Montréal again

This weekend, Rosa and I went back to Montréal for a weekend of shopping and sight-seeing.

We arrived on a sunny Saturday afternoon and went immediately to the Saint-Laurent shopping area. Rosa went off shopping and I walked around with my camera, although I didn’t take very many pics. I had a nice snack and a drink, walked up and down the street and popped into a few of the interesting stores. I was looking in the used-clothing stores for props that I could use in future photo workshops. Although I did not buy anything, I did get a good idea what was available.

Rosa and I met later in the afternoon and she continued to shop until the stores closed. We had planned to visit Saint Joseph’s Oratory on Mount Royal, but we ran out of time during the day.

We went out for dinner at Ferreira Café Trattoria, a stylish Portuguese restaurant. We both had fish.

After dinner, we checked in at the Loews Hôtel Vogue, which was only feet from Sainte-Catherine, although Rosa did not do any shopping there as she found more on Saint-Laurent. The hotel was exquisite, but was a little more expensive. The location would have been fantastic, had we spent more time in the area shopping.

Dramatic Beaver
Dramatic Beaver

Sunday morning was dedicated for visiting Le Biodôme de Montréal. This was something I wanted to do, and Rosa was interested as well. Originally built as a velodrome for the 1976 Olympics, it was converted into its current biological exhibition facility in the late 1980’s. It houses four main ecosystems from the Americas: Tropical Rainforest, Laurentian Forest, Saint Lawrence Marine Eco-System and a Polar area (with both North and South Polar regions represented). There was so much to see, from marmoset and macaws in the trees to caimans in the water, a busy beaver and sunbathing river otter, lots of fish, the iconic East Coast puffin, shorebirds, and penguins. I really enjoyed the visit and could go back again to take more pictures!

After Le Biodôme, we went back to Saint-Laurent and had lunch at another Portuguese restaurant, Casa Minhota. It was quite good and we enjoyed the meal.

The afternoon was spent shopping, shopping and more shopping.

At the end of the day, we had a bite to eat in a café. We saw a lot of people walking out of a side street, so we investigated. It was some sort of Portuguese festival. There was a singer on a stage, lots of people walking around or listening. We watched for a little while and then we left for home.

Weekend in Montreal

Rosa and took our first trip together to Montréal this weekend. We wanted to see a fashion exhibit at a museum, then shop and look around.

Detail of Jean-Paul Gaultier costume
Detail of Jean-Paul Gaultier costume

Saturday morning we drove into Montréal. Our first destination was Le Musée des Beaux-Arts to see the Jean-Paul Gaultier exhibit. There were many examples of his haute couture costumes. Rosa is a fashion junky, and I’m somewhat interested. Jean-Paul, over his long career, has explored so many areas of fashion, setting trends and pushing boundaries.

Next we walked around the Saint Catherine area for Rosa to shop but she didn’t find much – the area was mostly chain stores. So we left and I dropped Rosa off in the Saint Laurent area.

I drove south to Circuit Gilles Villeneuve – the Formula-1 race track. The track is actually a public road. However the speed limit is only 30 frustrating km/h. I set my cruise control and started lapping very slowly around the course. The security guards all waved as I drove by time after time. I’m sure I was not the first to do this. The circuit was split with a row of pylons, consigning vehicle traffic on one side and bikes and rollerbladers on the other.

Then I left to drive north to Lamborghini Montréal. I lost my Lamborghini hat at Mosport and wanted to buy a replacement. I went in but did not see the boutique mentioned on their website. One of the salesmen came over and asked if I was looking for something. I mentioned the boutique and he pointed to a single counter by the door. They had no hats.

Paifang entrance to Chinatown
Paifang entrance to Chinatown

I picked up Rosa and we checked in at Le Place d’Armes Hotel in the Vieux-Port (Old Port). The room was huge and very luxurious! We had dinner in the hotel at Aix Cuisine du Terroir. It was delicious. Afterwards, we went for a walk. It was a lovely warm summer evening. We walked through Chinatown and Rosa had flashbacks from when she lived in China. On our way back, there was a crowd of people looking down at the highway. There was a TV truck there as well. A 25-ton section of the tunnel roof had collapsed on the Autoroute Ville-Marie earlier in the day. Luckily no one was hurt.

