Sunday, August 29, 2010

Clifford gets some attention

How did a whole month go by? Very quickly, that's how.

About a month ago, I boarded a plane in Baltimore in the morning. A few hours later, Joe and the boys picked me up at the airport in Wichita, driving Clifford the big red truck, trailer in tow. It was fun to watch my entire household approach, stopping at the end of the arrivals area just long enough for me to throw my suitcase in the back and swing up into the truck cab. We drove east, expecting to get (back) to Maryland in about two weeks. Long enough for a leisurely pace, maybe even with a few days in a couple of nice parks.

Clifford, shortly after we took her on as our home-truck.
Clifford was showing off a new muffler (yay!), a new grating sound (boo!), and an occasional weirdness in the shifting (eh?). A few miles out, darkness coming on, we decided the sound and the shifting issue needed to be diagnosed before we left a familiar area, so we spent the night at El Dorado State Park, and headed back into the Wichita area in the morning. Joe towed our little house around for hours, first to the diesel mechanic, and then to the transmission specialist, neither of whom could immediately identify the noise, but both of whom thought it should be addressed before our 1500-mile journey.

He scheduled to have the transmission guy look at things after the weekend, then brought the trailer to park it at one of our borrowed homes -- his dear sister has a big house and a huge heart, and loves to have her nephews around. As we parked, shifting gears over and over, the transmission fluid started leaking, then gushed out. The road looked like an automotive murder scene, the reddish stuff splashed all over the place. We quickly finished parking, unhitched, and arranged for a tow to the shop.

Long story short (too late!), it was a relatively minor transmission failure, but we decided to have some upgrades done while she was in the shop. It took a mere two weeks to have the transmission rebuilt, bigger, stronger, probably not faster (Joe babies Clifford, and rarely approaches the faster highway speed limits). The noise was a vibration caused by the new muffler, and could be addressed later.

I gave up on getting to Maryland in time for the events that had set our timeline. My cousin's band was playing at a favorite little cafe, and a dear friend was having her last big birthday party in Maryland before moving to Chicago. Yes, these are the kinds of things that fill our sails and set our "un-schedule". Why not?

When it started to look like Clifford would be ready on Thursday, we knew there was no way to make the Friday night gig. But we'd have 48 hours to make it to the Saturday night party. Of course that, too, would be impossible at our habitual, casual pace. What we call a "sprint" is maybe six hours a day, with a recovery day after two days. But we were feeling bold. We decided to try the sprint of all sprints. 24 hours of driving in 48 hours.

Next entry - Maryland again!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Three reunions

The boys have been in Kansas through July, while Meg went east to visit a brother and nephews in Mississippi, then still farther east to visit friends and attend her 20th high school reunion.

By coincidence, Joe's high school reunion was the same day. It wasn't a round anniversary for his graduating class, but various movers and shakers had gotten together and planned a reunion for all years. So, while he graduated with a tiny class of 30-some students, the reunion swamped the tiny town of Spearville with hundreds of alumni and their families. They had a huge festival, dinner and dance, with smaller side events for individual classes.

Meanwhile, back in Maryland, less than 100 of the over 500 graduates of Eleanor Roosevelt High School Class of 1990 met at a bar for an evening of drinks, snacks, and lots of laughs and hugs. Ours was a Facebook-based meetup, with only a few people attending who don't use Facebook and had learned about the event from friends.

Joe's reunion was organized primarily through mailings, word-of-mouth, and old-fashioned networks of written and telephone correspondence with friends and relatives. There were some e-mails and even Facebook communication, so the broadcast signal was across all traditional correspondence and modern networking bands.

The contrast in attendance between the reunions wasn't solely an effect of the information channels used, but it does suggest that social networking sites aren't anywhere close to replicating the value and effectiveness of our real-life networks. And it really shows the power of virtual networks to practically exclude large segments of our communities from the social reinforcement of rituals and other shared experiences.

