Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Tipping the Scales of Progress and Produce

I was in Graul's earlier this week for one of my daily visits. You could say that I'm a poor menu planner and kitchen provisioner, but I prefer to view my frequent trips to Graul's as the European approach to grocery shopping. Not buying it? Neither does my family, but that's just how I roll.

At any rate, as I made my first daily pass through the produce area, my pal, Ron, greeted me as he weighed my bag of shallots (ooh - sounds really haute cuisine-ish, huh? - just an ingredient from the latest quick recipe ripped from the pages of Real Simple magazine - recipes that always leave my family starving). He informed me that in a few weeks, Graul's will finally install produce scales at the checkout, and we will no longer have to have our produce weighed by the guys and Donna in the produce area.

I was surprised to find myself taken aback by this news. When I first started shopping at Graul's over eighteen years ago, I made the standard newbie error of not getting my produce weighed before checkout, not just once but over and over. Even after I got the hang of it, there were many times when the kids were little that I missed weighing something in the mad rush to get in and out before one of the little angels destroyed a shopping aisle or threw a world class tantrum. The folks at checkout would always patiently (and sometimes not so patiently) take the unweighed item over to produce to remedy my blunder.

Over the years, I have fallen into a comfortable routine of starting my shopping in produce, having a chat with Ron or Pat or Donna as they weigh my apples or broccoli, and discussing the current evening's dinner experiment with them. At checkout, I occasionally find myself behind someone new to the Cape or a visitor who does not know the drill, and I always feel just slightly superior to be an established "local" with my produce already weighed and labelled. The process that vexed me so in my early Cape days has become one of those unique Cape experiences to which I've adapted and even come to embrace.

Well, there's no stopping progress, even at Graul's. Ready or not, they are busting into the... late... 20th... century...? with produce scales at the checkout counter. Who'd have thunk! No more can we munch on our grapes as we shop, safe in the knowledge that they've already been weighed and priced so it's not really stealing. What will be next? Self checkout? Dear God, please no...

I guess progress is a good thing, but it makes me a little sad. I will miss Donna and her crew manning their posts at the scales as I pass through (sometimes two and three times a day...). I hope they will still find tasks to do out in the open so I can continue to bat around my dinner plans, but it won't be the same. I may have to pay them a visit in the back room, although I'm not entirely sure I want to know what goes on back there...

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Fond Farewell

I guess somewhere, the fat lady has sung. Other than a hundred and fifty or so more revolutions around the Earth and one more gliding brick landing, the space shuttle program is at an end. The final liftoff of Atlantis this past Friday is the last time we will see a space shuttle blast into orbit.

My husband and I couldn't resist the offer to go watch the finale, so we hauled the kids down to the space coast in hopes of a timely liftoff. The weather was terrible when we arrived in Florida on Thursday evening - pouring rain and thunderstorms. By sunup Friday though, Mother Nature had dried her tears for the demise of the shuttle program and granted us a grudgingly pretty space coast morning on this most final of launch days.

My previous blog post about attending the launch somehow caught the attention of a BBC News producer (the blogosphere is a bizarrely random realm). They wanted to carry live updates from the shuttle launch on their website and feature the impressions of miscellaneous bloggers about the launch and the end of the shuttle era. I was asked via email by a nice woman named Jamillah (straight out of a Beatrix Potter tale) if I would send email updates and pictures from our viewing area at Jetty Park. She also requested an introductory writeup about me and my interest in the space program for their site and then a follow up once everything was said and done.

Anglophile and wannabe journalist that I am, I jumped at the chance, not really having any idea how to accomplish this. My cell phone has been dying a slow death, and I knew my iPad would be impossible to view in the bright Cape Canaveral sunlight. I emailed Jamillah Puddleduck the requested bio and slapped together thoughts on the shuttle program before heading out the door to Florida. Here is the BBC link to my initial writeup.

Following the launch on Friday, I had ample time in the airport thanks to an extended weather delay to pen(?) a wordy follow up on my iPad. Mother Nature was in a much more disagreeable state by that time - spent her good humor on the shuttle. The requested three to four hundred words became many more, blatherer that I am. I don't think I can sign a greeting card in three to four hundred words...