We spent the next day window shopping. We started in the Vieux-Port at the Bonsecours Market. The weather in the morning was excellent and perfect for a walking/shopping tour of Old Montréal. We slowly wandered our way towards the Rue University shopping area. However the weather turned nasty in the afternoon while we were indoors. The rain outside became torrential. Unfortunately we left our umbrella in the car in the morning. Despite promising to never leave the umbrella behind again, we had to buy yet another umbrella just so that we could leave the mall.

Rosa shopping
Rosa shopping

During a short break from the downpour, we managed to walk down Saint Catherine towards our dinner spot. We had to stop again in the entrance of Christ Church Cathedral when the rain picked up again. We were drenched. During the next break in the downpour, we ran to the Restaurant Julien.

When we finished, we called for a taxi to take us from the restaurant back to the parking at Quais du Vieux-Port. It was nearly three hours to drive home through a traffic jam and continuing rain squalls.

iPhone on vacation

I had not planned to take my iPhone on the trip to Europe as my phone is locked to Rogers. The roaming rates are too expensive to use the phone in Europe. But we needed the phone in Montreal to call our travel agent to help book the connection in Madrid to catch up with our tour. So I had to bring the phone.

While I could not make any phone calls, it has served as a way to send and receive emails and surf the web using Wi-Fi in airports or hotels.

It also came in handy to type in our travel journal each day. This way I can import the journal as soon as I get home. It is better to write notes each day than trying to remember it later. Typing it on the iPhone each day is much better than trying to transcribe my hand-written notes a few weeks after we return.

The Earth's Shadow

Shadow of the Earth
Shadow of the Earth

On the flight to Madrid, while flying into the sunrise, I noticed this triangular dark area on the horizon. In my sleep-deprived state, it took me a few seconds before I realized it was the shadow of the Earth.

This shadow extends out hundreds of thousands of kilometres into space, out past the orbit of the Moon. If the shadow intersects with the full moon, we see a lunar eclipse.

The act of exploring and understanding the world and universe are such an incredible joy for me.

Thoughts on STS-132

I’ve been thinking about what I learned from attending the STS-132 Atlantis launch on May 14th.

1. I learned that if I rent or borrow equipment, I should read the manual before I need to use the equipment. During the launch, when I was using the Canon 100-400mm, I did not set the correct focus length switch. This meant that when the camera needed to refocus, it would hunt for focus over the entire focal length. If I had set the switch correctly, it would have only used the longer focus lengths and should have focused faster.

2. Next, reviewing the photos later, I realized I should have borrowed or bought a UV lens filter, to cut down on the haze. All the launch photos have a bluish tinge.

3. Always remember to bring the lens hood if you have one. When I visited the Kennedy Visitors Complex, I forgot to bring the lens hood for the Canon 10-22mm. It didn’t greatly impact any photos but it could have – always be prepared.

4. Now, about the launch itself. As many people on the Internet have noted, it is very hard to both experience a launch and take pictures. I did my best to do both, as I only had one opportunity. If I had more chances to see a launch, I would go once to experience it, and once to try capturing the experience with my camera.

I was able to watch Atlantis as it was nearly at the official definition of outer space (roughly 100km), which was after the 4 minute point of the ascent to orbit. And as I looked up at the vehicle, two thoughts came to mind.

5. First, the planned height of the SpaceShip Two flights of Virgin Galactic will be about that height. It’s only a third of the height of the typical orbit of the International Space Station. And it doesn’t really seem very high, when you can see the shuttle attaining that in such a short period of time. You can see still the shuttle as it passes that height.

Graph of Altitudes
Graph of altitudes

6. Secondly, it absolutely stunning how thin the atmosphere of the Earth really is. As noted above, the official edge of space is 100km. All of the air that is used by every human being and every animal and every plant that ever lived on this good planet, all used that thin veneer of air. Just 100km of air, spread across the face of the Earth. That’s all there is.

And that’s where all of the air pollution goes. It’s not a limitless sky. It’s very very finite. To a single person, it seems incomprehensibly unending, but when you think about the output from 6.8 billion people, it seems very limited. All the cars of the world, all the planes, ships and lawn mowers and leaf blowers and electric generation plants – they all empty into that fragile sheet of air.

I worry about air pollution (and water pollution) and global warming. Even if a person, against all evidence, does not believe that man is contributing to the problem of global warming, certainly they cannot deny that air pollution is a problem that is created by man.

