Thursday, July 30, 2009

Battleship Texas

San Jacinto Monument is a 25 mile drive from the city of Houston, it houses a 570 foot tall memorial and USS Texas(BB-35) war ship. This memorial commemorates the battle of Texas, fought between Texas rebel army and Mexican army. Located along the Houston Ship Channel, is well known among the Ship watchers and Ship photographers. Houston being the energy capital of America, one can expect to see a lot of huge oil tankers and cruise ships from the Galveston harbour along the channel. This Time Lapse video gives a fair idea of the number of refineries along the Houston ship channel.

USS Texas served both in World war I and II. After being decommissioned from service in 1948 it has been converted into a floating museum. Improper maintenance and neglect turned USS Texas to a huge rusting wreck. It took a massive restoration programme during February 1990 to restore it to its glory of 1945.

USS Texas

USS BB-35 bell, inside the ship. Strikes of a ship's bell are used to indicate the hour aboard a ship and thereby to regulate the sailors' duty watches.

The bell

Being a battleship, USS Texas had massive fire power, which can be seen here.

Fire power

One of the passing oil tankers

Oil tanker

After roaming around the ship and catching a few massive takers pass by we headed to San Jacinto memorial, about a mile from the battleship. San Jacinto memorial has a massive 220 ton star symbolizing the "Lone Star" of Texas. This monument closely resembles the Washington Monument in Washington D.C.

Reflection pool

Visitors are allowed to the observation deck located 489 feet from the ground. The observation deck gives some really breathe taking views of Gulf of Mexico and the Ship channel. Also in front of the Monument we have a 1800x200 feet long reflection pool. Notice Battleship Texas?

A view of the refineries along the Houston Ship channel from the observation deck.

The memorial also houses a theatre, which plays a 20 minute movie about the battle Texas. We also have a Houston photo gallery depicting Houston in its various stages of development. Since all the photographs are copyrighted, we are not allowed to photograph inside the gallery.

Update: Oops! forgot to credit the photographer. Before I get sued for plagiarism! Photographs courtesy Tapo

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Neutral Buoyancy

"Houston, Tranquillity Base here, the Eagle has landed. - Neil Armstrong, transmitting from the Moon, 3:18 p.m. Houston time 20 July 1969."

Johnson Space Center is located about 25 miles from Houston. Johnson Space Center is used for mainly mission training and Mission Control. NASA has guided tours for general public. We chose to go on Level 9 Tour. This tour takes you inside the Mission control center! But the catch is, the tour is only during weekdays and not weekends! So me and my friends decided to "fall ill" during a weekday so that we can go on this tour. November 12th was the day we choose to reduce suspicion as it was mid week. Tickets had to be booked in advance as there are only 12 seats available for the tour.

Level 9 tour starts at around 11.30am and lasts till 5pm. We reached the Space center around 10.30 and get done with all the formalities. All the Level 9 tourists are given a NASA employee look-alike ID card to give an authentic look. Since there was time before the scheduled departure of the tour, we used that time to go around and checkout the exhibits.

Space shuttle's nose

As a security measure there is a photo session before the tour can commence. All 12 tourists were asked to board a mini bus for the tour, we were joined by a group of airline employees on a company sponsored trip. After the initial introduction the tour bus started its 4.5 hours trip around the NASA facility. Our first stop was building 3 for lunch. This is the Cafeteria for the employees. Sonny Carter Training Facility is our next stop. This is the Neutral Buoyancy training facility, the largest in the world. It can hold the entire 1:1 mock-up of the International Space Station.

Neutral Buoyancy Lab

As the name suggests, Neutral Buoyancy Lab is used to simulate Zero G, an essential component in a days work for the astronauts. Here the astronauts get a first hand experience in doing the most mundane task like walking under zero gravity! That is astronauts preparing for the next ISS mission.

Astronaut preparing

We are familiar with the Hubble Telescope and its breathtaking pictures it can take, now it was time to see the Hubble Telescope Mission control center itself.

Hubble control center

A mission control center controls everything about a mission. We have seen in many Hollywood spy movies, like James Bond's Die Another Day, when Gustav Graves tries to direct the beam from his satellite "Icarus" through the Minefield, such things are done from a mission control center in real life. Moving on, earlier we saw the astronauts preparing for their next space mission, now it was time to see the Mission Control of ISS.

ISS mission control

Finally the moment we were all waiting for, The Apollo Mission control center! This mission control center was used to control all the Apollo missions and the controversial Apollo 11 mission which land on the "Moon"

Apollo mission control

We get to see the technology of the Apollo era. Also we get to sit, where the Mission Director used to sit and pretend to control the whole mission! The mission control also has a replica of the American flag, that was "hoisted" on the lunar surface.

American Flag replica

Coming back to modern era, we never heading to the mock-up facility, then one of the co-passenger realized that India also has a moon mission and asked, "Hey, You guys have something on the Moon too, right?". It was quite a proud moment to be an Indian. It was just 3 days since the historic launch and the images of the launch and the video were fresh in our mind, and we enjoyed bragging about Chandrayaan! Another guy in the group saw us bragging and asked, "Does your space organization have such tours?". Sadly, we had to end the bragging and say the ISRO didnt have such public visits. I really wished ISRO did something like this, its such a morale booster for the youngsters.