The third reunion is tomorrow, when Meg flies back to Kansas to meet the boys who were so much younger at the beginning of the month.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Kinsley, KS

Now that we have no house near Spearville, we were challenged to find somewhere to park our home while we're visiting for the summer. There aren't any state park campgrounds close enough to be practical.

As summertime temperatures are regularly over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in Western Kansas, we needed to be hooked up to electricity so we could use the air conditioning. For a month-long visit I prefer to hook up to a spigot, instead of filling and re-filling the fresh water tank. And when we're using more than a tankful of water, a sewer hookup keeps us from having to pack and move just to flush the tanks. So it's just as well that we had little choice but to stay at a commercial RV park. (Commercial campgrounds more consistently offer "full" electric/water/sewer hookups).

The nearest RV parks are about 15 miles west, in Dodge City, and about 20 miles east, in Kinsley. Since Kinsley is a much smaller town, and we'd passed the RV park and thought it looked nice, we went east. Four Aces RV park is grassy and has a few nice, shady back-in spots as well as ten pull-throughs with concrete pads. The folks there are friendly as all get-out, and the rates are reasonable, with weekly and monthly discounts. Yes, we had to drive some 20 miles to Spearville to meet up with friends, but we combined all errands into no more than one daily trip (as we usually did when living in the country).

Kinsley is about twice the size of Spearville and well under one-tenth the population of Dodge. You can walk around most of the town in half an hour. The grocery store is open seven days a week and has a bit more of a food selection that the Merc in Spearville [though it is primarily a food store, without the "little bit of everything" department store half that distinguishes the Merc].

We enjoyed the Kinsley library and appreciated the town's always-open recycling drop-off point. They accept a variety of cardboard, paper, plastics, glass and metal. Dodge City also has a drop-off recycling program, and Spearville has a once-a-month drop-off. It's nice to see rural communities addressing the problems of resource depletion and waste and with programs like this.

Like many of the old towns on the railroad, downtown Kinsley is a mix of empty storefronts and active businesses. One rather crumbly but lovable little treasure we discovered is the Palace movie theater, where they show current movies for a reasonable price, on a tiny screen. The seats are terribly worn and the decor is vintage, if a bit sad. It's pretty sweet all the same.

Spearville, Kansas

Joe grew up in the country a few miles outside of Spearville, Kansas. We lived for a few years on a nearby farmstead that had been in his family a hundred years ago. And Billy started kindergarten at the grade school in Spearville.

When we became full-time RVers, the kids were anxious to know how they would keep up their relationships with friends in Spearville. We decided we should return for a couple of months a year to the closest thing they have to a hometown.

Summer in western Kansas doesn't really fit our overall travel scheme of following the fine weather. It's hella hot at harvest time (June-July). But other considerations make summertime in Spearville the logical choice. The town kids are available for play in all the hours they'd normally be in school or doing homework. Harvest is kind of exciting. And the pool is open.

The boys learned to swim at the Spearville pool, and their love of the water is a big part of what makes beaches and warm springs so fun to visit all winter long. There are same-age kids that Billy, Leo, and Karl can each relate to and have fun with, and all the kids drift into and out of mixed-age groups in their play. It's a great scene for informal acquisition of social skills and interpersonal awareness. Joe gets in some relaxation and socializing, bringing the kids for at least a few hours almost every day. Sometimes Meg comes along, though she usually opts for walking around town, visiting the library, or just staying home. (The place we're calling "home" for these weeks is the subject of the next blog entry.)

Spearville has a handful of businesses and services, including our beloved Windmill Restaurant, two sole branch community banks, the township Library and the Spearville Mercantile ("The Merc"), which serves as our primary source of groceries when we're in town. The Merc is half grocery, half old-fashioned department store, with toys, hardware, fabrics, and jewelry. I've often been surprised at the arcane items they carry -- we once needed a replacement weight for an older-model pressure cooker, and there we found it, neatly filed with the other pressure cooker parts.