And I think about the entire trip. I flew down to Florida, which directly contributed to air pollution. I watched the shuttle, which uses aluminum-based material in the Solid Rocket Boosters. The Shuttle Main Engines (SSME) burn hydrogen and oxygen and do not pollute directly, but it took a lot of energy to create that volume of liquid hydrogen and oxygen, and another big electrical bill to cool those liquids and keep them cool. There are the transportation costs of moving everything around – the solid booster segments come from Utah, the external tank comes from Louisiana.

I’m scared sometimes that we have already passed the point of keeping our planet useful to future generations. I worry that the air pollution, global warming, pollution of our water, dispersion of all the man-man chemicals (in pesticides, medicines, leeching buried plastics, huge oil spills, garbage dumps, etc) has already put enough of our junk into the biosphere that the Earth will become uninhabitable in some distant future.

I do what I can to reduce my personal impact, but I know I am not doing enough.

Visiting Los Angeles

I’m here in Los Angeles (technically, I’m in Rancho Cucamonga, which is east of LA) for a customer testing cycle. I’m here for a full week. As there is no testing planned during the weekend, I’ve had the weekend free to play tourist around Los Angeles. This is my first trip to LA.

Saturday morning I woke up quite early, as I am still adjusting to the 3-hr time difference. I packed up what I needed and went down to the car. I had an iPod Nano with some podcasts and audiobooks, hat, jacket, sunscreen and the Eyewitness Travel Guides Top Ten Los Angeles. I brought all my camera gear as well, including my Amod AGL3080 photo tracker.

I stopped for breakfast at McDonald’s and was on the highway around 7am.

Dennis Hopper - Walk of Fame
Dennis Hopper's star

My first stop was Hollywood. It took about an hour to drive there (Los Angeles is huge – more about that later). I parked the car and started walking down Hollywood Boulevard. My first stop was the Art Deco style Pantages Theatre and the Capital Records building. From there I walked down the Walk of Fame towards the Kodak Theatre (where the Oscars are currently presented) and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. I could see the famous Hollywood sign in the distance on the hills to the north. The sign is smaller than I expected. As with the Statue of Liberty, the photos I’ve seen are shot in such a way as to make it look bigger than in real life. It’s also because it is actually quite a distance from this part of the city.

In front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre are the handprints, footprints and signatures of famous Hollywood stars in concrete tiles.

After walking back to my car, I drove south from Hollywood Boulevard to Sunset Boulevard, where I drove westward. I drove by the Viper Room (where River Phoenix died), the Rainbow Bar and Grill and the Whisky a Go Go (where The Doors were the house band). From there, the road leads through Beverly Hills, past UCLA, Bel Air and into Santa Monica. Lots of nice homes, but I didn’t spend much time looking around as I did not want to get lost.

Once I reached the Pacific Ocean, I took Highway 1 south with no particular destination in mind. Driving by kilometer after kilometer of beach, I decided to pull over and take a walk. I could see a pier in the distance.

Santa Monica Pier
Santa Monica Pier

It was a great day for walking along the beach. From where I parked, it was about a kilometer to walk to the Santa Monica Pier. I did not realize until I arrived that Santa Monica Pier is also the west coast terminus of Route 66. The Pier had an amusement park, including a roller coaster and Ferris wheel. There is a trapeze school as well. Many people were fishing off the end of the Pier. I walked around for about an hour, taking lots of pictures before I stopped for lunch – deep fried shrimp – and then headed back to the car. I decided to walk on the beach instead of the sidewalk. At first it was nice walking barefoot along the sand, but the sand was unbelievably hot. I walked along the edge of the water to cool my feet  before crossing the beach to the parking lot.

I wanted to head south to Long Beach. I thought it would be easy to get there. Lacking a good map, I had no idea how difficult it would be.

I followed along the coast for as long as I could before I had to start taking other streets, due to the marinas in Marina Del Ray. I took Washington Boulevard, thinking that it looked big and I thought it was heading south. After driving for what seemed like an hour, I drove by the Sony Pictures Entertainment studios in Culver City, which allowed me to find out where I was the tiny map I had brought. All that driving and I had barely moved on the map. This is when it really hit me how big Los Angeles is. Almost an hour of driving and I was maybe 10% of the way to Long Beach. The only way to get there would be to get on a highway.

I found the 405 and 110 and it still took about 40 minutes to drive to Long Beach.

