20th Century History of China

There is much of history that I do not know. In Canada, the history education is keyed towards the story of the civilizations that contributed to Canada – from the Fertile Crescent, Egyptian empire, Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, a little bit about the Middle Ages, Christopher Columbus, the French Revolution, Napoleon, the British Empire, the US Revolution and Civil War, culminating in World Wars I and II. The history courses barely touched the post-war era.

The gaps in my knowledge include the history of Africa, South America and Asia. For example, my knowledge of Chinese history was only cursory: they invented gunpowder, there was a guy named Confucius, a bunch of dynasties, Genghis Khan, they built a wall to keep someone out, then Chairman Mao and Tiananmen Square.

I had read a little bit about the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and how they effected people in China. But I did not know why those events happened.

And I’ve read about what China is like today (the booming economy, the mass migration, etc) via the journalist James Fallows (The Atlantic), through TV and YouTube video clips, and by reading the book China Road by Rob Gifford.

None of that helped explain why there are major tensions between Mainland China and the island of Taiwan.

Therefore, I was very pleased to have bought and read “China: A New History, Second Enlarged Edition” by John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman. This book has filled in those huge gaping holes in my knowledge and understanding. And it has been full of real surprises, especially around the tumultuous events of the 20th Century in China.

I did not know about the conflicts between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Mao and the Kuomintang (GMD) under Chiang Kai-shek, how they had partly worked together to fight the Japanese invasion, then in the post-war years the CCP pushed the GMD out of mainland China. The GMD leaders fled to the island of Taiwan (then known as Formosa).

What surprised me the most was how cut-off mainland China was from the rest of the world. I was stunned to learn that until 1979, Taiwan was recognized as the sole legitimate government for all of China. Taiwan represented China at the United Nations Security Council until 1971. I had assumed that there had always been recognition of mainland China as a separate entity from Taiwan since their modern formation in the late 1940’s.

China was completely cut-off from the world for decades, similar to North Korea today. It was inwardly focused. After the Sino-Soviet split of 1961, China was even more alone.

I had known that Nixon’s 1972 trip to China was pivotal for opening up of China, but I never had the context to fully understand why. Now I can see how crucial that visit was.

The current status of Taiwan is also better understood with the new historical framework. Taiwan continues to be protected by the US. In the late 1940’s, the US protected and even sent troops to the island to defend it as part of the communism containment policy; this was only a few years into the Cold War. The US Seventh Fleet patrolled the East China Sea to bolster the defense of Taiwan from the communist mainland. At the same time, the US was involved in the Korean War, where General MacArthur specifically planned to invade China across the Yalu River before he was relieved of command. As with Germany and Japan, this fed the economic growth from being within the US sphere of influence.

The events in Tiananmen Square took place only 10 years after official recognition. It would be easy to guess that the older hardliners in the CCP were surprised by the reaction from the rest of the world for what it might have seen as a purely internal matter. Once it opened itself to the world, it also opened itself to critism of its human rights records, its pollution, and so forth. Like a company that just had an IPO, everything that was once private becomes very public. and open to criticism and condemnation.

Reading “China: A New History” has opened up more of history than any book I have read in the last two decades.

2010 Sundown GP

This weekend, Team 00 was at Mosport for the three-hour Sundown GP endurance race Saturday evening. Jay and I shared #00, the car we bought in Dallas. It’s a basically stock (but race-prepped) Acura Integra Type-R.

I didn’t go down for the Friday practice, so it was only a single day of racing for me.

I took the first practice session Saturday morning to get familiar with the car. I have not driven #00 in over a year. I started slow, as seems to be my standard. The times started at 1:49.5, which is very slow, but in 10 laps I was able to bring the lap times down to 1:45.2. This was good improvement, but still far off the pace. I felt terrible – my best time our (now dead) Honda Civic was a 1:44.228. I should have been much faster in the Type-R.

Jay took the car out for the qualifying later in the morning and pulled off a 1:43.698, almost 2 seconds faster than my best in the morning. I was really hard on myself trying to figure out why I was not on the pace.

The results printouts from timing did not show the position in class, so we were not sure exactly were we slotted within our class. We debated changing our class from GT-4 to GT-5, as the times we have acheived so far were in the middle of the GT-5 class. In the end, we didn’t change and set our sights on just competing as best we could – during an enduro race the laptimes for everyone are lower than during a sprint race. This is due to a heavier fuel load and to protect the car and motor during the much longer race.

