Sunday, May 06, 2018

Mars Rocket Launch

Local news outlets excited about the launch!
I have wanted to see a live rocket launch since May 5, 1961, when my 2nd-grade teacher brought her black-and-white TV to class so we students could watch the first U.S. astronaut, Alan Shepard, blast into space. Fifty-seven years later, to the day, my husband Tim and I found ourselves standing at the dark end of the Lompoc airport’s runway, waiting to watch the launch of a Mars-bound missile, called InSight, from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Although nearly 300 rockets have launched from Vandenberg since the 1950s, this one was especially historic as it was the west coast’s first interplanetary mission. I had to be there.

All Lompoc hotels were completely booked by the time I heard about the launch. So we ended up in Santa Maria, 25 miles away. Liftoff was scheduled for 4:05AM, Saturday morning. We drove up on Friday, taking a detour through Lompoc so we could scope-out the various sites NASA recommended for optimum viewing. We decided to try our luck at Lompoc's small municipal airport, which promised to open its grounds to the public at 2:30AM. We then drove north to Santa Maria, 45 minutes away.

We set the alarm for 1:15AM before hitting the hay at 8PM. Not surprisingly, I didn’t sleep much and so was wide-awake when the alarm went off five hours later. It was foggy at 1:30AM as we headed back to Lompoc. Would the launch be scrubbed because of the fog?

Once we arrived in Lompoc, we were directed to enter the airport via a street behind Walmart, which we found by following all the other cars headed toward the viewing site. We parked along one of the runways. I thought we would just stay in our car till it got closer to launch time. But no—everyone was walking toward several bright lights at the other end of the runway, so we did, too. We didn’t think to bring beach chairs (like everyone else), but we did have enough foresight to dress warmly. Last minute, I grabbed the dirty old comforter I keep in back of the car, in case of emergency—and thank goodness, because it got pretty chilly by launch time.

 Toasty in my aunt's old comforter

The viewing area was located at the end of the airport runway, facing toward the ocean and Vandenberg, seven miles away. NASA setup a large tent filled with exhibits and selfie opportunities, while military personnel sold patches and other mementoes of the evening. A nice young man took our photo. A news cameraperson, from the local NBC affiliate, then came over and interviewed us about the launch. Leaving the tent, we both got a strong whiff of tamales. And sure enough, a man was waving us over to buy hot tamales from a cart. At 3AM! I resisted, but Tim was in his glory.

 NASA tent

Cool exhibits
At 3:30AM, NASA began broadcasting information about the launch over a couple of speakers setup across from the tent. Hundreds of people had arrived by then and were starting to stakeout their spots at the end of the runway. Many of us worried the fog would kill the launch, but the voice over the speakers assured us the weather wasn’t an issue. We stood and waited and then at 4AM, the lights suddenly went out as we collectively held our breath.

Countdown began right on time at 4:05AM: seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero. Lift-off. We heard the rocket roar and felt the earth rumble. And then . . . NOTHING! We could hear the missile launching, but saw only pitch-black darkness over the ocean. Five hundred people just stood there dumb-founded, desperately searching the skies for the faintest glimmer of light. But there was nothing to see. The fog completely obscured our view. So we turned around and walked back to the car. We drove to Santa Maria in silence.

We arrived at the hotel an hour later. Guessing where we’d been, the desk clerk asked if we were able to see anything. We wagged our heads, “No.” She gave us a sad look as we headed to our room. We climbed into bed and didn’t wake-up till 10AM.

So we didn’t actually see the launch, but at least we got to share the experience with hundreds of people who had come from all over California and beyond. Plus we were on that night’s NBC news! So all was not lost. 

Fingers crossed we’ll be able to go again some other 
time . . .

On the news that night

The liftoff we didn't see 

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The State Theatre

State Theatre marquee
Opened in 1921, the State Theatre is the latest of L.A.'s many fabulous movie palaces to offer tours and public events after serving as a church for many years. Although not the largest venue on downtown's Broadway Theatre District, the State does boast the greatest number of seats (over 2300), possibly because of its steep and tall balcony. According to legend, Judy Garland regularly performed here with her siblings, the Gumm Sisters, before heading to Culver City in the mid-1930s to star in movies.

The Los Angeles Historic Theater Foundation offered the State's first public tour today and we were there. Still under renovation, the space is nonetheless magnificent as preservationists begin to remove the religious trappings that once obscured its grandeur. For those anxious to see it for themselves, the L.A. Conservancy will be showing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington at the State, on June 2, as part of its annual Last Remaining Seats series.

Looking up from the lobby

Second-story ceiling

Stairway tile work

Former water fountain

Balcony ceiling—chandelier added in 1929

Ceiling vents (detail)

View from the top of the balcony—stained glass on sides of stage
are not original and will be removed

Air vents above first-floor seating—light fixtures not original

Ornamentation detail

And more

Behind the marquee

 As LAHTF members, we were invited to visit an enormous space that housed an ornate restaurant during the 1920s/30s. It's located under the theater, below street-level. Dirty and in desperate need of renovation, the area is still quite breath-taking.

Beautifully painted molding

Ornamental columns

Moorish-inspired murals

More columns

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Camp Battleship

After serving six years (1968-1974) in the Navy, Tim was none too enthused when I suggested we do adult “battleship camp” with Atlas Obscura, a travel group that specializes in unusual tours. He changed his mind when I explained that I wanted to get a flavor of what it was like when he was a sailor, and so we spent last night on the USS Iowa, the decommissioned WWII battleship that’s now a museum in San Pedro harbor.

