Wednesday, April 23, 2014

No problem at all, Houston

Thinking about it, visiting the NASA museum immediately after the JFK museum in Dallas was a good idea.  It was JFK’s memorable speech in 1962 (see here) that announced America’s intent to put a man in the moon within the decade and propelled NASA to prominence and ultimate success.

"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…"
It also underlined how important political backing is to an initiative like this for looking back to 1961 the US was running behind the Soviets in the space race.  Soyuz happened in 1957, Yuri Gagarin in 1961 one month ahead of Alan Shepherd. Then came the Bay of Pigs and ensuing Cuban Missile Crisis.  The Soviets couldn’t win and more importantly couldn’t be seen to be winning so the US had to step up and that meant political backing and money.

JFK committed both in large amounts and so it happened.   

Not so today unfortunately as nobody currently cares about space.  Maybe it was 2008 and the Lehman induced financial disaster that sucked up so much of the US government’s resources and then some – the space shuttle programme closed in 2011 when funding ended.  Sadly banks became more important than space.  There’s a book in the NASA gift shop called "Failure is Not an Option" written by Gene Kranz who ran Mission Control through the 1960’s and 1970’s and who sums things up in 4 points:  (1) The public doesn’t care any more, (2) Washington doesn’t care any more, (3) There is no specific space plan, and (4) NASA doesn’t know which direction it is meant to follow. 

Really sad as I recall from my youth that in the UK (and the western world I believe), we were riveted by what was happening up in space.  Our TV covered each new launch in extended detail.  We lived, breathed and slept this stuff.  It was inspirational.  If man could reach into outer space, surely we as individuals could succeed and progress in our more mundane lives.  How I wanted to be an astronaut but I didn’t know how to start.  All my friends were the same.

Needless to say, the tour was magnificent -- see website here. 

The high point by far was our visit to Mission Control.  The tour guide said that the next planned mission is to Mars and should kick off within the next few months (why isn’t this all over the media?) and as a result our tour would be one of the last for a few years as this control room would be the one to control the programme.

The displays showed the location of the International Space Station (ISS) and it was wonderful to see the ISS move gradually along its orbit path (over the heavily populated parts of the world not the empty bits).  Currently the ISS has 3 Russians, 2 Americans and 1 Chinese person on board.  Check out the link.

Interesting to note that the Russians still pretty much control the ISS programme.  The Soviets were the first to set up a permanent presence (aka space station) and the Americans simply joined in when Sky Lab couldn’t continue any more. It was the space shuttle programme that enabled the ISS to grow to its present enormous twice the size of a football pitch size.  Once built the space shuttle programme was cancelled (in 2011) with resupply these days handled by the Russians and an independent for profit company that has been contracted with for resupply! Who knew that? The tour guide said that the present Crimean fiasco wasn’t helping mutual understanding and may well roll over into the ISS programme too.

…and that phrase. 

Well the world has it all wrong.  Jim Lovell actually said something different and it was only when Mission Control did a double take, gulped twice and said: “Sorry Apollo 13, didn’t quite catch that.  Please repeat” that those memorable words were said.

What was really said

I could drone on about how good this was for ages but simply encourage everyone to visit AND contact your elected representative to put the space initiative back on the agenda.  The technological advances this made and which we currently enjoy are legion.  We need another technological catalyst and of course the inspiration that such a coordinated and non-partisan programme would provide.

Saturn V -- actually belongs to the Smithsonian but as NASA built the structure around the rocket, they can't get it out now so it has to stay put!

The Minuteman rocket on the right is basically the V2 designed by Werner von Braun in WWII and was used with updates until well into the 1960's

Pushing the 'RED' button!

The 'facilities' on the space shuttle

We also visited Galveston, a 32 mile long sand bar off Houston, the following day and first of all managed a guided tour of the island (with Galveston Historic Tour – see website here) which is one of the earliest Texan settlements, home to the Texan navy in the war with Mexico and was incorporated in 1838.

Being flat as a pancake, like Cayman, Galveston is susceptible to hurricanes, the last devastation being in 2008 with Hurricane Ike.  

The path and the result

Back in 1900, the place was flattened and 6,000 people were killed, something that prompted the building a 17 foot high seawall and a gradual tilt to the island so that at the seawall, the island is above sea level but in the old town, it is 10 feet below sea level.  In 2008 this meant that part of the island was 8 foot underwater and substantially damaged.

Beach side houses on 20 foot stilts

50,000 trees were killed and their stumps in many cases have now been carved by local sculptors into imaginative art pieces.  Still many 19th century homes still stand in the historic parts which are very pretty.

It is also an oil town and in particular a big oil port.  The first offshore rigs in the 1930’s left from Galveston Harbour and these days many production platforms are supported by the port and the surrounding refineries (which are endless along this part of the coast into Louisiana). 

So we visited the Ocean Star oil rig museum (see website here) on Pier 21 in the port to learn more about things.

Great museum, by the way, and sited on a jack up rig from the 1960’s that was retired in the 1980’s all supported by the Who’s Who in the oil industry.  The technology needed in this industry is almost unfathomable to believe.  It beats me how people could think of such solutions.

Oil is essentially the remains of dead animals compressed by sand layers over the millennia into slim layers that extend all over the world.  Movement in the earth’s crust means that these layers change continuously (but very slowly) over time.  To find these oil layers, geologists examine test drill results for the likely presence of oil and only when they are determined to be big enough will drilling in earnest begin.  It takes 2-3 years to complete a well through the drilling stage to the establishment of a platform that simply sucks up the oil and sends it to the refineries.  On land this is easier as the oil flows up from the earth into storage tanks and pipelines that flow to the refineries.  Unbelievably this is also what is happening under the see for some of the newer rigs are huge solid state structures that double as storage tanks until the shuttle tankers arrive to take the oil to the refineries.  There are also undersea pipelines that obviate the need to do this and connect underwater with the oil coming up from underground directly with the refineries.

These days directional drilling, or the ability to make the drill go sideways not simply vertically means that more of an oil strata may be harvested than in the past.

Directional Drilling

Did I mention size?  This is how big the new ones are.  The island is Manhattan below the rig!

Just amazing.  The ingenuity of it all underlines why I believe that the US will reach energy self sufficiency very soon.  They are very determined and very, very clever indeed.

We moved hotels to the Harbour House Hotel on the waterfront in Galveston with a great view after a morning of retail therapy and managed a pleasant stroll around the old town.

Old town buildings

A nice place indeed.

Time to move again tomorrow. 

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