Saturday, March 19, 2011

Supermoon and Free Rita's

Everybody make a point of checking out the Supermoon tonight! Largest full moon in 18 years - making her closest approach to earth. Strange things may be afoot tonight with the Supermoon and Spring officially starting tomorrow at 7:21 PM EDT. Don't forget to stop by Rita's tomorrow between noon and 9 PM for your free Italian Ice, too.

Hmmm, is it me, or does the moon look like a basketball?...

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sobering St. Patrick's Day

No, no, I didn't say Sober St. Patrick's Day. I would never dare to suggest that we mark this Irish-For-a-Day holiday without a favorite Irish libation at hand (and a designated driver if not safely at home). It's a jolly celebration that our friends in and from Ireland have happily shared with us and is always a favorite regardless of heritage or nationality. My family is of English, Scotch, Welsh, German and French (on my husband's side) descent primarily, but somewhere along the way, it's possible that an Irish lad or lass wandered into the bloodline. Even if not, today, we all claim a little of the green for our own and raise a glass with a lusty, "Erin Go Bragh!!!"

All that said (bring down the lights, darken the tone, queue the solemn dirge), I can't escape the grim weight of the devastation that has enveloped another of our nation's fast friends over the past week. It has just gotten worse and worse for poor Japan as the hours and days have passed. We all knew it was terrible when we woke up last Friday morning to the news of the tremendous earthquake and ensuing tsunami. That alone was a natural catastrophe like nothing the world has seen in some time. It makes Katrina look like a thunderstorm (not to diminish that disaster - suffering is relative). But just when we started to digest the magnitude of the natural disaster, we were confronted with the man-made disaster that was beginning to unfold. The largest nuclear power complex in the world on Japan's coast handled the huge earthquake, as designed, but the massive tsunami an hour later took out the backup generators, and it's all been downhill since then.

For those of us who grew up during the rise of nuclear power plants in the 70s; who in 1979 watched Jack Lemmon's Oscar nominated performance as a nuclear power plant whistleblower and Jane Fonda's also Oscar nominated portrayal of a reporter trying to cover a possible worst case meltdown scenario in The China Syndrome; who got a glimpse 12 days after the opening of that movie of what it could mean in real life at Three Mile Island; and who watched from a safe distance in 1986 as the full scale meltdown potential was realized at Chernobyl, this is the stuff of some of our worst nightmares. Just the mention of radiation exposure/poisoning sends chills of panic down our spines - at least it does mine. And Japan is one of the very few places on earth that has seen the deadly effects of intense radiation firsthand in the form of two atomic bombs. I can't begin to imagine the fear and panic that they are struggling to keep at bay on top of an already unthinkable situation.

We can argue the merits and pitfalls of energy policy ad nauseum. It won't change the fact that energy greedy countries are going to take shortcuts and disasters are going to result. We got our own taste last year with BP and the Deepwater Horizon well (I've heard criticism that the Japanese government is not being forthcoming and that the power plant owners are the ones calling the shots - sound familiar?). Add to offshore drilling and nuclear power the mountaintop removal process used in coal mining and the fracking method being used to extract natural gas. We can think of no end of ways to violate our planet and our health in the search for more fuel, and still, when these things happen, we stubbornly refuse to get serious about conservation and clean energy (I include myself in that assessment - I'm as wasteful as the next person and love my gas guzzling minivan). Obviously we can't give all these energy sources up today, but shouldn't we at least be busting our butts to get to cleaner and safer ones while reducing our consumption?

The nuclear meltdown in Japan and the oil spill in the Gulf are just two in a long line of disasters waiting to happen due to short-sightedness, greed, and denial about our vulnerability. And none of it matters in the face of the real distress and danger that the Japanese people are in at the moment. For them, it's a gut-wrenching matter of survival and desperately trying to spare their people and their land the worst case scenario. It's looking less and less likely that they will be able to do it, despite the most heroic of efforts. My heart goes out to all of them. We owe them our support in these darkest hours and need to back off on the armchair quarterbacking. They are doing everything they know to do in the full knowledge that they may very well pay with the lives of the ones on the front lines and probably more.

So where did I start this post before I descended into despair and hopelessness about Japan? Oh yeah, St. Patrick's Day. Ugh, the sad reality is that most of us average Americans cannot do a thing of substance from where we are at this point. We can lob money, but it's not going to cool those melting fuel rods. We can decorate our Twitter and Facebook accounts with banners and cheery messages, but it's not going to bring back the thousands of people who were washed away by the tsunami. What we can do is send out our deepest and most heartfelt thoughts and prayers and let the Japanese people know that we care and stand with them, and recognize that it could just as easily be us.