 USS Iowa

We got to the dock before 5PM. A couple from Nashville and a gal from Great Britain were already there. Once everyone else arrived, the ship historian introduced himself and his volunteer crew and shared the rules of the evening: no smoking and no wandering off on our own. Also, women were to sleep on one of the ship while men slept on the other—a big surprise to us and the other handful of married couples! We then boarded the ship and picked our bunks. I was expecting two beds per bunk, but, no, there were three, leaving very little room for doing anything but sleep.

 We were hoping for officers' quarters, but got enlisted
personnel beds instead. We were told in advance to
bring our own bedding: pillows and sleeping bags.

After the flag-lowering ceremony, we went below deck and ate dinner in the mess hall: lasagna, salad and a roll, plus (for some reason) potato chips, followed by dessert (ice cream sandwiches and popsicles). Tim told me later that the Navy food was much better, but I enjoyed our meal anyway.

 Dinner in the mess hall

There were 30 of us, so we split into two groups for what ended up being an exhaustive tour of the ship. During its heyday, the Iowa was the lead ship of its class and one of the U.S.’s largest battleships. Needless to say, it was also heavily armed and so we talked about and looked at a lot of turrets and munitions. But the ship’s greatest claim to fame was carrying president Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) to Tehran to meet with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin during World War II. The Iowa was also stationed at Japan during the war-ending surrender and ultimately served during the Korean War. It opened as a museum in December 2011.

 Captain's quarters where FDR stayed

Captain's bed
Our tour guides showed us everything from the onboard dentist office to the helm to the captain’s quarters, where FDR slept and held court. It was fascinating, but truly exhausting as we finally limped off to our bunks after 10PM. Despite the cramped quarters, I had no trouble falling asleep as soon as the lights went out and slept all the way till 5AM, when I squeezed out my bunk. Reveille was at 6:30AM. No showers, but breakfast (pancakes and bacon) was served in the mess hall before the flag-raising ceremony and group photos. We then all went our separate ways. Truly an unforgettable experience.

Turrets (forward deck)

 Another view

Dramatic silhouette at sunset

The helm

Hatches galore—so easy to get lost!

Sailor art created during "down time" at sea

More sailor art on passageway walls and doors

Machinery to load munitions into the turrets

Inside tomahawk missile turrets 

"Broadway," the ship-long passageway leading to and from

Starting to look like The Poseidon Adventure

"The Morning After"

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Titan Missile Museum

Nuclear holocaust was a distant but very real threat for those us growing up in the 1950s/60s. We practiced ducking-and-covering when citywide air-raid sirens were tested once a month. We were also intrigued by rumors of people building bomb shelters in their backyards. Ever looming nuclear war was just part of everyday life. However, as I grow older and learn more about the U.S.'s Cold War with the Soviet Union, I marvel at how we even survived that period.

Tim and I usually travel to Arizona every other year to see baseball spring training. While there, we like to take in some of the local attractions, such as the Pima Air Museum & Boneyard or the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. This year we decided to visit the Titan Missile Museum, site of the last remaining nuclear missile on "alert" from 1963 until 1987. 

Located outside Tucson, about two hours from our hotel in Tempe, this unassuming museum is home to one of the 54 nuclear missile launch sites that used to operate in Arizona, Kansas and Arkansas. Housed underground, the mega-ton Titan IIs, which were also used to propel Gemini capsules and their astronauts into space, could be airborne within a minute of receiving launch orders. Once detonated, the missile's nuclear warhead would kill everything within a 900-mile radius. But as our tour guides kept emphasizing, the main purpose of the missile program was to deter enemies from launching their own missiles. Luckily the ploy worked, leaving just one unarmed missile site to serve today as a museum and important cautionary history lesson.

Museum entrance

Visitors enter the site through a small building that contains a gift shop and excellent exhibit of Cold War artifacts. The hour-long tours of the missile silo start with a 15-minute video, orienting the group to what they're about to see. The group then goes outside, where a tour guide leads everyone to a set of concrete stairs heading underground.

Impossible to tell there's a mega-ton missile under this
unassuming landscape

Stairs heading underground

The launch site itself actually consists of three areas, connected by long hallways: living quarters and launch control (left), decontamination area (center), and missile silo (right), as illustrated below (click on image to enlarge). Once underground, our guide led us to the control room, where what now looks to be ancient (i.e., early 1960s) equipment used to monitor the missile and await launch orders. Crews of four worked in 24-hour shifts.

Detailed illustration of the underground site

One of many door button panels to enter the inner sanctum

State-of-the-art equipment in early 1960s

The red locker held the launch codes, requiring two people to access—
note the two locks on the locker

From there, we walked down a long corridor, passing the decontamination area and into the silo, where the (now de-nuked) Titan II still stands. The silo was built as two 150-foot-deep concentric cylinders: the outer ring measuring 55 ft. wide; the other, called the "launch duct," 26 ft. wide. Walls are 8 ft. thick. Though not allowed to go inside the cylinders, we were able to peer at the missile through two glass windows. Seeing the Titan II in such close proximity was absolutely breathtaking—not so much as a weapon of war, but more as a vehicle for space exploration, which I love.

Tim walking down the long corridor

Decontamination suits

Emergency shower if exposed to radiation—Karen Silkwood, anyone?

First sight of the missile's main body

De-nuked nosecone

Above ground again, we were encouraged to look at the missile through an observation window created specifically for tourists. And there it was, still standing in its underground silo, waiting for orders to wreak havoc on the world. Chilling, but a fascinating reminder of why no one should have the power to launch mass destruction. 

Looking down on the missile from the observation deck

By the way, if you're a Star Trek fan, you may recognize the Titan II and its silo from the movie First Contact, where savvy scientists turn a deactivated missile into the first "warp drive" spaceship. Yay!