slowly until it finally clears the gantry. By the time you realize that it’s moving, it’s really moving and just like that it goes from creeping to speeding. Then, like a distant storm, you hear a rumble of thunder, and you can actually see the sound waves disturbing the water on the creak. Suddenly the sound has caught up to you and it’s a deafening roar in your ears. It’s like standing in the middle of a million firecrackers as they all explode simultaneously.
I took a bunch of pictures of the launch; click here to see the best one.
I just flew in from Florida and boy are my arms tired! Thank you, I’ll be here all night. Don’t forget to tip your waitress.
Seriously, though, I was among the few in my office who were privileged to go down to the Kennedy Space Center to see the Return to Flight launch of Space Shuttle Discovery. Sadly, as you surely know, the launch got scrubbed because of some sensor. Everyone says that it’s better that we are being very careful, but I’m sure that the astronauts just want to get back to what it is that they are trained for.
It wasn’t a completely wasted trip, though. I got to eat at some really good places, and got to do some fun stuff. We had breakfast twice at the Simply Delicious Cafe and Bakery. It was very yummy, and I’m quite sure that RC would have loved it. It very much screamed of her: they served their orange juice in margarita glasses. We also had BBQ, but it wasn’t the greatest. I walked for about an hour on the beach. That was very nice. And I was in Cocoa Beach for a few days (days, I might mention, which may have otherwise found me in my office).
My hotel was awful! I had the distinct misfortune to stay at the Best Western. To say that it sucked would be saying nice things about it. When we got there, we checked in, and I headed to my room to drop off my luggage. I walked into the room, and before I could even let go of my luggage, I turned around and walked out. It smelled so unbelievably foul. It was a smoking room, and it clearly had been used as such for hundreds of years. I headed across the street to the lobby (yes, the lobby was in its own building across the street). The guy behind the counter told me that there was nothing he could do because the hotel was fully booked. I told him that there was no way that I would be able to stay in the room. He told me that I had to speak with the guy from NASA who booked the room. So, I called said person, and he assured me that he would fix the problem as soon as he got there. He was at the Best Western within minutes, and pitched such a fit that they finally caved in and switched me with someone who hadn’t yet registered. My new room wasn’t too much better, but at least it didn’t reek as strongly. The day before we flew out, I went over to the lobby to use the computer and check in at the airline's website. I printed out my boarding pass and headed back to my room. When I got there, I swiped my keycard and nothing happened. I tried again, and still nothing. Finally, after the third time, I started back to the lobby to tell them that something was wrong with my keycard, when some guy and his kid got out of a truck and said, “hey, is that your stuff sprawled on the bed?” Um, yea. Those stupid fucks resold my room before I checked out of it. The other guy and his kid lucked out because the hotel gave them a free upgrade to an oceanfront room. What did I get? I got a new keycard.
The first evening we split up. Several of the gang went out for Cuban; I wanted to go to the receptions, so I opted out (it turned out they never made it). The SEAL Leader, the Virginian, and I went to crash some receptions. We headed over to the Double tree (interestingly enough it was the same Double tree I stayed at last year when I came down to see the MESSENGER launch. See busy weekend part 3 for that story). We couldn’t get into one because the bouncers asked us for our invitations, and we had none, so we pretended that we were just looking around and slowly backed towards the door. We went around the corner to the bar and there we found another party that we were allowed to attend. They had pretty good food: shrimp, chicken, roast beef, sushi, and really, really good cheese cake. Oh, yeah, and it was an open bar.
Later that night the SEAL Leader and I drove onto base and got as close as we could to Discovery, but like the dumb ass that I am, I didn’t bring my camera down at all. Even still, it’s a memory I will have for a long time. We drove up as close as we could get with our Headquarters badges. The guard house was on a road that looked directly toward the pad, and as we approached the checkpoint, there it was, lit up like daylight. It was such an amazing sight to see. I know that I have little (in fact nothing really) to do directly with getting the Shuttle into orbit, but damn if it didn’t bring a tear of pride to my eye to see that bright white Shuttle mated to the Halloween-Orange External Tank, the two white pencil-like boosters on either side. It was so cool. It looked just like a postcard except that it was bigger, more real, and more awe inspiring.
The next morning, 4 of us headed to Grouper’s Corner to assist visitors getting onto busses that would ferry them out to the Causeway. Two of us stayed behind to be at the point of embarkation, and the other two headed out to the Causeway to be on the other end. It was really, friggin’ hot; fortunately, we had water in the van.