I saw this add somewhere online, and it did my heart good. Land of the Rising Shamrock - excellent:

Maybe in addition to being Irish-For-a-Day, we can be Japanese-For-as-Long-as-it-Takes. Keep our Japanese friends in your thoughts tonight as you raise your glasses of Guinness and Harp. I think I'll make mine a green sake...

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Lady Mids are Headed to the Dance!

I hauled the kids downtown this evening to take in the Patriot League Women's Championship game between Navy's Lady Midshipmen and American University. I couldn't think of anything more appealing to do tonight than show my support for our local Belles of the Basket Ball. It was worth the trip to Alumni Hall to see these terrific athletes show what they are made of by coming on strong in the second half after a first half that left them struggling behind a sharp American University squad. The final score was 47-40 in favor of our home team.

I have to admit, I've never seen a Navy Women's basketball game before, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Both teams were impressive to see. It's a different game these women play than men's NCAA basketball - somehow tougher and grittier. It looks more like what we grew up playing - more relatable - but MUCH better. I was not bored for a second. I've had a couple of people (men actually) say to me over the years that they prefer the intensity of women's basketball to men's, and I can appreciate why they would feel that way.

The Brigade of Midshipmen are on spring break this week, so the normal support system was not available, but the word went out that reinforcements were needed, and the Annapolis community responded. A strong showing of local fans and supporters took up the slack and showed their appreciation for history in the making. This will be the first appearance ever for the Navy women in the NCAA tournament. It's what every college basketball team strives for all season - an invitation to the dance. These ladies have earned it, and I look forward to following their progress in the tournament.

I took these two videos of the final moments of the game with my Canon Powershot - more poor quality video for your viewing pleasure. The first is a three-pointer sunk with under three minutes to go which put the Lady Mids up by six - their biggest lead of the game and the first sense that it might be in hand.  It was a beauty. The second includes the final moments of the game, the ensuing celebration, and the playing of the Navy Blue and Gold. Those sweaty, excited, adrenaline-filled girls snapped to attention and serenaded us with the traditional anthem sung following all Navy sporting events:

Now colleges from sea to sea
May sing of colors true,
But who has better right than we
To hoist a symbol hue?
For sailors brave in battle fair
Since fighting days of old,
Have proved a sailor's right to wear
The Navy Blue and Gold.

The lyrics were changed in 2004 from "For sailor men in battle fair..." to "For sailors brave in battle fair..." Fittingly so. The Lady Mids earned their right to sing those words tonight and to wear "the Navy Blue and Gold". It's the best part of the video.

Keep an eye out for the Navy women in the NCAA tournament. I know there's a lot of basketball to see in the weeks ahead, but there can never be too much basketball in March, and there's nothing better than a home team to cheer on! Here's wishing that all your favorite teams get their own invitation to the dance tomorrow and Monday, and perform well in the tournament. If any of them happen to meet Duke along the way, that's where my good wishes end. Go Blue Devils!

Thanks to Bill Wagner for giving us a heads up about the game on his Navy Sports Blog at HometownAnnapolis. That's where I learned about it, anyway. Here's his more informed overview and analysis of the game following all the fun:

NavyFreshmen guide Navy women to NCAA tournament berth

Just Kidding about the Acorn!

For the record, I was kidding about using the Statehouse acorn for an oyster reef (see last Cape Blogger post). Don't get any ideas, guys...

Our Bay: Yacht club using oyster reefs to calm waters

---Cape Blogger

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Commissioning Week Without the Blue Angels?

I just took a glance at, and I was stunned by the headline that the Blue Angels will not be performing during Commissioning Week in 2012. WHAT!!!?? A heads up about this possibility was reported in Eye on Annapolis back in December, but I am just tuning into the fiasco. I guess this came about as fallout from a decision made last year by now-departed Naval Academy Superintendent Fowler to move the academy graduation back a week (this from the same guy who also last year banned the use of grease when the plebes compete to scale the Herndon Monument - what has taken as long as four hours of teamwork and persistence in the past took just over 2 minutes without grease - nice to see our warriors challenged, but I digress). The HometownAnnapolis article contained a lot of politician and administrator-speak about traffic and schedules, blah blah blah. I read it all with my mouth agape.