Spearville is also home to a wind farm, built in 2006. Joe was so absorbed in the construction and start-up of this project that anytime we were in town (almost every day of the week, that is), he insisted on driving a wide circuit to the various sites where the turbines were being anticipated, stored, assembled, and tested. He still can't take his eyes off the windmills for long -- our game on the way to town is always "Guess how many windmills are turning!" (Usually at least 2 or 3 are being serviced.)

With alternative energy the hot topic it is these days, little towns like Spearville are popping into the spotlight, becoming the subjects of board meetings, hosting community information sessions, and spawning activists for and against the boon or curse of proposed wind farms. The towns that succeed in attracting wind farms earn grants and income from the companies that harvest the rural wind to power the urban machine back east.

It was rather disappointing this year to see that no progress has been made on the second phase of the project, which would double the size of the wind farm. Sadly, the windmill towers, generators, and blades were delivered over a year ago, and here they sit, a huge investment in materials awaiting funding and scheduling to become productive.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Right and wrong and sphere of influence

This may be a rant. I had been considering a blog post about a recent "teachable moment", and the perfect counterpoint story has dropped into my lap. So out it comes.

The Friendly Atheist blog recently discussed a commentary on the Christian site called WorldNet Daily. The blog and the commentary address the recent vandalism of a billboard in North Carolina that originally said "One Nation Indivisible". The vandalism added the words "UNDER GOD" and an insertion arrow.

Chrissy Satterfield's commentary on WorldNetDaily is titled, "My kind of vandals". She calls the anonymous vandal a hero, and thanks others who have vandalized "atheist" billboards. But I don't have to cherry-pick her post for its approving, nay, admiring tone to shine through. Please click to it and read it.

Now, here's my story of another vandalized sign:

Driving from Kinsley to Spearville one morning, we saw that someone had vandalized a campaign sign for congressman Jerry Moran. A bright orange "o" had been sloppily sprayed over the "a" on the simple "Moran" sign. I blush to admit that in the first moment, our reactions were as though someone had made a joke. But immediately I realized that I didn't really find the altered sign funny, and I owed my kids the truth. I apologized for my crass example, and then we talked about vandalism, making fun of someone's name, and creating ugliness.

Vandalism = stealing
Someone paid for that sign. Ruining the sign puts the owner in the position of having to replace it, repair it, or accept its alteration. In effect, the vandal has stolen the sign from the owner (and likely trespassed on the property where the sign is displayed). Stealing, as we all know, is illegal and morally unacceptable. Vandalism is equally illegal and wrong.

Making fun of someone's given name
It is mean to make fun of people's names. Our names are personal, we have them for a long time (usually our whole lives), and we identify closely with them. Hurtful wordplay on someone's name helps no one, and only reflects poorly on the teaser. The same is true of any ad hominem attack. We grew up in a culture that allowed and encouraged that kind of nastiness. We try to curb it in ourselves and in the kids by talking about it every time it comes up and reiterating that it has no place in a civil society or in a mature personality.

Leaving an ugly mess
The original sign was nicely done. The vandalism made it ugly. Even if the person who vandalized it had originally purchased and erected the sign, and even if it hadn't used malicious humor playing on a person's name for its message, it would have been trashy looking! This may seem like a minor nitpick, but I think it is important, after the other points. If you're going to make a statement, make a beautiful statement, not an ugly one! Make a classy statement, make something to be proud of. Ugly gets attention, but it eats at our happiness. Don't litter!

If you want to express your disagreement with a politician, buy your own dang sign, express something with substance, and do it with a speck of art. If you choose this vandal's method, you're being a clumsy, childish criminal.

Finally, we highlighted the irrelevance of Jerry Moran's importance and our opinion of him. The crime was a crime regardless of politics. The offense was an offense against society.