#00 by PicsByVicsr

The race started at 5pm. I took the start of the race. This time, we had our radios installed and running – Ron was on the pit wall calling out laptimes and other information.

I had a good start, keeping my position. I had a few cars to chase, but eventually the pack had spread out enough that I was spending a lot of time by myself, working on taking each corner a little bit faster each time.

I grew more confident and drove smoother as the race went on. I worked on my race line. And I got to lap a few of the slower cars, which is something I don’t have a lot of experience with. When I’ve been lapping cars in the past, I was not aggressive enough. So I worked on making better passes under braking and in corners and getting more aggressive in general.

There was a little drizzle about half-way through my stint, but not enough to make it interesting.

We switched drivers and fueled the car just before the half-distance mark. I had about 75 to 80 minutes in the car. The fueling was without drama and the switch to Jay went well. I stayed in my race suit in case I was need to help with fuelling the other Team 00 cars.

I reviewed the printout of the laptimes so far, and found that I had been able to pull off a 1:40.767, which was a great improvement – nearly 5 seconds better than my morning practice. I was much happier than I had been in the morning.

Jay was consistent during his stint, but was in the high 1:43’s.

Lap Times
Lap Times (http://casc.mylaps.com)

Jay came in after about 80 minutes. He said that it seemed like the car was out of fuel, so we put in another jug. Seeing that I still had my race suit on, Jay suggested that I get back in the car. Not one to turn down an opportunity, I put on my helmet and gloves and climbed back in the car.

For some reason, the car would not start, so we had to bump-start it to pull out of the pits.

As the car and tires were still hot, I wanted to push right away. The car was working great, and I had lots of confidence in the tire grip.

#00 by PicsByVicsr

After 6 laps, as I exited Turn 1, on the short run to the top of Turn 2, the motor cut out completely. I thought that perhaps it was the same problem that we had in the pit during the second pitstop. As the car coasted, I selected third then second gear and attempted to bump-start the car, but the motor would not catch. As I cruised along the outside of Turn 2, down the hill, it was obvious that it was not going to start, so I coasted the car over to the cut-out in the wall on the right between Turn 2 and Turn 3.

The checkered flag was displayed about 9 minutes later – we had completed about 171 of 180 minutes.

After the race, I was towed back to the paddock and we could take a look at the car. At first, it looked like the oil level was very low, which scared me thinking that I might have broken the motor (oil starvation). We tried to figure out if the dry sump was working correctly or if it had been turned on at all. When I was out for the final few laps, no warning lights had came on – the motor just cut out suddenly. If it was really an oil problem, there should have been engine warning lights on the dash.

Next, we found the culprit. One of the battery terminals was broken and was not making enough contact. This would have cut the electrical to the ignition in the motor. That would explain why the motor just cut out and why I could not bump-start it – no juice to the spark plugs. Replacing a battery contact is much less expensive than replacing the motor!

We got the printout of the final results and found out that in fact we were classed in GT-3! Holy cow! A serious paperwork mistake. We were competing against a Porsche 911 GT3, not the cars we thought we were competing against. In that class (which has laptimes of 1:32), we were hopeless. All the effort, and it was basically for nothing [had we finished] because we were in the wrong class.

Sunday morning, we packed up and left the track at lunch time.

The results are available on http://www.mylaps.com/results/showevent.jsp?id=539050

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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aadYN5OPKN8.

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.

STS-132 Video coming

Just before I went to bed last night, I remembered that I had shot a video of the entire Atlantis launch.

Before I traveled down to Florida, I searched the video-sphere for very wide-angle shots of a shuttle launch. I wanted a video that captures what a person would actually see from the causeway. All of the videos I found were zoomed in to track the shuttle (which is great to see). I wanted a non-zoomed video that does not track the launch, but instead shows the entire launch sequence from a fixed zoom.

As a last-minute thought as I was packing, I brought my GoPro HD Motorsports Hero, which I had just purchased for in-car camera for racing. Before that, I was thinking about using my Canon 7D to record the video in 1080p HD, but as noted previously that would mean using only 2 megapixels of the 18 megapixels available. The HD Motorsport Hero does 1080p HD video, but is not zoomed. It is designed for in-car video. It has a very wide field of view.

Around T-5 minutes, I took out the HD Hero and snuck up to the security rope. I put down a book I brought for reading, and set up the camera on top. The HD Hero does not have a rear video screen, so I had no way to be sure that it was going to work. I worked out the left and right angle of view, as I could hold my hands at 90-degrees to line it up. But the vertical was complete guesswork.

