Viva Las Vegas

My good friend Don and his fiancé Ke invited Rosa and me to their wedding in Las Vegas. Rosa was not able to go due to work commitments.

I almost did not go either. Three days before my flight, I hurt my back with heavy lifting on the weekend and then bowling at the MCO general meeting. I was in a lot of pain. I was afraid I had a lower back hernia (not a herniated disc, but a muscle hernia). I was able to see a doctor who said it was only a muscle spasm, and prescribed some pain killers, anti-inflammatories and muscle relaxants. The muscles of the lower back are not prone to hernia injuries.

I was feeling a bit better the next day so I went ahead with the trip.

Maverick Helicopter Tours
Maverick Helicopter Tours

Upon arriving in Las Vegas, I checked-in to a Hilton south of the airport. I gathered up my camera equipment and left for Maverick Helicopter departure location, which was very close to the hotel. Rosa had previously visited Las Vegas before we met, and she pushed me to take the same helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon that she had taken.

It took about 45 minutes to complete the check-in for everyone, and then we were assigned to the different helicopters. There were 7 helicopters that would be involved in the sunset tour.

Part of the Las Vegas strip from a Maverick Helicopter tour.
Part of the Las Vegas strip from a Maverick Helicopter tour.

I made sure that I had a good seat for the flight. I was in the centre seat in front, with lots of glass available for taking pictures. However, in practice it was a little harder than I expected as the glass was curved like a bubble – good for viewing but the distortion limited the directions that allowed for good photos. With weight and space restrictions, I could not bring a camera bag, so I put my wide angle Canon EF-S 10-22mm in one coat pocket and my Canon 550EX flash in my other pocket.

Once everyone was buckled in, the pilot started the engines and did the pre-flight check. Then something magical happened – we gently lifted off and hovered about 30cm above the ground. The feeling of hovering in one place and then slowly pivoting around to face the nearby McCarran International Airport was unlike anything I have ever experienced and was totally unexpected how much it would impact me. The freedom of movement, the graceful but intimate feeling of flight, so close to the earth and yet totally unconnected and free to move in any direction. It was a very special feeling for me.

We skimmed down the airport apron performing the final flight checks before the pilot pulled up on the collector and we soared into the sky. The view was magnificent – the city of Las Vegas falling away and then falling behind, the tops of the hotels along the Strip catching the setting sun.

We flew eastward, north of Lake Mead, up and down through the canyons along the top of what would become the Grand Canyon. The pilot did the expected heart-stopping manoeuvres up over the tops of the ridges and plummeting down the far side. I was having such a good time.

The Grand Canyon is about 450km long, up to 29 km wide at the top, and 1,600 metres deep. Nearly two billion years of Earth’s geological history has been exposed by the Colorado River.

The Grand Canyon, after the local sunset.
The Grand Canyon, after the local sunset.

We flew for about 20 minutes to a picnic site at the lower end of the Canyon that had been set up by Maverick for all the guests. They set out drinks, fresh veggies and dip, cheese and crackers. We talked in small groups – my fellow travellers came from all over world – and spent lots of time taking pictures of the surrounding scenery. The top of the Canyon was still catching the sunset and was aglow in pink and rose and orange and red.

After 40 minutes at the picnic site, we all climbed back in the helicopters and flew out of the Canyon and along the eastern side were we rendezvoused for a refuelling stop.

Then we took off for the final leg back to the airport. We flew past the Hoover Dam and then approached the Las Vegas at dusk. The skyline was brilliantly lit up, highlighted by the lights of the Strip.

After touch down, I returned to the hotel exhausted.

The next morning I woke up early due to the 2-hour timezone change. I had a long list of sites I wanted to see, so I checked-out, had a quick breakfast and started off.

Beautiful Red Rock Canyon.
Beautiful Red Rock Canyon.

My first destination was Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, 24km west of downtown. I wanted to do it early in the morning before the heat of the day. There is a one-way 24km long loop road that winds through the area, with parking lots at the various trailheads along the route. I stopped at a few of them to take more pictures and to walk around. With the limited time and the fact that I did not have hiking shoes, I did not stay very long at any stop. The scenery was so beautiful; I want to come back and spend a few days hiking and taking pictures at sunrise and sunset.