I'm just a mom. I made a point of using this crime to teach my kids something about right and wrong.

Chrissy Satterfield is a commentator on a huge Christian news and information site, and this is how she uses her position of influence:
Never would I encourage vandalism, but in this case I think I'll let it slide.
I would like to extend my deepest thanks to the man or woman responsible for this vandalism. I appreciate the action you took. 

How many of Chrissy Satterfield's readers will feel encouraged to commit and condone crimes against atheists and their property? How many will extend that "logic" to crimes against gays, muslims, jews, or any other group or individual that dares exist, that dares speak? Perhaps she will belatedly apologize for her crass example. But at her volume, the damage is already done.

I'm teaching my kids morality and ethics. What are you teaching yours?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Kansas State Parks

We spent a few weeks in May at Crawford Lake State Park. The campground was shady, grassy and spacious, and there were lots of places to throw in a line. There was a good road all the way around the lake, with nice farm and lake views, deer grazing, frogs croaking - perfect for riding bikes or walking every day. Since school was still in session across the state, and the park is out-of-the-way, it was fairly empty and extremely peaceful. It's our new favorite Kansas campground.

Crawford is proud of its CCC heritage, and has a nice memorial and interpretive stations with grand statistics and amusing slice-of-life accounts of the community that built the dam. A lot of the state parks we've stayed in were originally CCC camps. We always enjoy reading about the lives of the men who lived and worked there, and seeing the architecture that remains.

There were loads of birds, too. Most prized were the scissor-tailed flycatchers, first in what turned out to be the "spring of scissor-taileds" -- we saw more than we've ever seen this year, while roving around eastern Kansas. Here's a list of most of the birds we saw at Crawford, with apologies for any non-standard nomenclature:

Canada goose
Bald eagle
Red-tailed hawk
Great blue heron
Ducks (no idea)
Common nighthawk
Orchard oriole
Northern oriole
Red-bellied woodpecker
Pileated woodpecker
Red-headed woodpecker
Swifts and swallows
Scissor-tailed flycatcher
Eastern kingbird
Blue-gray gnatcatcher
Eastern wood-peewee
Eastern bluebird
Blue grosbeak
Yellow warbler
Yellow-rumped warbler
Black and white warbler
Black-capped chickadee
Tufted titmouse
Brown thrasher
Wood thrush
Summer tanager
Grasshopper sparrow
Tree sparrow
Carolina wren

We also spent a few nights each at Hillsdale Lake State Park, and Clinton Lake State Park. We met up with friends for a camping weekend at Clinton Lake Recreation Area (Corps of Engineers side). Mostly we just relaxed and enjoyed the beautiful spring.

Frugal tip: If you camp in Kansas more than a few weeks out of the year, it's worth buying an annual camping pass for Kansas State Parks (in addition to the annual state parks vehicle entrance pass). It pays for the basic camping fee, so that you only pay campsite premiums (for season and/or prime location) and electric/water premiums. This means that after the first twenty nights or so, we were camping for free, or for a few dollars a night when we got crazy and wanted to use the vacuum cleaner.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Fast Forward to Kansas

A friend recently remarked that he couldn't travel all the time like we do, always on the road, always driving. But we really cover very few miles, and spend very little time literally on the road. We'd rather be playing outdoors or cozy in our home in a temporary location than en route to another. So we move slowly, and probably spend less time in our vehicle than the average commuter or "stay-at-home" parent.

March and April found us heading to Kansas. From Florida, we marched steadily through Alabama to Mississippi. When we don't particularly want to linger in an area, we'll drive a few hours, stay just one or two nights, then move on. Especially if the drives are longer and the stays are shorter, we are soon ready to stop and feel "at home" again before moving on. In Alabama we stayed a couple of nights in Oak Mountain State Park. In Mississippi, we stayed in Lake Lowndes State Park and had a visit from a relative before moving on to a longer stay at Great River Road State Park in Rosedale, Mississippi.