Once I remembered about the video last night, I connected it up to my MacBook Pro and imported the video.

It was perfect!

It exactly captures what I wanted – the full launch to SRB separation all in one continuous view. It captures how fast the shuttle climbs. The video is not useful after SRB separation, as the camera could not pick up the SSMEs which do not produce a smoke trail.

I will need to crop down the video and clean up the audio, and then I will post the video later in the week.

Visiting Cocoa Beach

The day after the launch and I decided to stay in Cocoa Beach with Janice and Richard and relax.

Janice and Richard on their pontoon boat
Janice and Richard on their pontoon boat

In the morning, they took me out in their pontoon boat. It was really nice to be out on the water. It reminded me of being back in Nova Scotia. We motored past some really nice homes along the waterways. Along one of the waterways, we saw some dolphins swimming along! It was awesome! I asked Janice if people can swim in the water, but she advised against it because of the alligators. Oh, right. I forgot about that. It’s so strange to live in a place where you are at risk of being eaten.

As we cruised along, we saw a few pelicans, although not as many as Janice and Richard expected. Later, as we were returning home, we came across a grove of trees that were full of brown pelicans. They look so odd roosting like that – perched up on the branches but with big webbed feet.

Once we docked back home, we went out to the beach, eating lunch at Coconuts on the Beach.

Later in the afternoon, I went out on my own to do some more sightseeing. First I drove to the famous Ron Jon Surf Shop. It’s open 24-hours, although I can’t see that there is much business for selling surf boards at 2:43AM.

Janice suggested I go to the Dinosaur Store. I’m not much of a shopper, and don’t have a huge interest in dinosaurs, but it was close to Ron Jon’s so I went. I am very glad I did go. They had many fossils for sale, ranging from recent post-Ice Age artifacts stretching back into the unimaginable past. They had plant, animal and sea creature fossils. After looking around for at least 30 minutes, I finally decided to buy a fossil. It’s a 280 million year old fossil fern. I just stared at it, trying to imagine what it was like then (Permian Period), and then what it would be like in another 280 million years. It occurred to me that humans would not be around then – our species would evolve just as much as we evolved from the animals who would have feasted on this fern.

Flora in the Lori Wilson Park
Flora in the Lori Wilson Park

I bought the fossil because it really made me think. And also as a tool to think about my own life. Work has been so incredibly stressful in the past few months, it occurred to me that no matter what decisions I make, good and bad, none of it will matter in 300 million years. So why should I get so stressed?

Finally, I went to Lori Wilson Park, a maritime hammock. It’s a 32-acre area of what this part of Florida looked like before people started building. It was also very relaxing, and deep in the walking paths it is much cooler than the hot Florida sun on the nearby beach.

Janice, Richard and I finished the day having BBQ Ribs at Sonny’s Real Pit Bar-B-Q.

STS-132 Atlantis Launch

It’s all over and I’m in the 4-hour traffic jam leaving the causeway for Cocoa Beach. I’m overwhelmed and even a little melancholy – it all happened so fast did I miss anything?

I woke up at 5:00am. I was nervous about the traffic, so to be cautious, I left 90 minutes before the pick-up time in Titusville. I arrived with time to spare, so I went to a McDonald’s for pancakes. It wasn’t much, but it was all I could take. I was nervous and excited. I stopped and talked with some people who were working a 2-hour shift to keep people off private property with a view of the NASA facility. Miles of the roads through Titusville were lined with tape, parking areas and vendors setting up for the launch day. The radio was reporting they expected 300,000 people to view the launch – double the normal number.

I arrived at the pick-up point early, but there was already a very long line. It moved quickly and in 20 minutes I was on-board the bus.

Traffic to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) was slow. We were dropped off at 8:30am at the Visitors Center and had to be back in another line by 9:30 to board the same bus that would take us to the causeway viewing area. This strange drop-off and pick-up seemed to be so that the KSC Visitors Center security could check everyone before we were bussed to the causeway.

We arrived at the causeway around 11:30 – about 3 hours before launch. I got off the bus and all but ran to the rope to set up my chair. I was getting hungry so I chanced it that no one wold take my chair and ran to buy a hamburger, banana and a drink. I got my food before the 100+ foot line formed behind me.

The next 2.5 hours were spent baking in the Florida sunshine, testing out the lenses I rented from Lens Rentals Canada. When the count picked up at T-5 minutes, the crowd behind me stood up and everyone got very quiet. There were possibly as many as 17,000 people on the causeway and no one was talking.

