The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Browsing Posts tagged USA

Hawaii: Kilauea Lava Lake

For the last few weeks the level of the lava lake at Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano has been unusually high, meaning it’s visible from the Jaggar Museum viewpoint, 1.1 miles away.  This is as close as the Park Service will let you get. So I seized the moment and visited. Unlike Nyiragongo, Kilauea was merciful and did not eat my camera.

During the day, the lake surface was mostly a dull gray, with only faint hints of red cracks at the edges. But there were also two lava fountains, frothing up lava and flinging it up to 30 ft in the air. Through a good lens, this was extremely striking and very cool. dsc09202b
By night the lava lake is much more striking, with the cracks in the lake now bright red and the glow from the fountains reflecting off the smoke and crater edge. dsc08900
I also hiked out to near where the flow from the Pu’u O’o vent is entering the ocean. Lots of steam, but also some bright red lava. A tour boat captain came in, cutting in very close to the lava.  Clearly a fine lunatic, so I took that boat ride next day! dsc07886

Titan Missile Museum

IMG_0059You enter the silo control room and take the command chair.   Bob enters the launch codes and takes the deputy commander chair.  The green “Ready to Launch” light comes on.  “One – Two – Three” and you both simultaneously turn your launch keys.  The “Launch Enable” light comes on.  The ICBM launch is now irrevocable and unstoppable.


IMG_0057Yes, it’s only a museum.  The silo has been decommissioned and the ICBM is only a training dummy.  But it’s still an amazingly spooky experience to be in a real Cold War ICBM silo going through the launch initiation sequence and turning the real launch control key.  Exactly as many crews were trained to do, but never executed.

This is the Titan Missile Museum, 30 miles South of Tucson.  It served as an active Titan II ICBM silo from 1963 to 1982 and then became a museum.   They run one hour guided tours every hour, taking you through the crew quarters, and into the control room for the simulated launch.    You also get to see the decommissioned Titan II sitting brooding in its launch shaft.

IMG_0097The silo is an impressive piece of engineering.  The whole complex is heavily blast resistant, with massive blast doors and lots of thick concrete.  There were also unexpected features, like flex joints in a concrete tunnel to allow movement during a blast, and giant springs in the command area to buffer shocks.  In order to execute a launch, the  crew needed to receive the launch codes from remote headquarters, so the silo has multiple layers of backup communications.  Two backup radio antennas rest protected in their own little mini-silos, ready to be pushed above ground if the main antenna is taken out.

Tour groups can be up to 25 people, but there were only 3 in our group.  If you want to be the lucky visitor to operate the launch controls, try to be at the front of your group when you get into the command room.

I found it a very striking experience.  Don’t miss it if you’re in Tucson.


Stalin in Virginia

Stalin in VirginiaThe US National D-Day Memorial is in the small rural town of Bedford, VA. Overall it’s a fine, elegant and well designed monument, commemorating a key WWII event.  But it has recently become noteworthy for a certain small addition…

The Memorial include busts of the principal allied commanders and of all the principal allied leaders. The Stalin bust is on the unfashionable, little visited Eastern edge of the Memorial.  It is the only publicly displayed Stalin bust that I know of in the US. The biographical plaque takes prominent note of the elimination of the Kulaks, the Great Terror, and the relocation of nations.

Unfortunately all the leader busts are quite weak. Stalin is a bland representation of a stern faced foreigner with a moustache. It lacks the personality one sees in the better Stalin busts or photographs. There is no hint of the sly, insightful look in the eye, or that subtly malicious, knowing smile. Oh well: the Churchill is even worse and the Truman is almost unrecognizable.

Other parts of the Memorial are much better. There is a well conceived memorial pool with bronze soldiers wading to the beach from a landing craft. A series of hidden high pressure fountains erupt sporadically among the troops. Noisy and unpredictable, they simulate incoming rifle fire and add dynamism to the scene.

Well worth a visit if you are in central Virginia.

STS-129 Atlantis Launch

I had bought my “Launch Transportation Ticket” for the STS-129 Space Shuttle launch within seconds of them becoming available (at 8:59:40 EST on October 20th).  This ticket gets you out to the NASA Causeway, which at six miles away is as close as the general public is allowed to a shuttle launch.

I got up bright and early for the launch, left the Radisson at 6:01am and was parked at the Kennedy Visitor Center by 6:26, way early for my designated 7:00am arrival.  And it would probably have been fine to arrive by 9:00 or later.  As I drove in, I saw lots of cars heading into the NASA staff road.

Fortunately the Visitor Center was already open by 6:30am and I was able to visit the Rocket Garden, which includes a fine Saturn 1-B; and the astronaut memorial.  I got on the LTT bus at 11:45am.  On boarding, they took our LTT tickets, but gave us vouchers that gave us priority (but not a guarantee) for buying new tickets at the Visitor Center in the event of a late scrub.  (Good: I had been worried about that.)

At the NASA Causeway, I ambled down to the extreme left end and secured a spot at the top of the metal bleachers by 12:25.  In theory these are reserved for Boeing guests, but our bus driver had gently hinted that probably no-one would mind if we (discreetly) wandered in.  They ended up less than a quarter full, with most people standing or sitting in camp-chairs.  So I got an excellent unobstructed view.

The afternoon was overcast (good from a temperature and sun-protection point of view) and there were very strong breezes, but apparently neither factor was an issue for the launch.

As scheduled, at 2:28pm we got a beautiful, glorious, clean lift-off.  Now, the shuttle was six miles away and was a barely visible half-matchstick in the distance.  But the launch generated a vast cloud of steam (from the sound suppression water system) and then a vast contrail, with an intense burning light from the engines, so it was very visible.  I’ll confess that I was mostly looking through my viewfinder – I got some good snaps.

It was much smokier (actually steamier), much brighter and much quieter than I had expected. The smoke/steam does come across on TV, but the raw brightness doesn’t.  The steam obscured the engines for the first few seconds, but then they were very bright!  I had anticipated a major roar of noise, even at six miles.  But there was only a mild rumble and then some quiet pops of sonic booms. (But I was in the middle of an excited and noisy crowd.)   It was a pretty impressive sight, but at the same time, it was kind of brief and distant, so there was an odd mixture of wild excitement and a tinge of oh-my-god-its-already-almost-over.

On the way back to the Visitor Center, we got a sales pitch from the driver about supporting NASA, the Shuttle , and space exploration in general.  He fell into a few of the standard “do this for side effects” weak arguments but actually mostly kept to the “do it for the adventure” spirit, which is the one that sells me.

It was a great experience.  If you haven’t seen a launch yet, do it now, while you still can.