At some point very close to the launch, 2 guys came up to us livid. Apparently one was the son of a Congressman, and he had gotten the run-around about where he was supposed to be. He believed that he was supposed to be at the Banana Creek site (where all the VIPs were), but the list showed him as being at the Causeway. Several days ago, I was instructed to call all of the Congressmen who had RSVPed that they were planning on going to the launch and checking to see if they were having family coming separately. The point of these calls was to give them info on how we would get all the Members together with their families. As such, I felt that whether or not Junior’s father was in attendance, he should in fact be at the Banana Creek site. I tried to call several people, but signal strength is quite farkackt down there, so of course I couldn’t get anyone and had to leave messages. Finally, I was able to get through to someone who told me to get them to the area where the busses were picking up folks to go to Banana Creek. So, Junior, his friend, and I jumped into the van and headed out to the other site. Fortunately, Junior and his buddy had done this drive twice before, so they were able to direct me. Rather effortlessly we made it, and I ignored a guard who told me I couldn’t park in that lot. As the time was growing short, and there would have been no way to get back to Grouper’s Corner before the last bus headed out to the Causeway, I was told to just get on the bus that was heading out to Banana Creek. The bus pulled out, and turned onto the main road. As soon as the bus righted itself, it had to stop at the checkpoint. One of the ladies on the bus showed the guard our pass, and at that moment we got the call that the launch was scrubbed, so the driver just made a right back into the parking lot. Junior and his buddy wanted to get back on the road, so I drove them back to Grouper’s Corner (where they had left their car).
The rest of the night was pretty uneventful; we sat around and told war stories about what happened and what would likely happen in the coming days. I was told that there was little chance of me getting to go back whenever the launch finally happens. I figured as much, and that is fine with me. Even though it didn’t launch, it was still pretty cool to be here for the excitement. I’m sure that if I’m still at NASA, I will have other opportunities to see a shuttle launch.
Today I am awakened by the clang, clang, clang of church bells (a setting on my clock-radio), but I was already on the way to rousing. I am very excited. I have never been on official travel before. I have never seen Orlando before. I have never flown in a non-commercial jet before. I have never seen Kennedy Space Center before. I have never seen a launch before. I am not very excited, I am over excited, and so I have woken up earlier than I need. It is 7 am, and I do not need to be at the airport until 2:45 pm. But I have lots to do.
It is 10:00 am and I’m showered, shaved, packed, and have eaten breakfast. I’m bored now, but it’s too early to go to the airport. So, I watch TV, talk on the phone, and finally make lunch. At 1:00, I leave for the airport, and of course, there are delays on the Red Line. I should have left earlier, but I make it to the airport, and the correct hanger, with about 10 minutes to spare.
We board the Cessna, an 8 passenger private plane that looks like a miniature Air Force One. It has the blue stripe along the fuselage and in big, bold letter is written “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” We are in the air and the land is falling away before you even realize it. It is amazing how fast these little planes go.
As we approach Kennedy Space Center, I can see out the cockpit window, and the runway looms ahead. I am told that it is the one that the Space Shuttle uses when it lands at Cape Canaveral. Even before I began working at NASA, I was a rabid, zealous, one might even say passionate, fan of the space program, and there is something awe-inspiring about landing where the Space Shuttle lands. We taxi off the runway and stop right next to the MDD, the Shuttle Mate-Demate Device, a machine that lifts the Shuttle off the 747 when it is ferried back to KSC. That, too, is amazing to see.
After getting to the hotel, checking in, and dumping our luggage, we are off to Grills Seafood Deck & Tiki Bar—-a local restaurant-—for what we are told is one of the best places to eat in Cape Canaveral...if this is true, I can’t imagine what the rest of the restaurants in the Cape are like. I had blackened mahi-mahi. Most of the group had drinks before dinner, and about 3 bottles of wine were consumed throughout dinner. It will be a long night, so I choose water. A couple was our hosts for dinner, and they drove us in their cars to the restaurant. A word to the wise: if you have big, smelly dogs who shed all over your car, vacuum and fumigate before inviting guests to sit in it. I had to breathe through my mouth, and I still have dog hair on my black shirt.
After dinner, we return to the hotel to freshen up, and then it’s back to KSC to see where the MESSENGER mission will be observed, meet the director and his deputy, and listen to a lecture by the PI for the MESSENGER. All of this was very interesting, and the lecture was fascinating. I have forgotten how exhilarating it is to hear someone speak so passionately about their love (this is somewhat common in academia, but extremely rare in government. Think about it, how many people are impassioned by pushing paper and thinking up acronyms?). There is a nice spread of food laid out in the lobby, and I have some meatballs, a chicken wing, several stalks of celery, and copious, myriad, one might even say lots, of white chocolate macadamia nut cookies.