Well, technically only the boys made it to Rosedale. From Columbus, Mississippi, Meg took off with her brother on a whirlwind road trip through South Carolina to Maryland and back again. Joe doesn't often get a break from the whole family, but Meg takes side trips every few months, to help someone out, to attend an event, to visit, or just to get away for a few days. People often tell me they'd go crazy spending so much time in close quarters with their families. Well, I do go a little crazy. So I balance it with time away. (Other people could spend all hours with their family through all seasons, and some might even be slightly offended by my admission that there's such thing as "too much" family time. Oh, well.)

What about Joe? Does he get vacations? The mechanical demands of the trailer aren't completely outside Meg's abilities, but it's true that she hasn't ever driven the entire rig. She's never dumped the tanks, hooked or unhooked, or dealt with any plumbing, electricity, or mechanical/chassis issues. That said, there are places Joe could leave us comfortably set up for a few days or a couple of weeks. So far he hasn't taken advantage of the possibility. Maybe he'll get some time alone one of these days -- we'll try not to drive him crazy in the meantime.

While Meg was road-tripping, Joe and the boys visited our Rosedale friends, a homeschooling family we met at a state park in Florida a few years ago. Back then, they were living in their motorhome and we were on the road only part-time. They've now built a beautiful home on an old plantation homesite, tucked into a grove of ancient pecan trees, right next to the levee. I was sorry to miss the visit, and can't wait to get back by there and see the new house.

Meg caught back up with the boys in El Dorado, Kansas the day after Easter, and we've been roving the state ever since. Kansas in the springtime is absolutely beautiful, and it's a great time to visit the family we have in the eastern part of the state.

Kansas in the summer is a bit less friendly, but that's the best season for the kids to spend a little time with the friends we left behind in their "hometown" near Dodge City. The town kids are out of school, and the public pool is the center of our social life. It's where the boys learned to swim, without which we would hardly enjoy our beach stays as much as we do. The two weeks around wheat harvest are all a-bustle, but otherwise things have been nice and slow.

So now that I've caught up our story to the present, I'm going to try (again) to give more frequent updates and little stories from the road. Check back in a week or two and see how I'm doing!

[If you were looking forward to a post about our extended stay at Walt Disney World last winter, I'm going to hold off writing about Disney until the fall, when we're going back to get in a few more weeks of fun on our annual passes.]

Friday, May 14, 2010

Florida State Parks - home for the winter

It's been about five months since I did an update about where we've been staying. And the quick summary is that we spent the winter in Florida, mostly in the state parks, averaging a little over a week in each.

Most park systems have rules that limit a camper's stay at any one park to a couple of weeks, either consecutive (as with Florida State Parks) or cumulative within a calendar year (as with National Parks). Some retiree "snowbirds" find ways around the limits, such as volunteering in exchange for an all-season slot, or making reservations under multiple names. When the parks aren't booked full, park managers will sometimes approve an extended stay.

We prefer to stay on a site for at least a continuous week. This allows us to relax, unpack, and put things out on shelves. When we only stay a day or two, it can be a toss-up whether to leave a bicycle on the couch or finagle it through the door and down the steps, then back up and in after not even riding it.

But because we didn't make detailed plans months ahead this year, there were some days (especially weekends and holidays) that were booked tight in the more popular coastal parks. This meant some hopping back and forth between inland and beach parks, or among sites within a single park, sometimes staying only a day or two. Our itinerary also included some time at the Disney resort campground (look for a later post on this), so we mixed in shorter stays at state parks to recuperate from the intensity (and "expensity") of mouse-centered vacationing.

I wrote about Fort Clinch State Park (SP)  and Faver-Dykes SP in December. We ended up spending several weeks in Faver-Dykes SP, which offers fishing, paddling, and nature trails through piney woods. It's remote enough to be quiet, but is only a short car trip to Flagler Beach.