The map I had did not show Long Beach, so I had to guess my way around. I was looking for the Queen Mary. I thought, “Hey, how hard can it be to find a huge ocean liner?” Stupid question. I was still not grasping it how big the city is! I stumbled upon the SS Lane Victory, a World War II Victory Ship, so I stopped to take a look. I found out that it still functional and is used for tourist cruises!

The Port of Long Beach is stunning in size. The Port of Long Beach and the nearby Port of Los Angeles combine to be largest port in the world (109km of waterfront and 43 km^2 of land area in total). It goes on for mile after mile. I had heard that the rows of giant cranes along the many waterfronts inspired George Lucas in the design of the AT-AT Walkers in The Empire Strikes Back.

I took a bridge and highway east until I could see signs for the Queen Mary. I got off the highway, followed the signs to the entrance to the parking lot, but for some reason all the cars were being waved back onto the surrounding streets. I thought perhaps there was a problem, so I circled back around. This time I was allowed into the parking lot, but was soon directed back out again. I was driving around in circles, all controlled by the parking attendants. I circled around once more and again was directed back towards the exit. I stopped at one of the parking attendants to explain that I wanted to stop and see the Queen Mary. I was told that the parking lots were full. Oh, that would be why I was directed out of the facility. I was told that the facility was being used for the 7th Annual Iron and Ink Tattoo & Kustom Culture Festival. Oh, that would explain all the goths, biker dudes and pink-haired punks.

RMS Queen Mary
RMS Queen Mary

I explained that I only wanted to take some photos of the Queen Mary. I guess the parking attendant liked me because she let me try to find a place to park for free. I thanked her and found a spot next to a light standard (technically it was not a parking spot). I walked through the crowd to the bow of the ship. I felt awkward because it was obvious that I The RMS Queen Mary is a fine example of an Art Deco ocean liner of a time when liners were the only way to travel between continents. Incongruously, there is a Cold War Soviet Foxtrot submarine moored next to the bow. I was not able to get on the ship (or sub) to look around due to the festival. I wish I had been able to go onboard.

After that, I decided to head north again to see the Hollywood Bowl. Once I got there, near suppertime, I was mired in a traffic jam. I found out that it was a jam to get into the Bowl, as it was the Playboy Jazz Festival.

I gave up and drove north past Universal Studios, and into North Hollywood and Sherman Oaks. I gave up randomly driving around and decided to head to see Griffith Observatory, which was a good choice.

Griffith Observatory
Griffith Observatory

Griffith Observatory overlooks Los Angeles. It’s a fantastic example of the Art Deco style. It’s still a functioning observatory, and I went inside to see their coelostat (solar telescope). I was starving, so I stopped at the cafe. I bought two peanut butter and jam sandwiches and a huge Rice Krispy square. That really hit the spot. I sat on the patio eating and watching the sun set by the Hollywood sign. At one end of the patio was a photo shoot – an Asian girl in a cocktail dress posing on the stairs while her boyfriend (?) snapped away. An assistant was holding the rest of the equipment and flash.

I went back to the roof to watch the lights of Los Angeles in the growing darkness. I waited about an hour for night to fall and then started shooting some longer exposures of the expanse of the city, bright against the clouds (or is that smog?).

I walked back to my car with some difficulty. It was pitch black and my knee was felt like it was burning – my body was telling me I walked too far for one day. It was a long day and I arrived back at the hotel around 9:30pm.

Today, Sunday, was a little shorter. This was because I needed to get some sleep before heading into the customer site at midnight for the start of the maintenance window.

Again, I stopped for pancakes at McDonald’s, filled the gas tank and headed back to LA.

Hollywood Bowl
Hollywood Bowl

My first stop was the Hollywood Bowl. I had no problems getting in and parking at 8am. I grabbed my camera and walked into the site. No one stopped me, as I think everyone thought I was part of the event staff.

Next I went north to the start of Mulholland Drive. It winds along the top of the Hollywood Hills. There are some fantastic views north and south over the city. All along Mulholland you can see spectacular homes. I stopped at one viewing area and took a short walk (my knee started to hurt again) though the hillside. Lots of people were out walking their dogs along the dusty trails.

Once I reached Interstate 405, I drove south (past the Getty Center) and down to Venice Beach. Venice Beach is just south of the Santa Monica Pier. I parked and started to walk along the infamous boardwalk. I was expecting it to be a complete freak-show, but to be honest, it was actually nothing like its reputation. Perhaps Sundays are quieter.

