On The Road At Last

Leaving Home 202212117

The Wolverine Freightliner place replaced our injector and we picked up the truck on the evening of December 15th. We thought that loading the RV wouldn’t take all that long, maybe an hour or two. We were seriously mistaken in that estimate. We spend all afternoon on the 16th, and all morning on the 17th, so it was basically a full day’s work. It was just as well that we made our travel legs shorter, since we would once again arrive at our first stop after dark. But we got to Lake Haven, just south of Indianapolis, and they had us in a spot right by the entrance so it was pretty easy to get settled for the night.

On to Illinois 20221218

So up nice and early on the 18th to drive to Marion, Illinois for our second stop. It wasn’t too bad of a drive since we learned to make each leg a bit shorter. We got the campground by 3pm and quickly got settled. But we are learning about a big cold snap hitting the area we are driving into. It is an arctic air mass settling over the southern central US, and they say it is rare. I suspect it will be less rare going forward as this is exactly what climate change causes. And I came down with a head cold that had me sniffling and sneezing, but I had to keep driving in any case. And I couldn’t take drugs for the cold since they would reduce my alertness, and you don’t need that when towing our beast. Thankfully, we now have a heated water hose that is good to 20 below (Fahrenheit, -29 Celsius).

Memphis 20221219-20

We thought we should let the water drip from the faucet overnight to prevent freezing, but that only made our gray tank overflow into the shower and flood the bathroom. We won’t make that mistake again. But it meant dealing with the issue first thing upon getting up, always fun. After breakfast, we hit the road again to go to Memphis. Memphis is right on the Mississippi River, and our RV park is actually the Tom Sawyer RV Park in West Memphis, across the river in Arkansas. We went from Illinois south, crossed the Mississippi River into Missouri down by the Bootheel, and through there into Arkansas. As we drove, we discussed the situation, and decided not to actually do anything in Memphis since I needed to rest up and throw off this cold. I was happy to do so. And Cheryl had brought along a few Covid tests just in case, so we tested me and got back a negative, so this was just an ordinary head cold. Our RV was parked right on the bank of the Mississippi River, and we could see and hear barges going up and down the river. There were things I wanted to do in Memphis, but throwing off the cold was important, particularly at the start of several months of traveling.


Huntsville 20221221

After our rest stop in Memphis I was feeling a lot better, so we packed up and headed for our next stop, Huntsville, Alabama, home of the U.S.Space and Rocket Center, the Redstone Arsenal, the Marshall Space Flight Center…you get the picture. This is where Werner Von Braun and his German rocket scientists kick-started the U.S. Space Program, and it was one of the NASA centers I wanted to visit on this trip. The weather in Huntsville was reasonably mild when we arrived, but we knew that the forecast for the following night had temperatures dropping well below freezing, and in an RV you need to take measures. So we planned on getting a full refill of our propane, and bought some Reflectix to put in the windows to keep in heat. We expected that the U.S. Space and Rocket Center would be closed over the weekend for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but because of the cold we learned it would also be closed on Friday the 23rd. So Thursday and Monday would be our two chances to visit. We’ll just have to make the most of it. And we’ll have a three-day weekend off to relax.

We are staying at the RV park of the Space and Rocket Center, and it is nice, but fairly plain. The roads need work, and there is no WiFi. Fortunately I prepared for this by purchasing a Solis Lite Wifi hotspot, that gives us excellent connectivity.

U.S. Space and Rocket Center 20221222

Tonight we face the big freeze, so after breakfast we went to top off one of our propane tanks, and then went to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, which is not far from the campground, and is within walking distance when the weather is nice, but since it is the end of December we drove anyway. The Center proved to be a marvelous place. If you have ever heard of Space Camp, this is where it happens. In the summer, kids come here to go through some of the activities involved in astronaut training, and learn to work in teams. There are rides aimed at the kids, but that was not what we were here for. Knowing we would come back on Monday, we didn’t try to cram in everything in one day, which was a good thing since my back was in bad shape by the time we left. We got our bearings at the front desk where we were helped to pick items and buy tickets. We started with a fantastic Apollo 11 VR experience where you started at Kennedy, blasted off into space, went to the moon, landed with Neil and Buzz, then returned. It only lasted about 20 minutes but it was amazing!. Then we went into the adjoining hall to look at the exhibits for about a half hour before going to the Planetarium for a show about the new James Webb Telescope. We then went back to the Front Desk to discuss what to do for the afternoon. We decided we would get lunch, then take a couple of the included tours.

The first was about the ISS, the International Space Station. This is a joint effort involving 15 countries, and all 15 have sent people up there to work. The ISS is primarily a facility for doing scientific experiments, and we got to sit in a mockup of the control room of Marshall Space Flight Center, located here in Huntsville. There are three main NASA centers, Marshall, Houston, and Kennedy. Marshall is responsible for managing the science activities, Kennedy handles all launches, and Houston is where Mission Control is located. Mission Control is responsible for the overall mission, and in particular for the well-being of the astronauts. We got a 15 minute presentation on the ISS, then walked though a mockup that showed a lot of the equipment and facilities available in orbit.