Also on the east coast, Tomoka SP was a bike ride or a short car trip from Ormond Beach. It was too chilly when we were there, but there was a good waterway for kayaking/canoeing in other weather.

The campground at Gamble Rogers State Recreation Area is right on beach, and we could walk a block along the beach to High Tides at Snack Jack - a cute little restaurant/bar that makes the most of its quaint history and its great view.

Florida has more than a few freshwater springs, and the warm spring runs play host to manatees in the winter. In prior years we've stayed at Manatee Springs SP, which has a great boardwalk along the bank of the spring run, through the cypress woods. It was out of our path this year, but we will be back there someday.

This year we did most of our manatee (and gator) watching at Blue Spring SP, which is similar to Manatee Springs, but near the east coast. We happened to be there for the Manatee festival, and the boys spent hours watching (and chatting up) a blacksmith working on the grounds of a historical house which is maintained as a museum in the park. The birds there were great, too, especially the red-shouldered hawks (mating season?), an osprey, and a reliable bald eagle. A couple of nights, I walked alone down to the spring run to listen to the scores of manatees gently splishing and breathing in the dark. Some experiences are truly unique.

At Wekiwa Springs SP we went swimming in a rock-lined pool at the headspring. It was chilly, but really fun to feel the current push us around, and to watch the fish do their fishy things in the clear water. Hillsborough River SP has nice wooded trails along a blackwater river.

After some time at Disney and visiting with friends, we headed to the Gulf Coast. A few years ago we adopted Henderson Beach SP as our Florida home. We started visiting Destin when my brother lived in Navarre, and we've come back almost every year to stay at this campground. There's a boardwalk trail through a pristine dune landscape, fragrant with rosemary, to the best beach we know. The boasts of "white sugar sand" and "emerald green waters" are not exaggerations.

Just inland a bit is Rocky Bayou SP which has several short walking trails, water for paddling, and is also a base for day trips to Henderson Beach when that campground is full.

The last Florida park we stayed in this year was Grayton Beach SP with a beach almost as nice as in Destin. We usually ride our bikes over to Seaside, which is sort of the polar opposite of the campground life - a planned and polished gingerbread resort town, worth seeing once or twice.

Well, this was a long post, and glossed over so many great experiences. I'll come back soon and write about our extended and friend-filled experience at Walt Disney World. Otherwise I think I've caught us up to ... March?

Here are some photos ... winter solstice in Ormond Beach and manatees at Blue Spring. We don't take many photos, so these are just iPhone quickies -- better than nothing, eh?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Getting a little space, part 3

We originally had no plan to visit Kennedy Space Center this year. Much as we love space, it was expense and travel that we were willing to put off. The launch viewings changed our plans, and we ended up glad that we'd found a reason to make the trip (or four) out to KSC. So here's a little more about Kennedy Space Center as a destination.

My shuttle launch ticket functioned as a regular admission ticket for 2 days within a 7-day period, but technically I burned both days on the launch. We all needed KSC admission tickets for the SDO launch, which, unlike a shuttle launch, required a regular admission ticket (some rocket launches are open to the public, and are included with admission). I bought annual passes for all five of us, as we plan to be in the area later in the year. An annual pass costs less than twice buying 2-day passes, and there is plenty there to occupy us long enough each day to make it worth it.

Admission includes all attractions at the main visitor center, including the two IMAX films, the Shuttle Launch Experience ride, and indoor and outdoor exhibits. Also included are bus tours of the center, where the guides identify various facilities and their place in the history of space exploration. Fancier tours are available for additional cost.

The buses stop at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, a museum all about the Saturn V rocket and the Apollo program. The introductory movie and simulated launch presentation in the mission control center are pretty neat. There's also a Saturn V rocket, fixed up, staged out, and completely explained, as well as exhibits on Apollo program training and technology. The second bus stop is the International Space Station Center, where you can walk through models of Space Station segments, and look down into the actual cleanroom where new nodes are prepared for flight and operation. (Or will be for a short time longer, I guess.)