There were lots of artists displaying their works, a few buskers, a dozen shops offering “free medical marijuana tests”, clothing stores and tourist traps. There was a fantastic skatepark, where I stopped to take lots of pictures. I could also practice my french with another tourist who was visiting from France. Next were the streetball courts, where there were multiple pick-up games going on.

Further down was Muscle Beach, although there was no one training when I walked past. I bought some ice cream for lunch and then started to head back.

Venice Beach Drum Circle
Venice Beach Drum Circle

I took some more pictures at the skate park and then came across a drum circle. I sat and watched the drummers for a while. Everyone was having fun. One older guy in a muscle shirt and surfer shorts was whaling on his drum while a Che Guevara look-alike was in his own groove on a shaker.

I started back to the hotel around 4pm. It took longer to drive home because it was close to the Sunday rush hour.

Air Travel Frustrations

YOU WILL OVERCOME DIFFICULT TIMES” – Panda Express fortune cookie

I was to return home to Ottawa today. However, policies with the Air Canada check-in at Orlando mean that I am spending one more day here. I am heartbroken, as I was looking forward to seeing Rosa tonight.

I planned the day to arrive at the airport between 60 and 90 minutes before my flight, which was the recommended time on my boarding pass. I tried to plan for how long it would take me to drive from Cocoa Beach to the airport. I spent the morning with Janice and Richard and packing before leaving about 2.5 hours before my flight. It’s just over an hour to the airport.

On the way, I had to stop to fill the gas tank, because I did not pay for the rental agency to fill the tank. I kept looking for an exit with obvious gas stations, but none were visible. I did not want to chance leaving the highway and getting lost by randomly picking an exit.

The final exit before the airport had a sign for gas, so I pulled off. Sadly, it was a BP station. I would have preferred to go to another station, because of the on-going oil spill approaching the Florida coast. But I did not have a choice.

I swiped my Visa card and the fuel pump asked for my ZIP code. Of course, I don’t have a zip code; I have a postal code. I only know one US zip code, 90210, so I used that. The pump did not accept this as valid and said I had to see an attendant. Once the billing was straightened out with the attendant, I filled and ran back in to get my receipt (I did not want to leave my receipt in case of fraud). A simple task like filling the gas tank took much longer than I had expected.

Back up on the highway and I drove straight to the rental car drop off. I parked, emptied the trunk and took my receipt from the rental agent. It said it was 74 minutes before my flight. I walked about 40 meters to the elevator to go to the check-in counters. For some reason the elevator went up to the wrong floor (no one was there waiting) and then down to the correct floor. This used up some time, but I don’t believe it was more than 5 minutes to walk 40 meters and take an elevator up a floor and down two.

When I got to the Air Canada counter, there was a lineup. I assumed that there was many flights and that I still had enough time, as I was in the lineup with more than an hour to the flight. The line up was long, but many people had huge luggage – I am guessing they were returning from a sports competition with their equipment.

I was a little agitated by the time, but I was also alone and now buried in the lineup. I could not leave my luggage to ask if I should go to the head of the line. There was another couple who arrived after me.

The wife went up to the counter (thank you). She came back saying that she was told she was already late. My heart started sinking. While she stayed in line, her husband left to call the booking agent. I choose to stay and worked my way up to the front of the line. When I got to the counter, I was told that I was too late. I was told I had to be checked in an hour before the flight. I believe it was now 58 minutes to the departure time. I told the agent that I was here more than 60 minutes, and I had a receipt from the car rental, but this did not dissuade her from insisting that I was too late.

I didn’t know what to do. I was desperate to be on the flight home. I was missing Rosa terribly.

Suggested arrival time
Suggested arrival time

I left the line to call Air Canada booking. The husband who was also refused check-in was already on the phone and talking with an agent. I called and was placed on hold for 10 minutes. I overheard the husband talking (it did not sound like it was going well); he eventually told the agent that I was also in the same situation and handed me the phone. I took the phone from him and hung up my phone. I spoke with the agent who was very helpful. He told me to go back to the check-in and ask for a same-day change. I hung up and went back to the line.

When I made it back to the front of the line (it was quicker this time – the line was getting shorter), I was told “all the seats are sold”. The agent said that she could not help me. I asked if there was a stand-by option, and she repeated that all seats were sold.