My new BBC friends took my meandering email submission and edited it down to an even more incoherent blurb which you can find here. This is what my original writeup said in is entirety:
Wow! I had a gut feeling that this launch was going to happen today, but I have a lot of gut feelings that don't pan out. When we arrived last night, it was pouring rain, but the forecast called for a clearing on launch morning that appeared to be perfectly timed. I was optimistic. I heard my husband up during the middle of the night checking to see if the fueling of the external tank had gone as scheduled. It had, and we were one step closer to launch.
We awoke to a few glimpses of sunshine peeking through a thin layer of overcast skies. Radar showed a line of thunderstorms well west of Orlando and no threat to our morning. Still optimistic, we threw on our beach gear and hopped on our bikes. 
Our first stop was Grills Tiki Bar for breakfast. It has been a gathering place for locals and NASA folk for years. The flat screen was tuned to NASA TV, and everyone was talking launch.
Next we headed over to Jetty Park where the masses were gathering. It was a festival atmosphere with tripods set up all over and spectators vying for the prime spots on the pier and jetty rocks. We couldn't hear the broadcast of the NASA launch director from where we were, but I checked in with the NASA website and Facebook page for updates. From our own observations, the weather was getting better by the minute - confirmed by NASA.
The only issue we were aware of was a concern with the Return to Launch Site criteria. Weather has to be clear enough for the shuttle to return to the space center for landing in the event of a failure of the main engines. I confess, while I would never wish for a shuttle engine failure, I have always secretly wanted to view a successful RTLS. Launch and landing all in one viewing. It's doubtful that circumstances of a failure would ever allow such a maneuver to work, but in theory, it would be pretty cool. The criteria were ultimately partially waved, and the count continued.
As launch time approached, we all turned our eyes to the northern horizon. As the seconds past the designated launch time ticked away, nothing happened. The crowd waited in relative silence with the same question in all our minds - where's the shuttle? We've seen a lot of things go wrong in the final seconds before liftoff over the years, and it's almost always a show stopper with a short launch window.
Just as we started to despair of a scrubbed launch, we heard shouts from the folks tuned into the launch count.  5-4-3-2-1!!!
Sure enough, there she came like the grandest bottle rocket you ever saw glowing brighter than the sun in the distance. The crowd erupted in cheers as Atlantis shot toward the heavens. The booming, crackling sound followed shortly after - just as impressive as the view. Against all weather odds, the skies had cooperated for this final launch of the pride of the American space program.
As we hopped back on our bikes and pedaled away, the elation of the launch suddenly gave way to a crushing sadness. It was just for a moment, but the finality of it hit me full in the gut as we left the final launch behind. I'm utterly uncertain about what and when the next big thing will be. NASA still has plenty of good work to do for the time being, but nothing will capture our hearts and imaginations like the space shuttle until the US once again sends astronauts into space.
Safe travels, Atlantis. Thanks for the memories.
The slight delay was due to a sensor reading from the launch platform that turned out upon further inspection not to be an issue. I had quit videoing when the shuttle didn't appear and then had to scramble to get my iPad back into video mode. I just caught the shuttle as it came over the horizon, and recorded most of the ascent until we lost it in the clouds.

I quit recording when it went out of sight to save on file size, but the accompanying sound reached us shortly thereafter, prolonging the experience. At fourteen miles from Jetty Park to launch pad 39A and a speed of sound of roughly five seconds/mile, it was over a minute before the sound caught up with the sight. The visual was fleeting, but the rumble and crackle stayed with us as we made our way back to our bikes.

While we were waiting for launch at Jetty Park, I emailed several photos of the scene with some comments to the BBC crew. Shortly before launch, they emailed to ask if I could do some live, on location interviews with spectators via cell phone for their show. My fantasy role-playing game suddenly took a quantum leap from print journalist to girl-on-the-scene field reporter for the BBC! I had no freaking clue what I was doing, but I was game to have a go.

On our way to Jetty Park

People on the jetty rocks and pier

Jetty Park Beach

People lining the Jetty Park Pier in the distance

Alas, my technology failed me and others in attendance as cell phone signals began to drop out from pure system overload. No calls or texts were getting in or out readily in those last frantic minutes before launch. Texts that we sent to our friends viewing from the space center and vice versa did not arrive until ten or fifteen minutes later.

I did manage to send the BBC folks part of the launch video I took with my iPad. It somehow made it across the Atlantic via email almost as fast as Atlantis did by rocket fuel despite the severe broadband congestion. My dream of signing out from an interview with a jaunty "Christy Roberts, Cape Blogger, reporting live from Cape Canaveral for the BBC... " was not to be realized, though...