Blue Angels to miss Commissioning Week in 2012

Late May in Annapolis with no Blue Angels? Are you kidding? What next? Are they going to lop the acorn off the Statehouse? Sure it houses the original lightning rod built to Ben Franklin's specifications over 200 years ago to protect one of our young country's proud symbols of freedom and independence, but, you know, it can also be glaringly bright and potentially blinding on a sunny day and might serve better as an artificial oyster reef on the bottom of the Bay. Pave over Ego Alley? We could sure use the extra parking downtown for all that Market House business and traffic, and it's such a hassle to walk all the way around it. Abandon and gut the Market House, the heart of our city's shared history and traditions, and leave it for dead? Oh, right...

I have to confess, my first reaction to the story was disappointment for myself and my family and friends. We love going to see the Blue Angels every year and invite friends to enjoy the show with us. It's wrapped up in the excitement of the school year coming to a close and summer just around the corner. We've watched them fly from the Naval Academy grounds, from the WWII Memorial on Rt. 2, from the water on our boat, from my kids' preschool graduation ceremony at Anchors-A-Wee (the kids went crazy thinking the jets flying over in Delta formation were for them), from my house, from work, and serendipitously (and a bit precariously) while driving over the Severn River bridge on Rt. 50. Wherever you are in Annapolis during Commissioning Week, you feel the power and the pride of the Navy and the tribute they pay to their newest and richly deserving new officers and the city that embraces them.

And this brings me to my second and more important reaction that followed instantaneously on the heels of the first more selfish one. I really feel awful for the Naval Academy class of 2012 that is going to miss out on this highlight of their graduation week. They'll still get the flyby at graduation (I think), but they get that at most home football games in the fall. It just seems so unfitting that they and their families should be denied the power and impact of the full performance, especially if "traffic" is the underlying issue, as suggested in the article. I feel like somebody did not put up enough of a fuss or fight for our boys and girls in white. If traffic is really the concern, all the beachgoers can cool their jets on Rt. 50 and enjoy the show while the Midshipmen, at the most important milepost of their lives to date, watch their mentors light up some F/A-18 afterburners.

My bigger concern with the article is that it suggested that this could possibly be a permanent change. One year without the Blue Angels would be a shame for the Naval Academy graduating class of 2012 and their families, but putting a final end to a tradition so integral to this right of passage for our Midshipmen would be heartbreaking. Yes, those of us who live in Annapolis selfishly love seeing the Blue Angels fly each year, but more than that, we love being part of the celebration and sendoff for the Middies - having the opportunity to show our appreciation and affection for the shiny new officers who will go on to become military, government, private sector, and community leaders of our nation.

Ah well. Maybe someone can setup a monster screen during Commissioning Week on the shore of the Severn and play Top Gun for the Middies' viewing pleasure. Or maybe Dan Snyder can get Tom Cruise to put in a personal appearance ("I'm not a real Navy pilot, but I've played one in a movie..."). Danger zone, baby. Officer and a Gentleman, anyone? The uniform is right, and the Moms would enjoy it. No jets, though. Just a motorcycle and a great walk. Or perhaps they could get a Duck Boat from Baltimore to make a pass on the river. "I've got a need... a need for speed!" Quack...

Sorry, I'm punchy with disappointment and dating myself with my 80s references. Please, if anybody is listening, please fix this!!!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

One Last View of Discovery In Orbit Tonight

Discovery Prior to Docking with the ISS

I PROMISE to get over my obsession with the space shuttle Discovery once she lands at Kennedy tomorrow around noon, but there's one more historic opportunity worth mentioning. Throughout North America tonight, there will be chances to view the shuttle and the ISS as they pass overhead. You can see the ISS frequently if you know when and where to look. It's the brightest manmade object in the night sky, and second only to the moon, rivaling Venus as the second brightest object in the sky. This website details viewing opportunities for a variety of satellites, including the ISS, for a given zip code which you can input:

Tonight, though, you not only can see the ISS, but about a minute before it passes overhead, you will see Discovery leading the way. She undocked from the space station yesterday and is in final preparation for her landing at the Kennedy Space Center tomorrow. If the clouds will just hold off a LITTLE bit, we should have a good chance to see them both. The ISS will clear the horizon to the WNW at 7:23:24 PM and pass overhead at a peak elevation of 78 degrees and a brightness level of 3.9 (very bright). Discovery is in the same orbit a minute or so ahead but a little fainter, although still very visible if conditions permit. The forecast calls for scattered clouds beginning around 7 PM. I'm optimistic that the view will be there.

Discovery and the ISS

Give it a go if the clouds cut us a break and see if you can spot them. They should be easy to see if you have a clear view. Discovery will be almost half way through it's pass before the ISS appears. Once both are in view, it should be especially easy to identify them since they will be chasing each other across the sky - cosmic tag. Below is a YouTube video of a shuttle and ISS pass over Denver in 2009.  It will give you an idea what to expect. They are a little closer together in this video than they will be tonight, and of course, they are a mile closer to the sky out in Denver...