The Space vehicle Mock-up facility has the 1:1 replica of all NASA space programs currently underway. Majority of the mock-ups were from International Space Station mission components. These mock-ups are used to train the astronauts before the missions.

ISS mock-up

Space spider!

That is a space spider to be sent to Mars for exploration! Our final stop on the tour was Rocket Park. This facility holds a Saturn V rocket from the canceled Apollo 18 mission. Apollo missions were stopped due to budget constraints.

Saturn V

After exploring the various stages of the Saturn V we returned to our starting point concluding our Level 9 tour. It was a memorable experience visiting Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center(JSC) and worth bunking office!

Monday, February 09, 2009

Los Angeles

First Monday of September is observed as Labor Day in US. This long weekend gave us a opportunity to visit the Entertainment Capital of America, Los Angeles, California. Well known for Hollywood, its artists and beautiful beaches along the west coast of America. Our travel plan was simple, reach LA by evening of 29th August, next day visit Universal Studios, LA city tour on Sunday and return to Houston by 1st September. We used a travel website to book our flights, hotel and rental car to get a good deal. And deal is what we got, for 830 bucks per head we got flight tickets, 3 nights stay in Shearaton Gateway and a rental car for 3 days.

Universal Studios is one of the biggest and the oldest movie productions houses in Hollywood. Its located some 30 miles from the Los Angeles airport along the Hollywood Freeway. The Studio opens for general public at 9 in the morning and is open till 9 in the evening, so we reached the studio by around 8.30. We had a red carpet welcome to the studio.

First stop in the studio was the House of Horrors. This is a collection of all the characters, costumes and some live characters from all of Universal's classic horrors movies. Its a dark maze to be navigated and screemed. One of the live character came to catch hold of me, and I said a "Hi" and tried to shake hands, after this failed attempt the artist went back to the his hiding place, making everybody in the vicinity burst into laughter. Felt bad for being a spoilsport later. Continuing further, we went to meet Shrek on his way to rescue his princess from Lord Farquaad's men. In the movie the characters come out of the screen and onto your lap! Its a 4-D presentation, the 4th dimension being the physical effects, were the seats rock, when the character is riding a horse or water is sprayed when the someone spits or throws-up! One princess Fiona was rescued we went to take the 45 minutes guide tour of the whole studio. This tour takes us in the live sets and previously used sets to depict how a movie is shot.

This location is used to shot many flooding sequences in Hollywood movies. Most of the King Kong movie's sea shots were shot in this small pond!

War of the Worlds' famous airplane crash scene was shot in this location. Steven Spielberg, brought an actual Boeing 777 and dismantled it to create this set at a cost of 2 Millions US Dollars!

After the tour we headed to meet the Animal stars of Hollywood. Animals have always had a great part in Hollywood movies. Next we went to get some "Travel Books" and also to meet Anna Scott. But to much to our despair, the book store was closed!

It was noon already, pacifying the bandicoots in the tummy became a priority than searching the Dinosaurs at the Jurassic Park ride! Next it was time to fight "The Mummy". Pyrotechnics has always played a huge part in Hollywood movies, Backdraft is one such movie which uses pyrotechnics to a great extent. The set used to shoot the climax sequence is preserved for public viewing with a live performance. SFX or Special Effects is another great technique used extensively by Hollywood movies. We visited the SFX lab to get a first hand experience of this technique. It was closing time by the time we were done seeing everything. Quick stop at the Souvenir store and we were on our way back to the hotel.

We began our second day early, we had the pickup for Los Angeles City tour at 8am. First stop on the tour was Hollywood Bowl. A Amphitheater with a seating capacity of 17000 plus!

Next we took a walk on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I managed to capture Donald Duck's Star next to Mickey Mouse's leg!

Grauman's Chinese theatre, home to many movie premieres is also located on Hollywood walk of fame. Next to the Chinese theatre is the Kodak Theatre, Oscar awards are present here. This is The Sunset Boulevard, a famous road with many landmark locations which gave Hollywood many of its artist from its numerous comedy clubs, music lounges.

From Los Angeles city we entered the city of...

Beverly Hills is the home to the stars of the Hollywood, home to Million dollar houses! Universal studios is located just outside the city limits of Beverly Hills. No wonder people want to be in Beverly Hills.

After going around the Beverly Hills downtown we returned to downtown Los Angeles to visit one of the oldest house called the Avila Adobe

We had lunch at the Farmers Market, a famous meeting place in Los Angeles. "When Walt Disney was preparing his early designs for a place called Disneyland, he did some of his work while dining on Farmers Market patios. Elements of the Market’s unique design are incorporated into his original drawings." Next we saw La Brea Tar Pits, where tar seeps from the ground to form a pool.

Along with Tar, Methane is also liberated in the surrounding areas, hence all the houses in this area have methane monitors, and if the methane reaches a certain level, "drastic actions" are taken to avert a disaster. Someone lighting a smoke better be careful in this area! Next the tour took us back into Beverly Hills to show the houses of Hollywood actors, we ended up seeing only the compounds of famous actors and actresses!