At T-2 minutes, my heart was pounding – I was so excited.

T-1 minute – Oh My God, this is it.

T-11 seconds and I start the camera, trying to take some good photos without filling the buffer of the camera too soon. The buffer is only 14 full-size RAW photos, and I am shooting full-out at 8-frames per second. I wanted the better quality of the RAW, and the trade off was the small buffer.

Main Engine Start
Space Shuttle Main Engine Start. T-4 seconds

T-5 seconds and I can see the SSME – main engines starting. The view through the Canon 100-400mm L IS lens is amazing.

T-1, T-0 seconds and the shuttle disappears in the steam cloud from the sound suppression system. I paused shooting for a second to allow the buffer to clear while the shuttle was obscured.

When the vehicle climbed above the cloud, I held down the shutter button again for the most picturesque moments.

I was so engrossed in everything, I could not hear the NASA PA announcing the “Tower Clear” and “Roll Program” or the “Throttle Up” calls. I do remember hearing “Negative Return” – the point where the shuttle can no longer glide back to Kennedy for landing due to the height and velocity attained.

Shuttle clearing the tower
Space Shuttle clearing the tower. T+7 seconds

I was alternating between watching over the camera (watching and experiencing the event) and looking through the eye piece to take pictures. Once the shuttle was far enough away, it made more sense to focus on using the camera with the zoom lens as I could not see as much without binoculars.

It took a number of seconds for the sound to arrive from the launch. It started low, and not so loud. I guess that is because of the sound suppression system and because the thrust was focused at the ground. As the shuttle rose, the sound grew very loud with that crackling and popping noise you hear in good videos, but much stronger. The deep rumble of 7.4 million pounds of thrust lifting a 4.47 million pound (2000 ton) vehicle pounds the air – the forces at work are immense. The flames are so bright, even in the direct Florida sun – much brighter than I expected.

Solid Rocket Booster Separation. T+2 minutes 16 seconds

At T+2 minutes, I knew the Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) separation was moments away. I focused again (the lens was hunting a little for focus at this range), and was terrified I would miss it. Take some pictures, look up, take some pictures, look up. I could see the SRB separation with my own eyes, even though they were already at 150,000ft/46km. I could see them flame out and tumble through space; the vehicle was already above the standard definition for the edge of space. After that it was harder to focus the camera as the SSMEs do not produce smoke – only water vapour. All that was visible was the very bright dot of the vehicle accelerating away down-range.

After SRB separation, I was very disappointed that almost everyone around me started to pack up. It was only 2.5 minutes into an 8 minute climb to orbit, and I could still clearly see the bright light from the shuttle as it moved down-range. I could still see the light as the NASA PA announced Atlantis was already 290 km away. When else could one see a vehicle that is 290 km away and over 300,000 feet in altitude? Amazing!

I stayed in place trying to listen for the MECO (main engine cut-off) call, but the noise of everyone folding their chairs meant that I missed that important announcement – that the Atlantis climb was complete. I did hear the External Tank separation call right after MECO. At that point, they make only a minor adjustment to place Atlantis in orbit.

Today was so amazing, and overwhelming. And fleeting. All this preparation work to travel to see about 4 minutes of the climb to orbit.

There is no truly complete way to capture such a moment. Today is something I will treasure always.

The plume from the launch. T+6m17s

Preparing for STS-132

On Friday, I will be attending the STS-132 Space Shuttle launch, the final scheduled flight of Shuttle Atlantis.

Over Christmas, Rosa and I talked about following our desires. Too often, I miss opportunities to do what I want to do because I don’t take the steps necessary to secure them. Out of inertia, I miss life passing by.

So I decided that I have wanted to watch a manned space launch. This desire has grown over the last year as I started reading more and more about the Apollo program. In North America, this means the Space Shuttle, as it is the only man-rated launch vehicle. Looking at the schedule, the STS-132 mission to the International Space Station was the best fit for my schedule and racing activities.

Once decided that I would go, I began to make plans.

There was a seat sale on Air Canada that covered the May launch window, so I immediately booked for May 13-17. That provides me more time to see the launch on the 14th, visit the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), and also account for any postponements or scrubs due to weather or other minor issues.

Next, I began to research how to get tickets for viewing. It turns out, there are three ways. The first way is to Twitter, which will enter my name into a lottery pool for the VIP viewing area that is not open to the public. Alas, I did not win a VIP ticket. Next, there is a tour operator that was accepting bookings. Third, tickets are also available from Kennedy Space Center.