Heady stuff, but all pure flight of fancy. I am back to the terra firma of reality this week with kids to send off to theater and sailing camps and a house to ready for an in-law visit. In nine days, Atlantis will also be back to Earth, and she too will be left with only dreams of the stratosphere from her Earthbound home on display at Kennedy Space Center. It was fun while it lasted... for both of us...

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Biggest Firework of Them All

Happy Fourth of July, Capers! I've been out of pocket on a family Grand Canyon adventure that I will blog about in upcoming posts. At the moment, I'm trying to get to the bottom of four huge suitcases full of dirt, grime, and sweat courtesy of the great American West.

It was a spectacular trip, but when temperatures hit 120 degrees in Phoenix the last day, we decided to cut it a day short and head back to the heat and humidity that we know best - just in time for the July 4th festivities. We don't have anything planned since we didn't expect to be home, but it's nice to have a day or two to decompress before the work week begins. Vacation is great, but coming home is even greater.

We do have firework plans at the end of this week, however. We couldn't resist the temptation to get one more look at a shuttle launch, and this time, it will truly be one more look. Atlantis lifts off this Friday, July 8th at 11:26 AM, and it is not only her final launch, but the final launch of any space shuttle. We had not planned to try and attend, but a friend who has never seen a launch twisted our arm and asked us to join him. It didn't take much of a twist.

Atlantis Ready for Final Launch

Those of you who have read my past blog posts know that I am a NASA junkie. It's hard to imagine who would not be, but I realize NASA has its detractors. For all those who claim supporting a space program is a waste of resources, I would challenge them to find a government R&D program that has produced such a return on investment for the public. I'm talking a powerful combination of national pride and technological advances that have had a direct impact on the way Americans live and breathe. For me and my family, NASA has been our livelihood for over 20 years and our passion for as long as we can remember, so yeah, perhaps I'm a little biased.

Anyway, to get a look at the grandest firework America has ever produced, you will have to wait four more days past Independence Day. Cape Canaveral and the greater Space Coast are going to be a complete and utter zoo come Friday, but we are gluttons for punishment and are going down just for the one day before heading back.

If anyone else expects to be in the area, we will be at Jetty Park this time, along with a gazillion other space buffs. We won't have the view that we did for the Discovery launch back in February from the Space Center viewing area. My husband was able to pull one more center pass out of his hat for this one which we have offered to our friend who has never seen/felt a launch up close.

Instead, we will take it in like the locals have time and again over the past 30 years - from a beach chair on the space coast - assuming, of course, that all goes according to schedule. Worst case, we sit in a beach chair on the space coast with nothing but blue sky, sand, and surf (and a few thousand other sentimental space fanatics). Still not a bad deal.

For those of you who are going to make the roadtrip down, I found some great information on a Patch site in Bloomingdale, FL (Tampa area) that you will find useful. Here's the link:

Bloomingdale Patch: If You Go: Final Shuttle Launch.

And here are the links to my prior posts about Discovery and Endeavor's final flights:

Countdown to Discovery's Last Mission
As Promised, STS-133 Launch Video...
Endeavour's Final Mission.

And last but not least, I've uploaded the slideshow/video I put together from our viewing of the final Discovery launch as a thank you to our hosts. A Fourth of July tribute to the ultimate American Firework.


Atlantis will remain in Florida at the end of this final mission. She will be on permanent display at the Kennedy Space Center for the public to visit. A tour of the Space Center is always a worthwhile activity and will be even more so once Atlantis takes up permanent residence there.

You know, early last year when the President announced the cancellation of NASA's next generation manned space flight program, Constellation, it was initially interpreted by many as the end of manned flight for NASA. The death knells were sounded by news anchors and analysts for American manned spaceflight. Since then, the news coming out of NASA has mentioned development of manned flight vehicles for missions to asteroids and Mars and refitting of the Constellation Orion capsule for 21-day manned missions. All of this was proposed in the President's speech at the Space Center in April, 2010, but all we heard was no Constellation or shuttle follow on.

This does not sound like the end of America's manned space flight program to me - just a gap like we saw between Apollo and the Space Shuttle. Maybe it's wishful thinking on my part, but I don't believe the launch of Atlantis on Friday will be the last time we and our children and our grandchildren will see American heroes liftoff into space flying the NASA meatball. The destination has been changed, but the dream of manned exploration of the solar system is alive and well. Stay tuned, space fans...