Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Launch of the final Space Shuttle

Bit of a late follow-up, I've been busy catching up on things since I got back last week.

Anyway it all went fairly well considering everything was organised at the last minute.

The flights were fairly uneventful, except the first leg to Sydney where we got in 90 minutes late because of wind... 45 mins AFTER check-in had closed for my flight to LA! The transfer bus had already left for the international terminal so I had to run around Amazing Race-style to get there.

I got stuck in the middle row for the long 14 hour flight (both ways!) and that wasn't so fun. Luckily they had a movies-on-demand thing and watching 5 movies in a row tends to pass the time. At one point the flight tracking screen said there was a 365km/h tailwind which is pretty quick even for the jet stream.

After 32 hours without sleep, I finally arrived at the hotel at 8:30pm. Then after 4 hours sleep I had to be up again at 2:30am to catch a taxi to catch a tour bus to catch a space shuttle launch. The first hour of the bus ride went quickly but then we hit the traffic, and for the next hour we crawled the last few miles.

At 6am we got to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, which is about 11km from the launch pad. The launch was scheduled for 11:30am but they still only gave it a 30% chance due to the weather. The visitor complex has a bunch of displays including the Rocket Garden and a space shuttle simulator, so it was easy to spend 5 hours while waiting for the launch. Photos here:

Even one hour before the launch they were NO GO because of the low cloud, but somehow it all came good at literally the 11th hour, and they started the 9-minute countdown to a huge roar from the crowd. I couldn't hear it at the time, but apparently the countdown was stopped with only 30 seconds to go because of a malfunctioning sensor, but they were able to double-check it wasn't a problem and continue.

From the visitor complex, the launch pad itself isn't visible unfortunately, so you couldn't tell exactly where it would appear over the trees. It turns out that everyone was looking in slightly the wrong direction, so that when it finally appeared, it happened to be right behind the only tree in my view! To make it worse, the shuttle disappeared fairly quickly into the cloud layer and it was over just like that. The rumble of the rockets finally hit us 30 seconds after lift off, and was still quite powerful even at that distance. So it wasn't a picture perfect lift-off, but they were lucky to get away at all, plus the vibe was still amazing and I was happy with that.

Afterwards the bus took about 2.5 hours to get back to Orlando - not bad considering a million people were leaving the area. On the way out of the complex, I saw a wild alligator living in a water-filled ditch between car parks. The place is infested with them.

The next day was for catching up on sleep, and on the Sunday I went to Univeral Studios. There are about 10 theme parks around Orlando (2x Universal, 2x Sea World, and about 6 Disney World parks!) but it was a good choice, I spent the whole day going on rides. Going by yourself is not so bad, and you get to skip a lot of the queues.

It was a long way to go for only a few days, but worth it I think; I would have regretted it otherwise. It still amazes me how thousands of people can bring millions of pieces and factors together all at the right time in the right order down to the precise second when they light those SRBs. The shuttle is an incredible feat of human engineering and watching the launch was kind of bittersweet, knowing that it was the last one ever. (looks like a few of the comments on there echo my sentiments)

Monday, 4 July 2011

Last minute trip to Cape Canaveral

I read this morning that the last space shuttle launch ever was happening this Friday, and since I've always wanted to see one, I decided to book a flight to Florida for a few days. I knew they were being retired, but I thought I had a few more years to get there! It'll be a historic event, and this is my last chance, so why not. I fly out early Thursday morning to Sydney, then from there to LAX, then on to Orlando, Florida, arriving at 6pm Thursday, 24 hours after I left.

The planned launch time is 11:30AM on Friday 8th their time, so about 2am Saturday morning here. The launch window is only 10 minutes long, and if they miss that, they'll try again for the next two days. The weather forecast is a bit dodgy, so hopefully the launch isn't scrubbed three times in a row! They're expecting over a million people to turn up and see it.

On Monday night I fly back the same way to arrive home Wednesday morning.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

First days in Padang

Two days ago Christie and I flew into Padang in Sumatra to see if we could offer any help to the earthquake relief effort. After a night in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) we got to Padang airport around 5pm Tuesday in the middle of a thunderstorm. The plane was only half full with Sumatran locals and a few Malaysian aid workers. After buying our visa on arrival, we passed through customs without incident into the waiting throng of taxi touts. Having not organised accommodation or even knowing if any was available (we'd brought a tent just in case), we took the offer of one guy to drive us in and find us a room.

The drive into town took about an hour, because the roads had flooded in places, and there were buses stranded and motor scooters trying to brave the foot-deep water. Most smaller buildings seemed intact, and there wasn't much sign of the disaster, which was unexpected. However as we got closer to town there was the occasional damaged house or shop. In the city itself, there was repeatedly the bizarre sight of several untouched buildings in a row, with a big government office or something just completely collapsed in the middle of them. West Sumatran roofs have a unique style (see pic below from our last trip), and we would see these sitting on the ground, cracked in half, with the rest of the building pancaked beneath.

It was dark and raining, so we couldn't see too much, and were more immediately interested in finding a room. After trying a few hotels we found one with a single room left, for much more than we'd normally pay but we weren't really in a bargaining position. When it stopped raining later, we headed out for a walk but didn't really see much more damage.

The next morning we met up Wendy, a Sumatran girl that Ben and I had met here in Padang last year. She had been working for Unicef, but was frustrated at the excessive bureaucracy and lack of action from the government, so had decided to help us to do something directly instead.

As we were riding to the bank to convert our donations to rupiah, I saw some of the real destruction in the rest of the city - collapsed schools, a hospital demolished and hotels reduced to rubble. Some still had dozens of bodies under them. These were the images they've been showing on the news, but the contrast to the other buildings somehow still standing was really bizarre. The city doesn't look like a war zone with rubble everywhere - although I'm sure a lot has been cleaned up in the three weeks since the quake - it seems almost normal, just with the odd building decimated.

As Wendy pointed out, the effect is far greater than just what we can see, since each building collapse means dozens or hundreds out of jobs, and with unusually high food prices it is harder for families to survive, even if their houses are still habitable.

Yesterday we took a minivan four hours east to Muara Labuh, with the idea to buy supplies at normal prices, much cheaper than in Padang. We saw many more damaged houses along the way, and in several places the road had been only recently cleared of landslides. The drive was up into the mountains outside of Padang, which were thick with jungle and refreshingly much cooler, sometimes foggy.

We stayed last night at a school that Wendy is setting up to teach English, and today she and a friend have gone to the market for us to purchase a big load of rice, condensed milk and laundry soap. If we'd gone ourselves, we would have been charged the foreigner price.

We're going to buy 250-300kg of rice and take it to an area called Pasaman, a few hours north of Padang. Using her aid agency contacts, Wendy has found that this area has received some aid, but not enough, and it has not been distributed effectively. Another option was to go and start a food kitchen at Lake Maninjau, which is a large lake
ringed by villages inside a volcano crater. However the logistics of a few of us carrying half a ton of food and supplies in by foot, and the dangers of mudslides and flooding was just too much. Apparently many people there have lost their houses completely - washed into the lake - and would really need the food, but we have to accept there are hundreds of villages that need assistance and we can't help everyone.

Thanks again to everyone that chipped with donations, you'll be happy to know that they are going straight into buying food and essentials as I type. We should be distributing them to villagers in the next couple of days, and I'll update when I can on how it's all going.