The tour operator, Central Florida Tours (CFT) has exclusive access to a set number of tickets, and they start selling them before the KSC ticket sales start. CFT will pick you up at a designated spot, bus you to KSC, then bus you out to the causeway viewing area and return you at the end of the day. Other tour operators apparently get their tickets from CFT.

I bought tickets for the causeway (the nearest public viewing area – about 6 miles away from the launch) from CFT, which meant I was guaranteed to have a seat. The price is higher that directly from KSC. And the pick up for me is 7:00am in Titusville, which is very early, but others are being picked up in Orlando as early as 5:30am. The launch is 2:20pm.

I also waited to buy a ticket directly from KSC. It costs less and is more flexible from a timing point of view. Both include a 2-day pass to Kennedy Space Center, so I can see the museums.

The KSC tickets went on sale on a Thursday in April. However, the KSC ticket web page was not ready for the influx of people. On the day of the ticket sales, their web servers crashed. The sales were postponed from Thursday to Monday, and they moved to another server cluster would be able to handle the traffic. Everyone wants to get to see one of the final three launches. It is not likely that anyone will be getting in to see the final flight, as it will mostly be VIPs. It will be the end of the nearly 30-year flight program.

On following Monday, I tried again, but was not successful. There are only about 5,000 tickets for the causeway, and they were sold out in 20 minutes. So I will stay with the ticket I bought from CFT.

Next, I needed a place to stay. I waited too long and many of the hotels were already booked. I managed to get a room at the Super-8 in Titusville. I also contacted some dear friends that Rosa and I met during our trip to Eastern Europe over Christmas. They live in Cocoa Beach, about 30 minutes south. They were very amenable to have me stay with them in their guest suite. I am really looking forward to meeting them again – they were so good to talk with in December. I cancelled my Super-8 room. I also rented a car. Strangely, the price was higher when I tried to book through Ericsson‘s travel agency. I had assumed that there would be a corporate discount.

Now comes the part that I spent a lot of time thinking about and investigating. I want to capture this very special day somehow. I starting thinking about photography, but I also considered video. If I wanted to record video, then I would need a Canon 7D instead of my current Canon 40D. I spent hours and hours and hours investigating renting the 7D, lenses, microphones and tripods. I investigated rental agencies in Orlando, by mail in the US and also the Canadian alternatives.

After much consideration and playing with the finance numbers, I decided to buy the Canon 7D and sell some older equipment, such as the 40D. This will allow me to either take great photos or shoot full 1080p HD video. If I rented the 7D instead, then that money would be wasted as I did assume I would eventually move to the 7D. The money I would have spent on the rental of the 7D body instead could be spent on the purchase.

For the rest of the equipment, I continued to investigate all the options for rentals. In the end, the best price and convienence was through Lens Rentals Canada. I ordered a Canon EF 100-400mm L IS USM lens. According to the extensive research I’ve done on the web, lens that are longer risk being impacted by the turbulent, hot air of a sunny Florida afternoon. I rented a Canon EF-S 10-22mm wide angle zoom too. I have been thinking about this lens for some time now, but it is expensive – about $1000. By renting the lens, I can see if I like it. Unlike renting the 7D body, I am not sure about this lens, so renting first was a good idea. I was 100% sure I would eventually get the 7D.

I also rented a Gitzo aluminum tripod and video head. I am torn between wanting to video record the launch with the 7D (the reason I bought it in the first place), or taking still photos. A video would be a great record and I would not need to keep the camera to my eye. HD video is only about 2 megapixels. Stills will be higher quality (the 7D is 18 megapixels) but would mean I watch the launch through the video finder (or the back of the camera). With video, I would keep use the Live View feature and only need to glance over to just track the action.

I still don’t know what I will do.

The two lenses and the tripod arrived on Friday. On Monday, I bought an external microphone and a Kata backpack camera bag at Henrys.

To keep track of what to do and where to go, I joined the Facebook groups for the Kennedy Space Center and for the Attendees of Launch of ATLANTIS STS-132 May 14th 2010.

I also signed up for Twitter to follow information about ticket sales from KSC.

Looking today at the weather, NASA indicates that the weather is 70% for a launch. And the count-down clock has started.

I am so amazingly excited about this trip. I hope I don’t forget something. For our trips, Rosa has been there as a backup “fact-checker” to double check. This time, I’ll be alone as Rosa will be in ballet classes.