From there we walked outside because it still wasn’t very cold, and checked out the mockup of the Shuttle rockets before walking over the Saturn building. There is a full size replica of a Saturn V rocket outside, and it is very large, though the new SLS system is slightly smaller. We went inside and met Dale, who would do our tour. At first it looked like we might be the only ones, but a few more people showed up just as we were getting started. Dale started at the beginning, talking about pioneers like Robert Goddard, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and Herman Oberth, then showed us a replica of the V2 rocket the Nazis developed. And of course the leader of the German team, Werner Von Braun, made very sure to surrender to the Americans and not the Russians as WWII was coming to an end. He and his team were integrated into the Army’s missile team, and when the Army decided to centralize all of their missile researches at the Redstone Arsenal here in Hunstville, Von Braun came here. The U.S. thought they were ahead in this research until in 1957 the Soviets launched Sputnik. Eisenhower had initally assigned the Navy responsibility for the U.S. satellite launch in response, but the Navy rocket crashed on the launch pad and was called Kaputnik by the press. Von Braun’s Army team begged to be given a chance, and did ultimately succeed.

For the next few years the Soviets kept ahead, though. The Soviets launched the first animal into space (Laika, November, 1957), the first man into space (Yuri Gagarin, April, 1961), the first orbital flight (Yuri Gagarin, April, 1961), and the first woman into space (Valentina Tereshkova, June, 1963). Meanwhile the U.S. launched the Explorer 1 in January, 1958 (3 months later), a monkey named Ham in January, 1961 (3 years later), Alan Shepard in a sub-orbital flight in May, 1961 (1 month later), John Glenn in an orbital flight in February 1962 (10 months later), and Sally Ride in June, 1983 (20 years later). So when Kennedy asked Congress to make the commitment to the Moon landing in May, 1961, we had lagged the Soviets at every step and had only succeeded in sending a man on a sub-orbital flight. That made for an ambitious program.

Mercury was the first phase. This involved sending up a single astronaut at a time. The third Mercury launch is when John Glenn did the first U.S. orbital flight. Mercury was using Redstone rockets, named after the Redstone Arsenal where Von Braun’s team was working. Phase Two was Gemini, where pairs of astronauts were sent up. We saw mockups of both the Mercury capsule and the Gemini capsule, and they were really small. Gemini was where they experimented with space walks and with rendevous and docking procedures. Phase Three was the Apollo program where teams of three astronauts would test the procedures for leaving Earth orbit and heading for the Moon, and ultimately landing. We saw all the parts of the Saturn V rockets they used, and the equipment. The Saturn V rocket was made up of stages, because it took enormous amounts of fuel to develop the thrust to lift everything, and much of the fuel was burned just to lift the rest of the fuel. The first stage would get the rocket up to a speed of around 4,000 miles an hour, which is not nearly enough to get into orbit. To do that you have to get to 17,500 miles per hour. But when the fuel in the first stage was used up, the stage was jettisoned to reduce weight. The second stage would get you to 15,000 miles per hour, then it too was jettisoned. The third stage would get you to 17,500 miles per hour, then it was shut off because you were in orbit. When you were in the right position to hit the moon, it would be restarted to move you out of orbit and on a course to reach the Moon.

Reaching the Moon takes longer then you think. The Moon is about 240,000 miles from the Earth, and if you start with a velocity of say 20,000 miles an hour you might think you could get there in 12 hours, but it actually took days. Two reasons for this. First, the Moon is moving, so you cannot go straight to it. And you don’t have a ton of fuel to play with, so you use a Hohmann Transfer orbit, which looks like a gentle curve that lets you arrive at a point where the Moon will be in some days. Second, the Earth’s gravity is slowing you down as you move towards the Moon. So the trip takes three days instead of 12 hours. At the Moon, the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) took two of the astronauts down to the Moon, while the third astronaut stayed in the Command Module in orbit around the Moon. The LEM had two components, the lander and the return. The lander was the base, and it stayed on the Moon. The return had enough fuel to blast off from the surface of the moon and rendevous with the Command Module in orbit around the Moon. Later missions added a Rover to the LEM. Once the return had docked, the last bit of the LEM was jettisoned, and in later flights was deliberately crashed on the Moon because they had placed seismometers there to measure ground vibrations. Then the Command Module would return to Earth.

At Earth, the astronauts would get into the capsule for landing, and the Command Module would be jettisoned. The Capsule would then enter the Earth’s atmosphere, but a heat shield would protect the astronauts. Three parachutes would help to slow the capule before it hit the ocean. We saw one of the parachutes, and the actual capsule from Apollo 16, and we could see how burned it had been. We also saw a mockup of the capsule which you could get in, and Cheryl did. I decided not to because the question was not whether I could get in, but could I get out again. My back was getting pretty sore by this point, and I did have the VR experience of being in the capsule. We left after this, but it was a fantastic day, and there is still more to see and do on Monday.

Back at the RV we made dinner, and Cheryl cut out Reflectix panels to put in the windows. At around 9:30 the wind got pretty strong and the RV was shaking, but it eventually calmed down. But we knew the bad weather had arrived.


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