Also included in a KSC admission ticket is admission to the Astronaut Hall of Fame, which I expected would be rather boring and "memorial", but which was actually quite interactive and educational. The boys enjoyed the "g-force trainer" centrifuge, and all three of us landed the shuttle with the flight simulator game. We climbed into a model of a Mercury capsule and flipped switches, and we tried on space suit helmets and did motion experiments. We could have spent an entire museum day (3-4 hours) in the Astronaut Hall of Fame, which is a few miles from the KSC visitor complex.

Very soon I'll post a list of all the Florida State Parks we stayed in this season, and a little something about the empire of the mouse.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Child Development and the School Factor

A recent email conversation with a friend who works in child psychology clarified some thoughts I have about following a rational approach to my children's education. Here's what I wrote. I added a link to the article we were discussing.

"For obvious reasons I'm interested in education, development, and what the evidence really tells us. My frustration has been that, as highlighted in [this post on the Freedom to Learn Blog at Psychology Today], most research about childhood learning assumes traditional school structure as a given instead of deriving it as a preference.
For rational homeschoolers, research about child development would make a lot more sense if it treated the institution as a variable instead of a given. Well, not just for homeschoolers, but for anyone interested in fundamental change in our approach to education, which might be considered if the research net were cast further. What I find instead are polarized views - the school-based view (of what is observed in/works best in schools) and the anti-school view (which is light on evidence and heavy on "common sense" rhetoric and emotional appeal)."

So that's where my head is lately. I'm seeking validation of (or real evidence to challenge) our unschooling methodology, and I'm not totally satisfied with the resources available.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Getting a little space, part 2

As luck would have it, there was an Atlas V rocket launch scheduled just two days after the STS-130 launch, at a more reasonable hour of the day. The rocket was carrying NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) into orbit. SDO is designed to give us a better-than-ever view of the star that is the engine of life on earth (the only life we've yet encountered in the universe). See? The romance of it! I was sure the SDO launch couldn't match the wow factor of Endeavour's night launch, but I knew I would love it, and I hoped the kids wouldn't yawn at it.

All five of us went to Kennedy for the scheduled launch, which was scrubbed with less than 4 minutes to go because of winds >20mph. The next day I brought just the two older boys out for the second try, and we had our rocket launch. As expected, there was the drama of the countdown, and the glory of a giant fancy pencil with a flare for an eraser, driving itself into the sky. By chance, there was a layer of clouds that produced a nice sun dog effect in the path of the rocket. And best of all, we witnessed a stunning atmospheric effect that looked like ripples on a pond as the rocket went supersonic on its way up, up, and away. The sundog blew away in the wake of the rocket. It was just so neat. Videos of the launch tend to impress even veteran rocket watchers. Explanations of the effect are also neat to read.

Just two hours later, as the boys and I toured the Space Center, we were amazed to read (@NASA) that SDO was orbiting on her own. Our newest satellite, silently (as things are done in space) unfolded her mechanical leaves to collect solar power, and prepared to stare at the sun for years, to send back to the inhabitants of this little blue planet all sorts of data that we can't detect with any of our ground-based eyes. And we had just watched her launch! Don't you ever just say "Wow!"?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Getting a little space, part 1

Growing up in a NASA household, and in my generation, I have a certain romantic relationship with space and with the space shuttle. My dad worked at NASA for 27 years, and the whole family reflected the NASA spirit. We celebrated Moon Day (July 20). We played with Enterprise space shuttle models when the shuttle program was just beginning. We wore NASA t-shirts!