The loop road was also popular with bikers (both bicycles and motorcycles). I would love to drive the road at higher speeds like the Silver State Classic Challenge. That would be a blast.

After completing the loop, I headed to the other side of Las Vegas for a tour of the Hoover Dam.

The Hoover Dam is one of the iconic public works in the world, and a beautiful example of the Art Deco style (my favourite). It was built between 1931 and 1936 during the Great Depression. It is 221 metres tall and 379 metres long (curved). The top is only 14 metres deep, but at the base it is about 200 metres. It is this incredible weight that allows it to hold back the waters of the Lake Mead reservoir – the largest in the country.

After I parked, I first walked out onto the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, which forms a bypass from the old narrow road that went along the top of the dam. From the bridge, you have a great view of the face of the dam and the Colorado River 260 metres below; it is the second highest bridge in the U.S.

The Hoover Dam from the Mike O'Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge.
The Hoover Dam from the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge.

Next, I took the tour of the interior of the dam. There are 17 turbines in the turbine room providing 2080 Gigawatts of power. The turbines are driven by the water pressure; the water reaches 140km/h when it is fed into the turbines.

After the tour, I had lunch in the café and took a walk along the top of the dam and then returned to Las Vegas.

The wedding was to be held at the Bellagio luxury hotel. I checked-in in the early afternoon. This was another over-the-top experience. I was so excited to be there. The noise of the machines, the bustle of the crowd, the beautiful interior details. It had the right feel – it made me feel like a million bucks to be there.

The elevators are on the other side of the gambling floor of course. There were so many people, and so much going on. I walked around the hotel, then went for a swim in the pool.

I met Don and Ke and the rest of the wedding party in in their Penthouse Suite before dinner. Their room had an amazing view of the famous Fountains of Bellagio through the floor-to-ceiling windows. We had some drinks, some sweets then split into the bachelor and bachelorette parties. The bachelors (well, we were all in relationships/married) had dinner at Prime Steakhouse at the Bellagio. The meal was wonderful – I had a steak of course. Better than the meal was the conversations. Although I had never met any of the other guests, and I am a terrible introvert, I immediately felt relaxed with everyone. Dinner lasted about 2.5 hours.

After dinner, we went to a low-end blackjack table. I had intended to gamble a set amount, but I didn’t bring all the cash with me. I also wasn’t focused on the math, so I eventually lost. I watched the others play and got the hang of it, but the limousine was waiting so I could not start up again.

We had a VIP limo ride to the Spearmint Rhino Las Vegas, a gentleman’s club, and a reserved place and server girls dedicated to our party. The server at my end of the party (we were seated along a row) said she was originally from Budapest, but when I tried to ask more she demurred and didn’t give me any more details. The music was so loud it was hard to talk without extreme effort.

We returned to Bellagio between 2 and 3AM.

The famous Las Vegas sign, at the southern end of the strip.
The famous Las Vegas sign, at the southern end of the strip.

In the morning, I had a short time to take my picture at the famous “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign before returning to the hotel to get ready for the 11AM wedding. Don and Ke had a private balcony overlooking the Fountains of Bellagio. Ke was stunning in her wedding gown. After the ceremony, we watched a special fountain display created just for the wedding party.

We had a few hours of free time between the ceremony and the wedding dinner. I decided I really wanted to celebrate with an ice cream at Café Gelato. I brought my MacBookPro so I could look through the photos I had taken. Over the next 2 hours, most of the rest of the wedding party stopped by and had gelato too. It was great. We were talking as if we had been life-long friends. It was the people I met that made this one of the most memorable trips I’ve taken.

Don and Ke's wedding at the Bellagio.
Don and Ke’s wedding at the Bellagio.

For dinner, we had a private dining room. The food was elegant and delicious. The desert was interesting – a chocolate ball, topped with a sliver of gold leaf, that would dissolve after being covered in hot chocolate.

The next morning I flew back home. Although I only had a short time in Las Vegas, the scenery, the novelty and the new friends made this one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever taken.

NAC open house

Rosa, Mama, and I went to the National Arts Centre open house this afternoon. I have often wanted to see the backstage area, so I was excited to go.