I went back to the pay phones, which were only 50 feet from the counter. I called Air Canada and was placed on hold for 10 minutes. I watched the line shrink until there was no one left. I hung up without getting an answer and ran over to the counter and asked if there were any seats (as everyone had been checked in; the line was empty). I was told again by a second agent that all seats were sold.

I ran back to the pay phones again and called Air Canada. This time, after a 10 minute hold, I spoke with another very helpful agent. I told him what the check-in agent said and he expressed surprised that they would refuse me to be checked-in. He said he booked me on a seat on the plane (it turns out that the second flight was also the last of the day for Air Canada) and to run over the counter now. I thanked him and, hope in my heart, ran to the counter to get checked-in.

This time, the agent said it was too late to check-in; it was less than 60 minutes. I told her that I was already in the lineup three times (well, the last time the line was empty). I said that we had already spoken twice. She was stedfast in refusing to allow me to check-in.

I told her that I was not late the first time she refused me, and she disagreed. She said that another agent had yelled out for passengers for my flight before the 60-minute limit for my flight. I said that neither myself or the other (now stranded) couple had heard the call. I wondered to myself how loud she had called.

I was nearly in tears at this point. I could not believe this. I could not believe that there was such a massive difference in customer service between the agents at the Air Canada check-in at the Orlando airport compared to the helpful agents on the phone. I could not understand how the check-in agents could tell me that all seats were sold while the agent on the phone said he had booked me a seat.

I had to walk back to the phones. Another 10 minute wait on hold (thank goodness this was toll-free) before I could speak with another agent. I explained what had happened. I asked if there was another Air Canada flight to anywhere that I could get another connector flight. She said that there were no more Air Canada flights that day (it’s not 3pm yet). I asked, “What about the Star Alliance? Is there anyway to use Star Alliance to help me get back home?”

Apparently, the only way to check for a Star Alliance flight that could be used was to check at each airport. The booking agent was so helpful, and we checked for connecting flights in Washington, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Denver, New York, Newark, Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Only Fort Lauderdale had a flight, but she had no way to get me there. She said that if I could drive there, she could book me a flight that would leave in 5 hours. But she thought it was nearly 4 hours to drive there.

I was crushed. I was not getting home to Rosa today.

I thanked the agent for trying and she booked me for the first flight back to Canada the next morning.

I hung up and held back tears. I talked with the other couple, and found they were in worse shape than me. They did not book through Air Canada; they had used another booking. Their next available flight was 3 days later.

I called Janice and asked if I could stay another day. She said of course, and I said I would explain more when I arrived.

I was starving hungry, as I was planning to get something to eat after check-in. I went to the food court and ordered Chinese food from Panda Express. The fortune cookie was quoted at the top of this story.

I had to re-rent a car and I drove back to Cocoa Beach. Tomorrow, I will leave a minimum of 3 hours before my 8:00AM flight.

Kennedy Space Center Vistors Complex

Today, I visited the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex. I spent about 10-hours there, seeing everything I could possibly see.

Rocket Garden
Rocket Garden

I got up early and arrived just after the doors opened at 9:00AM. I checked the schedule and saw that there was a tour of the Rocket Garden starting at 9:30, so I started my day there. The rockets include:  Redstone (Mercury suborbital flights), Altas (Mercury orbital flights), Atlas (Gemini Agena program), Juno I and Juno II (Explorer, Pioneer), Thor-Jupiter (Echo, Ariel and Telstar programs)  and a Saturn IB. The Saturn IB is basically a number of the Redstone rockets bolted around a central liquid oxygen tank. There used to be a Titan II as well, but it fell over in a wind storm a few years ago.

After the tour, I stopped at the F-1 engine, which was the model that powered the Saturn V first stage (S-IC). It’s a massive motor, made to the limit of the technology of the 1960’s. Next to the F-1 was a gantry arm from the Apollo program. This arm was used at the launch pads for all of the Apollo moon shots. Every man who went to the moon (except Apollo 10) walked down the arm at Launch Pad 39A and entered the Command Module.