As a family, we watched Columbia's first launch and landing on live TV in 1981. We tuned in for many launches and landings in the months and years that followed, occasionally missing an hour or two of school for the events. I was watching on TV in the library of my middle school when Challenger exploded on ascent, and we suddenly appreciated the risk and heroism inherent in advancing the frontiers of our knowledge. Years later, on a whim of my latent space love, I tuned in at the last minute to watch a shuttle landing -- just in time to share the nation's confusion and distress as Columbia didn't appear when and where she was expected, and reports poured in of smoke trails and debris fields. It was like losing a distant family member I'd admired from afar my whole life.

Joe worked at NASA Kennedy Space Center as a college intern, and was later hired at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, which is how he came to Maryland. He worked on Hubble (source of so many images that fuel my sense of wonder at our brilliant universe), and we eventually met through one of his co-workers whom I'd known for years through one of my brothers. His circle of friends in those early years were mainly NASA folk, and I grooved on their smart and science-y goodness. Yeah, NASA has figured in my life. I'm a space child.

Despite all that NASA love, I had never seen a shuttle launch. Joe saw two as an intern, and another when Hubble (out of favor at the time because of its mirror flaw) was being serviced. When I heard in January that we could be near enough to see the launch of Endeavour on STS-130, one of the last scheduled launches, I arranged to get as close as possible. My dad came down for the launch as well, having never seen a launch in all his NASA years. I knew it would be a grueling all-nighter, with the payoff of a beautiful lightshow not at all guaranteed, so I chose not to put any of the kids through it.

The lines to get into Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex were unbelievable, and there was little time for anything but waiting in lines, waiting on a bus, and then waiting on the causeway in the cold wind off the water. Because I'd come alone on a tour bus from Orlando, I wasn't with Dad or my other friend who was at the launch. But I was so excited, I didn't much mind anything that night. After the scheduled 45-minute hold at T-9 minutes the countdown was unable to continue because of clouds, and the launch was scrubbed for 24 hours.

On the second night (oh, yes, I bought a ticket for the second night on the bus ride back to Orlando) the lines were much shorter, and the crowd much smaller. I hung out with Dad at the Visitor Center until my bus left for the causeway, and I wrapped myself in a blanket and chatted with my new bus mates during the 2-hour wait in the chilly air. And for all that trouble I was I treated to a spectacle I can't begin to describe in words, and that I will probably never see again. The brightness was starlike (as in the Sun, not the faraway ones), and the impact of that brilliance on my psyche was something like seeing the vastness of the Grand Canyon the first time.

When my dad called me after the launch, I told him I was so happy he'd seen it, too. And then I cried, because, well … he knows why, and maybe some of you do, too. Because I'm a space child.

I followed the news of the mission on NASA's website and on Twitter (@NASA), feeling like I'd sent a kid off to school that morning. Japanese Astronaut Soichi Noguchi (@Astro_Soichi) has been tweeting beautiful pictures of earth taken through the windows of the cupola that Endeavour delivered to the International Space Station. Geography, geology, and space buffs alike will enjoy Soichi's photos. He also caught Endeavour re-entering the atmosphere at the end of the STS-130 mission.

I wasn't near enough to KSC to see or hear any aspect of the landing. I followed the play-by-play on Twitter (@BAnews). Dad called when Endeavour made its de-orbit burn. He knew -- he'd sent that kid to school, too. And then I found myself sprinting out to the beach so I could look out across the Gulf and imagine her gliding home. Alone on the beach, my thoughts on our returning explorers, I felt an ancient and modern connectedness to the rest of humanity. We are all space children, after all.

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year

What will 2010 bring in your life?

We're looking forward to seeing new places and learning new things this year, as well as repeating some familiar traditions and seeing our favorite people. Geographically, our plan for the year is looking less like a grand circuit of the country, and more like the usual "scribble route" from place to place for seasonal events and visiting.

Wherever we are, we are resolved against rushing or feeling pressured to "get results". And that's why this blog might age a bit -- I'll be leaving it on the back burner for now, stirring occasionally. Visit every once in a while, when you're thinking about us.

Have a great new year!