It did not disappoint. All of the dressing rooms, both huge workshops, and the back stage areas for all four stages were open. I was amazed by how large the workshops and back stage areas were. Equally surprising was how labyrinth the dressing room areas are. Like most of the building, the backstage and dress room areas are in octagon shapes. The workshops created props and staging for the various performances.

Glenn Gould's piano
Glenn Gould’s piano

2012 Lumière Festival

This evening Rosa, Mama and I went to the Ottawa Lumière Festival in New Edinburgh.

Once the sun had set, the site was magical. People were dancing with light sticks, making lanterns, drinking coffee and basically just relaxing in the warm summer evening.

The highlight was the fire dance by Sophie, Brigitte, and Amber of Fire Weavers.

2012 Lumière Festival - coloured hulahoops.
2012 Lumière Festival – coloured hulahoops.
2012 Lumière Festival - Fire Weavers.
2012 Lumière Festival – Fire Weavers.
2012 Lumière Festival - Fire Weavers.
2012 Lumière Festival – Fire Weavers.

2012 Venus Transit

Today was my last day in Kansas City.

Today was also the extremely rare Venus transit of the Sun. I had been planning to find someplace in Kansas City to buy welders glass #14 so that I could take pictures, but it was hard to find a retail store. Instead, I found out that the local Johnson County Community College was hosting a viewing party.

JCCC Venus transit party
JCCC Venus transit party

I invited everyone at the lab to come, but no one took me up on the offer. I left a little early hoping to beat the line-up. When I arrived and found my way into the building, I found that the line-up extended over 2 floors and was over an hour waiting time.

I spoke with one of the JCCC hosts, and they had only expected maybe 150 people. Instead, we calculated they might have about 2000 during the 5-hour transit.

I wish I had had something eat and read while I was waiting. I spoke a little with the others in the line.

When I finally reached the roof, there were two ways to view Venus. There was a hand-made viewing barrel with a solar filter that you hold up to your face. It was fascinating. I used it and hand-held my camera to get the shot below. The odd colour is from the reflections inside the barrel. You can even see some of the sunspots.

There were also three big telescopes set up with special solar filters. Two were sensitive to a particular hydrogen spectrum and one was sensitive to another spectrum. You could see different features using each telescope. It was so amazing to see such details on the disc of the Sun.

Venus (upper right) transit of the Sun
Venus (upper right) transit of the Sun

Kansas City Royals vs Oakland Athletics

Today, my last Sunday in Kansas, I went with my co-workers to see a Major League Baseball (MLB) game. The Kansas City Royals were hosting the Oakland Athletics at Kauffman Stadium.

Kauffman Stadium
Kauffman Stadium

We arrived around noon. The tickets, way up in the nosebleed section, were really inexpensive – only $9 each! Once inside, we grabbed a quick lunch and then made our way up to our seats.

As this was my first MLB game, I was expecting it would drag out. But the game moved along quickly.

During the 7th inning, I got up and walked around the stadium, seeing the different views and taking pictures. Down on the lowest level, the views were very good and I got some nice shots.

I am quite proud of two shots. The first one is Eric Hosmer of the Royals being hit by a pitch. The photo shows the ball just touching his shoulder. The other photo, possibly also of Eric Hosmer, looks like an out at first base by only a few inches – very close to call for an umpire.

We went for dinner after the game and finished off the day with dessert at The Cheesecake Factory.

Memorial Day in Kansas City

Celebration at the Station
Celebration at the Station

Today was Memorial Day in the US. Along with three co-workers, I went to downtown Kansas City to listen to the free concert (“Celebration at the Station“) and watch the fireworks. The concert was at Union Station and was presented by the Kansas City Symphony.

We arrived in the afternoon. After walking around a little, we grabbed some supper. I had a really amazingly delicious frozen custard at Sheridan’s.

We walked around the concert site as the sun began to set. We found a place to sit on the lawn to listen before it got too dark. The lawn was part of the Liberty Memorial and National World War I Museum, which overlooks Union Station.

Conclusion of the 1812 Overture
Conclusion of the 1812 Overture

The concluding piece was, of course, the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky. The Kansas Army National Guard were there with three M116 75mm howitzers. During the epic finale celebrating the defeat of Napoleons troops in Russia, they fired blanks. It was AWESOME.