Behind the Rocket Garden is the Early Explorers pavilion. In the main lobby is a Soyuz spacecraft (of unknown heritage – presumably never flown in space) next to one of the original Goddard rockets. The original Mercury launch control consoles are preserved here as well. The technology at the start of the space program was amazing in its primitiveness what we have today. But what we have today is built on what was learned back then. In the next room was a never flown Mercury capsule. After that was the Gemini 9A spacecraft flown by Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan for their three day mission. Their mission included a docking with an Agena target (critical for the moon orbit rendezvous requirement of the Apollo mission) and an EVA to test a manned manoeuvring unit (a predecessor of of the MMU for some Space Shuttle missions). The heat shield shows the off-center blasting of the heat and friction of reentry. Finally, near the exit, was a moon suit with Neil Armstrong’s name on it. I took so many pictures, but I think it must be a backup suit, as it was otherwise unlabelled and looked pristine [note: yes it was a backup suit, not Neil’s used suit].

Next I boarded a bus for a tour of the rest of the Kennedy Space Center. The bus went by the two launch pads (39A and 39B) and then stopped at a good observation post. Passing by Pad 39A, where STS-132 had launched 2 days before, it looked like it was scorched from the launch, which is not unexpected. One other site that is interesting was Launch Complex 40. This site was being prepared for the first launch of the Falcon 9 rocket by SpaceX. This is a commercial space rocket. SpaceX has won a contract for resupplying the International Space Station. This is an example of the commercial space transportation that President Obama is using as a replacement for NASA’s Constellation program.

Next, we drove by the Shuttle Landing Facility (one of the longest runways in the world) and then to the Vehicle Assembly Building. The building used to allow visitors during the Apollo program, as the Saturn was assembled unfueled. However, with the Solid Rocket Boosters used for the Space Shuttle arrived filled with the solid fuel. So there are no longer public tours of the inside.

The next stop was the Apollo / Saturn V Center, one of the highlights of the tour for me. After becoming engrossed in the Apollo program last year, this was the second most important place to go for my NASA vacation in Florida.

Saturn V first stage
Saturn V first stage

At the entrance was a video overview of the Apollo program. Next, the group went into a simulation of the Apollo mission control, including a launch. During the launch, the windows rattled and the floor shook from the deep rumble of the launch. It gives just a hint of the massive forces of a Saturn V launch. Finally, we were released into the rest of the Center. Hung from the ceiling was a restored Saturn V rocket. What a sight! This was the reason I rented the Canon 10-22mm lens. The five F-1 motors tower over one end of the building, soaring 10 meters up (10 meter diameter). This S-IC stage is 42 meters long. The power of the 7.64 million pounds of thrust were transferred and balanced by the 3039 metric ton mass of the fully fuelled rocket through a 21-ton thrust structure. The S-IC stage lifted the craft only 61km before being discarded and left to tumble ballistically into the Atlantic Ocean. But that short 168 second burn is enough to get the rocket above most of the atmosphere and impart a velocity of 5,350 mph (2,390 meters/second). By the time of the staging of the (now empty) S-IC, the rocket is reduced from 3039 tons to 760 tons – the S-IC is a massive part of the vehicle when fully fuelled.

Near the interstage between the S-IC and S-II (second stage) was a Lunar Module (LM) that was intended for Apollo 15 but was not used. I wish it had been closer to the ground so I could get a better look. It is so amazing to think of that little, fragile craft as the only place of refuge on the entire surface of the moon – that that little craft would have contained the entire atmosphere and population of the Moon.

I stopped for lunch under the LM (french fries with BBQ). There was a nice view out the window of both Pad 39A and 39B.

Alan Shepard's moon suit
Alan Shepard's moon suit

I continued with the Apollo exhibit hall. At the entrance is the Apollo 14 Command Module (CM). The CM is the only part that returns to Earth. Of the 3039 tons launched, only about 6 tons return. The CM is scorched from the heat of a lunar mission reentry – it is the highest reentry speed of any manned mission. Around the hall are other components, such as tools, check lists and returned moon rocks. Another highlight was Alan Shepard’s moon suit. He wore it for the two Apollo 14 EVAs. It was still covered with lunar dust.

Leaving the exhibit hall, I stopped to look in to a mock-up of the interior of a Lunar Module (LM). It’s so tiny. As I said before, this was the home of two people for three days on the moon. It would have been incredibly crowded. I imagined what it must have been like looking out of the window onto the desolate, entirely lifeless landscape. I cannot imagine, even with the hammocks introduced after Apollo 11, how anyone could have slept, knowing where they were and what was just outside that thin metal foil shell.