With two remaining shuttle missions to the ISS, we should have the opportunity to see both Endeavor and Atlantis playing the same heavenly game with the space station. This is Discovery's last time, though. After landing tomorrow, she will be an Earthbound relic.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Lions of March

I think that old March lion was rattling my windows last night. I could hear his roar and the sound of his claws scratching the side of my house. I was happy to be in my bed beneath a warm blanket with a book in my hand (OK, an iPad with a Kindle App - not quite as warm and cozy, but high-tech comfort). The wind always makes me keenly aware of the protective walls of my house and grateful for the shelter they provide. Any four walls with my family tucked safely within will do, as long as it keeps that lion at bay.

American poet, Ogden Nash, had it right when he said,

"Indoors or out, no one relaxes in March, that month of wind and taxes, the wind will presently disappear, the taxes last us all the year."

The unsettled month of March is indeed upon us, with its threatening ides and such.  I'm always a little unnerved by high winds, worrying that one of the many trees we love will topple over or a branch that has not survived the winter months will break loose and crash into one of our cars or through our roof. It's time to start assessing how the things that had to weather the winter months outside our protective walls made out and help them get back into shape for the fairer months ahead.

I spent part of yesterday washing the cushions of our outdoor furniture, some of which had blown over the side of the yard into the gully. Had I been more disciplined back in the fall, I would have brought those cushions within my protective walls for the winter, but instead, I left them to their own devices and paid the price for it yesterday. They cleaned up pretty well, but the climb down into the gully to retrieve the errant ones was a little hairy.  At least the poison ivy hasn't emerged yet.

As Mr. Nash pointed out, March is also the month when we have to face the reality of taxes that we've been postponing since January 1st.  As with the cushions, every year I say I'm going to do a better job of preparing for this recurring event, and every year, I continue to pay the price for my poor planning and procrastination.  Also like the cushions, I'm forced to expend extra effort cleaning up the hairy mess of our untended finances that have been blown around over the winter.  One year I will get really smart and trade in TurboTax for a tax professional who is always prepared for tax season and will force me to be as well.

In the meantime, I'm off to start gathering dogeared bank statements and charitable donation receipts and to see what else the lion has blown into the gully while I wasn't keeping a proper watch. I can only hope my finances will clean up as well as the cushions. Take a look around and see if there are people or objects around you without the benefit of protective walls who could use your help picking up behind that lion. Bring on the lambs. Baaa!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

As Promised, STS-133 Launch Video...

Photo of Discovery Launch Taken By My Dad

I promised if the shuttle launched as scheduled, I would post my video from the event. Well, on Thursday afternoon, after some VERY tense moments when it appeared that range safety was a no-go due to a computer screen glitch, the problem was fixed with two seconds to spare in the launch window, and Discovery roared into the sky for her final mission. It was every bit as exciting and emotional as I remembered.

It has been over 18 years since I saw my last and only other shuttle launch, STS-53, which was coincidentally also a Discovery mission. It was early December, 1992. My husband was, at that time, my fiance, and I had won a NASA award that treated us to an all expenses paid early honeymoon to Cape Canaveral. The launch was supposed to occur right at daybreak, but it was unseasonably cold (I guess cold is always unseasonable in Florida), and ice had built up on the shuttle's external tank.

The launch window for the mission was several hours long since no rendezvous or time-specific orbit insertion was required, so we waited for the sun to rise and work her magic on the ice. By 8:24 AM, the ice was melted, and we watched in awe as Discovery shot into the morning sky. The astronauts were on their way to a week in the heavens, and we were left behind on Earth in disbelief that it was over so quickly.

As the excitement of that launch abated, the reality of our VERY early morning wakeup call and VERY cold bodies began to set in. We had been wrapped in blankets and sitting on icy aluminum bleachers for hours in the pre-dawn chill. While the launch was the primary purpose of our trip, we were feeling a little cheated by the weather. Upon returning to our hotel, my husband-to-be and I packed up our things, hopped in a rental car, and launched ourselves south to the Keys and warmer temperatures as quickly as a mere car could take us.

Fast forward 18 or so years, and things at the same viewing site are just a little different. The aluminum bleachers are still there, but a spectacular Apollo/Saturn Museum has been built adjacent to them with a snack bar, a gift shop, and actual restrooms. The Florida afternoon sun is shining, and we are in shorts basking in the 80-degree warmth. This time around, my husband and I have over 17 years of marriage under our middle-aged belts and two middle-school-aged kids along for the launch. The launch window is just six minutes long due to a planned rendezvous with the International Space Station, but all is green for an on-time launch with 20 minutes to go.