After the concert was a wonderful fireworks presentation. After the fireworks, we drove back to our hotel in Overland Park.

Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center

I’m in Kansas City (actually, Overland Park / Lenexa) for a 16-day business trip. We are doing field trials of a new solution for one of our most important customers.

Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center
Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center

Today, my first Saturday in Kansas, I visited the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson. The facility houses the largest collection of Russian space artifacts outside of Moscow, and the second largest collection of space artifacts in the world, second only to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.. It is one of only three museums to display flown spacecraft from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.

I had to leave the hotel at 7:45AM to get to Hutchinson, which is about 3.5 hours from Overland Park. As I did not get a GPS with the rental car, I printed the directions.

I arrived after 11:00AM. I spent some time outside looking at the Mercury-Redstone and Titan-II rockets and an example of the mighty F-1 engine. The F-1 engine did not have the nozzle extension, so the vents for the turbopump were visible. Counter-intuitively, the exhaust from the massive turbopump was pumped along the inside of the exhaust bell for cooling; the turbopump exhaust was much cooler than the 3,200°C hot gas exiting the engine combustion chamber.

Hanging inside the entrance was the incredible SR-71 Blackbird. The SR-71 spy plane first flew in 1964 and even at its retirement in 1998 was an unparalleled technological achievement. It was capable of Mach 3.3 (3,529 km/h) and flew at 85,069 feet (25,929 m) using two very innovative Pratt & Whitney J58 engines, which were a combination turbojet and a fan-assisted ramjet. Only 32 of these fascinating planes were built.

Next to the SR-71 was a full-size mock-up of the left (port) side of the Endeavour Space Shuttle. Behind the SR-71 was a T-38 Talon Trainer, which has been the training aircraft for NASA.

I bought tickets to see everything at the Cosmosphere: ‘Dr. Goddard’s Lab’, the planetarium, IMAX, and of course the museum itself.

Dr. Goddard's Lab
Dr. Goddard’s Lab

I rushed to the ‘Dr. Goddard’s Lab’ first, as the next demonstration started soon after I arrived. The host of ‘Dr. Goddard’s Lab’ demonstrated principles of rocketry.  The demos involved liquid oxygen, hydrogen and explosions. It was more for kids, but hey, who doesn’t like explosions?

After the Lab, I grabbed a slice of pizza in the café and then plunged back into the museum. There was so much to see.

After wondering around for a while, I went to see the IMAX film Born to be Wild. Seeing the orphan elephants in IMAX brought back the wonderful memories of my Tanzanian safari in December.

After the IMAX, I went back to continue my museum visit. There were restored German V-1 and V-2 rockets, flight-ready Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2, a Vanguard satellite, a inert Redstone nuclear warhead, and a mock-up of the Bell X-1 (first plane to break the sound barrier) from the movie The Right Stuff. There were full-size mock-ups of the Viking landers and two Mars rovers (Sojourner (1997) and Spirit (2003)). One exhibit had a row of the original Mission Control computers from Johnson Space Center. The actual systems on display were used by the flight surgeon for Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and Space Shuttle missions.

I took a quick break to see the final presentation, the Justice Planetarium. I wish I could remember the constellations better. I only know three: the Big Dipper, Orion and Cassiopeia.

Standing next to the Apollo Lunar Module
Standing next to the Apollo Lunar Module

After the Planetarium, I continued through the rest of the museum. In one corner was a full-size engineering test structure of an Apollo Lunar Module (LM) and a lunar rover. The LM was built by Grumman for testing during the Apollo program, and contains many flight-ready components. When I saw the LM hanging from the ceiling at Kennedy Space Center, it was mounted too far up to allow me to really connect with the vehicle. Being able to stand next to the LM footpad, you get a much more intimate relationship with the towering Lunar Module (17.9 ft (5.5 m) tall).

There were both a flown (but unmanned) Soviet Vostok capsule and a mock-up of the Voskhod 2 capsule, complete with an inflatable airlock for the first spacewalk. At the end of the Apollo Gallery was an Apollo Command Service Module and a Soyuz from the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

Smaller items included Soviet space suits and equipment, cameras (Hasselblads), unused Apollo food items, the Apollo 12 DSKY, tools, the Sonic Wind II rocket sled, parts of satellites, a set of Soviet RD-170 rocket engines, and other memorabilia.