Finally, around 1 am, we head out to the observation field. We are about 1 and half miles from the launch site, and next to the media with their cameras and cool vans. It’s not a very nice night with Alex off the coast of the Carolinas, and while we can see the Delta rocket lit up on the launch pad, the sky is overcast and foreboding. Needless to say, at T –4 minutes (and 2 minutes remaining in the built-in 10 minute hold) the launch is scrubbed due to anvil clouds (I am no meteorologist, but it seems dreadful, and I have images of Thor banging his hammer on these clouds). We are all upset and shuffle dejectedly onto the bus to return (again) to the hotel. I hit the pillow just before 3 am.
I am up at 8:30 and head upstairs to breakfast. Then it’s off to the lobby to wait for the rest of the group. I see the Leader in the lobby, and he tells me that we have permission from the office to stay tonight and try to see the launch again. As the folks come down to the lobby he tells them this and, to my surprise, there isn’t as much excitement as I had anticipated. The other guy from the office tries to contact the pilots to see if they can stay (for if they can’t, there’s no need to even discuss the possibility). In the meantime, we head back to KSC for our tour of the facility.
We drive all over the Center. We get up close and personal with Atlantis, and are able to watch technicians work on her as they double-check all of the black tiles that cover the belly of the Shuttle. We go to the huge 540 ft. building where they mount the Shuttle to the External Tanks. We see the original Launch Control for the Apollo missions (this is also where they filmed the Mission Control scenes from Apollo 13). We get right on the launch pad where they launch the Space Shuttle. Then we have lunch, and make our way back to the plane.
We all get on board, stow our bags, and strap ourselves in. The pilots taxi us out to the runway, and as they begin final preparations for take-off, they get a call from the tower that the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is closed and there is about an hour and a half delay. We aren’t leaving now until about 6:30 pm.
I take advantage of this time to get a lecture from one of the pilots on all the controls of the cockpit. I am as ecstatic as a kid in a candy store. I don’t get any of it, but it’s so cool. Because I’m in the cockpit, I’m not privy to the conversation happening in the cabin, but apparently the folks have changed their mind, and figure if we are going to be delayed so much, we might as well push on through and try to watch the launch again.
The pilots return to their hotel to get some more rest, and we return to ours to squat. We do not get rooms, and after relaxing in the lobby for about an hour, we head off to a movie. We see The Village. It’s not bad. Then we are off to the Outback. Finally, at about 12:30 am, the bus returns again to pick us up and we head out to the site where we were last night to watch the launch again.
Tonight it’s a clear sky. We can see stars. We can see the craters on the moon through binoculars. We sit and talk to the pilots. We sit and talk to KSC employees. We sit and talk to some media folk. Finally, the moment has come for Mission Control to make a decision. We hear over the speakers, “Green across the board, MESSENGER launch is a go.” We head up the hill and watch as the lights around us are shut off. The voice on the speakers says, “T minus 5, 4, 3, 2.”
Night becomes day as the boosters (6 of the 9) spark into life. The light from a mile and a half is effulgent, lustrous, one might even say bright. It burns the retina. The air is still, and the plume hangs in the sky like a white, puffy worm. As the rocket ascends higher and higher, we hear, softly at first, and then louder and louder, the sound traveling across the expanse. As the sound waves hit us, I can feel the fabric in my shirt and pants ripple with the force. Before you can even blink (or the burn on the retina fades), the rocket is almost out of sight. The fire fades as the fuel is spent. Just as the flame disappears, the other 3 boosters ignite and we can just see the original 6 disconnect from the rocket. Then all is night again, and the sky is lit by the moon’s shine alone. The plume still hangs in air, defying both gravity and wind.
After a moment, we board our bus for the last time. We all nap during the 20 minute ride back to the runway, and finally we are aboard the plane again. The wheels go up about 3:10 am. Almost everyone sleeps. I, however, stand just behind the pilots, and enjoy the view out the cockpit window. I see a lightning storm below us off our starboard side. We see a bright light in the sky that I insist is a UFO; the Leader informs us it is more likely the International Space Station, which can be visible from the ground (but we are 40,000 ft up, so it is more visible). Finally, we see the Woodrow Wilson Bridge that connects Maryland to Virginia. The wheels are already down, and we are about to touch down. Alas, the pilot tells me I need to go sit down now. But what an exciting opportunity (one few but pilots get to witness). We arrive just about 5 in the morning, and by the time I say good-bye, get the bus to the Metro, get to Gallary-Place/Chinatown (only to discover that the Red Line, which has been running for 15 minutes, has a 15 minute delay), get to my stop, walk home, get undressed and crawl into bed, it’s 6:30 am.
I set the alarm for 11:30 am and try not to think about having to go to the office later this afternoon as my head falls to my fluffy, comfortable, waiting pillow.