That's when we start to hear some ominous words over the sound system broadcasting comments from launch control and the various launch support elements. Range safety is reporting that they are no-go for launch due to a malfunctioning computer screen. Everything else is PERFECT, and for lack of a computer display, the launch could be scrubbed. There is precious little time with a six minute launch window to troubleshoot. We all hold our collective breath hoping that the range safety folks are pulling a rabbit out of their hat to fix the problem so we won't have to come out the next day and do it all over again. Launch control takes the countdown clock down to a hold at 5 minutes to give range safety a few extra minutes to work their problem.

The sound system breaks away from the conversation between launch control and range safety to ask us all to join in the singing of the National Anthem. We are all too distracted with the possibility of a scrubbed mission to lift our voices with gusto. It is a half hearted effort that seems to drag on forever as we are all still tense with worry over the status of the range.

As the Anthem finally ends, we rejoin the launch conversation, and hear the launch director announce that range safety is now, against all odds, green for launch. They have come through with "the right stuff", corrected their technical issue, and launch control will pick up the count immediately, leaving two seconds to spare in the launch window. The crowd erupts in delirious cheers as the final five minutes of the countdown clock begin to tick away toward the event that we all have gathered to witness - the final launch of Discovery.

3, 2, 1...

Our nervousness about the launch not occurring that day quickly shifted to nervousness and excitement about the actual launch. Shuttle launches are always accompanied by an element of fear for the safety of the astronauts. We've all witnessed the horror of a launch gone bad, and there's nothing routine about the power and explosive thrust required to get a shuttle and her crew off the ground. We went from holding our breath because the shuttle might not launch to holding our breath because it WAS going to launch.

Before we knew it, time was up and the launch was upon us. We saw the billow of steam start to engulf the pad and the shuttle and then the sparks of the main engines followed by the flame of the solid rocket boosters. After a couple of seconds, Discovery emerged from the thick cloud of steam with her rockets glowing like the sun, lighting up even the bright afternoon sky as she streaked up and across it, leaving a puffy white trail in her wake. After a few more seconds, the sound finally made its way to us, and it was as intense as I recalled - roaring and crackling with power. I won't try to describe the way it feels except to say that when the force of the launch travels the three miles from the launch pad and arrives at the viewing site, you feel the vibration with every ounce of your being.

I intended to make a fabulous video with my Flip camera, but I was shaking with excitement, and the result is pretty shaky as well. I did get the American flag in the foreground at one point, which is kind of cool. My Mom did a better job with her iPhone from her viewing site five miles away from the pad on the Kennedy Center causeway. We are both "woohoo"ing throughout our videos - I think it's genetic. I've included those videos below along with one I saw online that a guy took with his iPhone from an airliner after a late departure from Orlando - what awesome timing! I also included a slideshow that I put together of our day as a thank you to our friends who arranged our passes. It includes a cool stillshot photo sequence taken by my Dad with his camera on a tripod, all set to Katy Perry's Firework (come on, you can stand to hear it one more time...)

If you want to experience it for yourself, you have one or two more opportunities. I doubt you will be able to line up a Space Center pass for the April launch of Endeavor since there will be so much press (it's a lottery system, so give it a shot), but there are plenty of great viewing sites around Cape Canaveral and the surrounding area. Take your pick along the Banana River, the Indian River, the Cocoa Beach Pier, the cruise ship port, the Publix parking lot, or the side of the road. There also might be one more mission over the summer. NASA may get funding to launch Atlantis once more to the ISS.

Sounds like a good excuse for a Florida road trip to me!  Even if you miss the launch, you'll benefit from a few days in beautiful Cape Canaveral or Cocoa Beach, and a tour of the Space Center is worth the trip alone, if a little bittersweet. The Space Coast could use the support of our tourist dollars with space shuttle jobs all but gone and the future of American spaceflight murky. It's inconceivable to me that the glory of NASA's manned space program from Mercury to the space shuttle is almost a thing of the past and hard not to see it as a reflection of the times. I'm not a fan of the commercial, for-profit approach. But hey, who knows, maybe Apple and Steve Jobs' next big product release will be an iRocket that will get us to Mars...

As astronomer Fred Hoyle once observed, "Space isn't remote at all. It's only an hour's drive away if your car could go straight upwards..."

Happy trails, Discovery!