For the American space program, the two jewels of the collection were the notorious Liberty Bell 7 capsule and the Apollo 13 Command Module.

Liberty Bell 7
Liberty Bell 7

The Liberty Bell 7 (Project Mercury) was the second American manned space flight, launching Gus Grissom on a sub-orbital flight in July 1961. After landing in the Atlantic Ocean, the explosive hatch blew open. The capsule filled with water and was lost. Gus Grissom almost died too, as he had removed his helmet upon landing and his suit also filled with water. Research after the flight indicates that it would have been nearly impossible for him to blow the hatch without sustaining an injury to his hand. But at the time, some had blamed Grissom for the incident.

Sadly, the Liberty Bell 7 incident led to a design change that removed the explosive hatches in future American spacecraft. When Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were testing the Apollo 1 capsule on January 17, 1967, a fire started in the high pressure pure-oxygen environment. The three astronauts perished partly as a result of the non-explosive hatch which could not be opened quickly.

The Liberty Bell 7 was located on the bottom of the Atlantic and was lifted back to the surface in 1999. It was partially restored by the Cosmosphere and put on display.

Everyone is familiar with the story of Apollo 13. It was a thrill to see the actual Command Module. The three Apollo 13 astronauts had one of the most amazing rescues in history in that tiny vessel (well, they stayed in the LM during the lunar slingshot phase). Jim Lovell’s space suit was also on display. It was the one he would have worn had the mission accomplished the lunar landing.

Interior of the Lunar Module
Interior of the Lunar Module

One of the two Apollo white rooms is also at the Cosmosphere; the other one is at Kennedy Space Center. There is also a mock-up of the LM ascent stage, with plexiglass sides for people to look in. I spent a few minutes staring at the interior of the small craft, imagining what it would have been like to live in the LM for 1 to 3 days while on the surface of the moon. The interior is only the size of a closet. That little space was used by the two astronauts for preparing for the EVAs, eating meals, sleeping and using the washroom :().

The collection also includes the Gemini X module, which was flown by John Young and Michael Collins, both of whom later flew Apollo missions. The larger Gemini spacecraft had two-person crews (Mercury supported one person, and Apollo supported three). The Gemini program explored longer duration missions and docking procedures that were needed for the Apollo lunar orbit rendezvous.

Last were the Space Shuttle artefacts. A mock-up of the washroom, a tire, tiles, tools, food and many other items were on display. The tire was neat – I was surprised by the thickness of the sidewall. Another neat item was a set of the frangible nuts that were used to hold down the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters before they fire. There are four on each booster, and they are all that is holding the entire 4.46 million pound (2,027 tonne) vehicle to the mobile launcher platform. The nuts are explosively cut at T=0 (lift-off).

American Flags at dusk
American Flags at dusk

After more than 6 hours at the Cosmosphere, it was time to leave. On my long drive back to Overland Park, I stopped to take pictures of the Kansas countryside. I stumbled upon a cemetery surrounded by American flags. It was Memorial Day weekend. It was a nice, quiet spot to watch the sunset.

I arrived back at the hotel around 10:30pm, exhausted. But I was so happy to see such an amazing collection at the Cosmosphere.

2012 Tulip Festival

2012 Tulip Festival
2012 Tulip Festival

Today, Rosa, Lemin, and I went to see the tulips at the Tulip Festival. The weather was great. We wondered around the Byward Market, taking photos in front of the flower displays. At one location, Lemin wanted to take a photo of Rosa and I so I handed her my camera. This turned out to be a bad idea. First, somehow she managed to hit the lens release button and rotate the lens trying to turn the zoom ring. I had a heart-stopping moment as I watched the expensive EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 come off the front of the camera. Luckily Lemin caught it before it fell.

I put the lens back on and she wanted to try again. She seemed to struggle with holding the camera in portrait mode. She said later that the camera is too heavy for her. Instead of zooming the lens out, she took a step backwards without looking and fell off the step behind her. She landed on her back and badly scratched her elbow and knee. We picked her up, dusted her off, and then slowly walked to the nearest Shoppers Drug Mart to get some bandages. It was another heart-stopping moment as she is 71 and could have broken something. We were very lucky that she was not hurt badly.