Sunday, August 24th, 1997 - Galveston, Texas (Coast of Gulf of Mexico)

It was a much nicer day today, perhaps yesterday was a bad experience simply because I was tired. Everything went fairly well today, well, except for the balloons.

I started the day by taking advantage of the free breakfast at the hotel. I was not there for a long time so I needed to get something for free. I really was upset yesterday about paying so much for the hotel. I guess it is just as the manager said, it is simply because of the weekend that their rates increase. Never mind the fact that the balloon festival is in town.

Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas

I began the day by visiting the Johnson Space Center (Space Center Houston). There are a large number of movies to see, including an IMAX screen (six stories high), on which we saw a movie about a docking with the Mir space station, which I really enjoyed much more than the other movie about being an astronaut, I guess it was simply because it contained information that we do not simply get normally including information about the training facilities in the former USSR. The information is really timely considering the great deal of attention the space station is getting now.

They covered a fair amount about the Freedom space station which will be put into orbit starting next year.

Something that also made an impression in the exhibit building was the wall with a picture of the flight crew from every U. S. space flight. It was quite interesting to see the number of astronauts, more interesting was the sign to the right that read along the lines of “This space is reserved for future space crews. Will your picture appear here?”. That, I think seemed to summarize the general feeling of the place, that the astronauts are just people, and that anyone can be an astronaut. Something like the idea that anyone can become president (something tells me that I don't stand much of a chance).

The highlight of the whole experience was the tour of some of the buildings here in Houston. We first made our way through the small streets with many small office buildings to the building that houses the Mission Control Center (MCC) that is seen so often on television. I found this the most interesting with my computer background in that they have greatly improved the efficiency of the control center with the use of consumer computers and some custom computer programs. This is much better than the past with all of the custom computer equipment that was impossible to fix or expand easily. It was also interesting to be at the center of where all the activity occurs, though as it was a Sunday and there was no current mission, there were not many people there.

After visiting the MCC, we went to one of the training facilities. Really, that is what this center is for, training astronauts and controlling missions once in progress. The training facility had a full-scale mock up of the space station Freedom, for training purposes as well as a few mock-ups of the space shuttle. It really gives you an idea of the scale of the whole thing to see the full scale models. It was quite interesting to hear the guide often referring to the “Canadian Remote Manipulator” (Canadarm). It is neat to think that Canada has greatly improved the usability of the shuttle.

They had a number of large balloons that they use to represent satellites for training purposes and they are neutrally buoyant to simulate how the real thing will react in space (you move them and they continue moving in that direction unless something stops them).

After the training area, we passed the “Dish Farm” and saw the various news agencies NBC, CBS, etc. It gives you a real impression of the importance of the facility.

The last stop on the tour was Rocket Park where there was a Saturn V rocket (used in the Apollo missions), this truly gave an idea of scale and immensity. Scary to consider that most of the bulk is for fuel. A very complex machine with all of the various stages, which made me wonder how they fit them together considering the rockets on the bottom of each stage. I was surprised to learn that there was an escape plan in effect that would separate the capsule at the top of the rocket from the other stages, independently powered.

More interesting aspects of the park included a training rocket and another rocket that first achieved orbit.

After returning to the center, we saw a presentation on what was currently going on in space, talk focused mostly on the space station and the future. It was nice to talk to a real person who very accurately answered our questions.

Then I attended a rousing movie about the history of space flight in the U.S. Most interesting was the inclusion of the Challenger disaster (the only time that the soundtrack stopped and the audience collectively held their breath as we watched the horrific event unfold on the screen). It was very powerful. I was surprised when we exited through a different door and passed through a museum containing many different exhibits including space capsules that went to the moon (I touched one, it gives a whole new dimension to actually touch history, so often it seems so distance, non-existent). They had a mock-up of the Skylab which I found to be absolutely mammoth compared to the size of the space shuttle, which was mocked up elsewhere at the center.

Ballunar Liftoff Festival, Houston, Texas

I then took a shuttle (alas, not the shuttle discussed above) to the Ballunar Liftoff Festival (the largest in Texas) which just happened to be taking place this weekend. I had a chance to actually taste alligator and have REAL hush puppies (my “grease allotment” has just gone through the roof). We did not think we would see any balloons but sure enough, a gun was sounded and a number of vans pulled onto the main field and started to setup their balloons. It was quite interesting to see it close up after seeing it so often on television. There were a few different types of balloons there including two advertising balloons one shaped like a shoe and the other like a bottle of whiskey (“15,000,000 liters”). Unfortunately, there was quite a breeze coming off of the Gulf so only a few balloons launched, the others attempted to inflate but never managed to get the balloons under control so they gave up. This is really bad since there was a balloon I saw last night as I was driving by was shaped like the space shuttle (VERY big).

After this, I had no where to stay so I decided to make the short drive to the Gulf and stay wherever (damn the budget) right on the Gulf. Here I am, in a hotel overlooking the beach, with the morning sun soon to be coming through my window. It is not that cheap (even for what is now a weekday). I am taking advantages of the facility, including the swimming pool. I am looking forward to a morning swim in the Gulf. I love the water, I guess I really miss that in Winnipeg (and even Calgary), the large bodies of water.

Another surprise for me during my travels, who would think that there were wonderful beaches in a state more noted for desert conditions?

⇒ Continue to Monday, August 25th, 1997 - San Antonio, Texas