Lunar Module
Lunar Module

Nearby was a Lunar Rover replica. Further down the building was the S-IVB (third) stage of the Saturn V. It was unique in the stages, as it had to be re-started after 2 orbits to push the mission out of the Earth’s gravity well during translunar injection (TLI). At the far end was unused Command Module and Service Module. Next to that was the bus that carried the Apollo astronauts out to the launch pad – very 60’s styling!

One final stop was the moon rock. There is a moon rock, mounted in an anti-theft housing, that anyone can touch. Which I did. It was amazing to touch this primordial stone, which sat on the moon for nearly 5 billion years before being collected and brought to Earth.

I returned to the bus area, where I had a choice. Either I could return to the Visitors Complex, or I could take an optional (free) tour of the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF). Calculating how much time it might take, I chose to see the SSPF.

On the way to the SSPF, we drove by the VAB again, and by the three Orbiter Processing Facilities (OPF). When each Orbiter returns to Kennedy (either from the nearby landing strip or an alternative landing site), it enters an OPF for examination, processing, refurbishment and testing. The payload for the last mission is removed, but the new payload is not mounted until the Orbiter is on the launch pad. The shortest time for processing was Atlantis, which spent only 26 days preparing for STS-61-B. Two of the buildings are empty with the wind-down of the Shuttle program (Atlantis was in orbit on its final mission) and the loss of the Columbia in 2003. The other two buildings contained Discovery and Endeavour preparing for the final two Shuttle missions. Behind the SPF buildings, and near the VAB was the unfinished launch tower for the Ares missions, part of the cancelled Constellation program.

The SSPF is where all Shuttle-delivered modules for the International Space Station (ISS) are prepared. It is basically a huge clean-room where the modules are finished, tested and prepared to be attached in the Shuttle payload bay. There were three modules in the hangar-sized room – Leonardo and two EXPRESS modules. By the end of the year, all three would become part of the ISS.

Returning to the Visitors Complex, I went to the Robot Explorers exhibit. I am fascinated with the success that NASA has had with the Voyager, Pioneer, Viking, Galileo, Cassini missions and the Exploration of Mars. I had hoped to see some of the samples or mock-ups, but the exhibit was entirely geared towards small kids, so I left after only 10 minutes. I walked around to see the Space Mirror Memorial, which has the names of all of the American astronauts who died during training or during missions.

External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters
External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters

Next, I walked around the mock-up of an Orbiter and the External Tank (ET) and Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB). The day was getting close to the end, so I had one final choice. I could either stand in line to ride the Shuttle Launch Experience, or see an IMAX movie. I chose to see an IMAX movie over the ride. There were two IMAX movies playing. I went to see the one about the Apollo program “Magnificent Desolation” over “Hubble 3D“, as I knew that the Hubble movie would be playing in Ottawa (Museum of Civilization). It was a good movie, considering that IMAX or 3D was invented at the time of the program. The simulation of what an astronaut would see as he descended the lander of the Lunar Module and stepped onto the moon was especially moving to see.

Finally, it was time to shop at the gift store. I looked at everything. I focused on the unique items at the gift shop that were not available through Amazon. Most of the interesting books or videos I already had, or were on my Amazon wish list. Instead, I bought a nice white souvenir T-shirt for STS-132, the STS-132 souvenir book and some nick-nacks like magnets and posters. I wanted models of the Saturn V and Shuttle, but the ones they had were either very cheap, or too expensive to afford. The Saturn V model I want is the one I saw in this video from Neil deGrasse Tyson:

End of the visit in front of the NASA logo
End of the visit in front of the NASA logo

Finally, on my way out, I saw the Orion Crew Module, which is part of the cancelled Constellation program, and had a final picture taken in front of the NASA logo.

My day at Kennedy ended about 10 hours after I arrived. I feel I was able to see all that I could see. It was very important to me as a space junkie to be able to see the vehicles and components that I had thus far only read about. I was able to explorer the NASA missions of the past 50 years from the Mercury missions through to the two final Shuttle flights, and a glimpse of the (now cancelled) future Constellation program.

One final note that made the day even more enjoyable. Over the PA in the Visitors Complex, they were piping in the live radio communications and Press Officers commentary from the Atlantis as it approached and docked with the ISS. It was icing on the cake – to hear the mission that had begun two days earlier with the launch that brought me to Florida.