Lift off!

Posted by Arthur in Space, Travel

We arrived at Kennedy Space Center at 6:00am this morning and were surprised to find all the attractions and exhibits already open to the public. They were even doing bus tours until 8:45am! We sat down in the Launch Status building and later moved to the Astronaut Encounter building to watch live programming from NASA tv while we waited. KSC does such an excellent job accommodating launch guests; back in June during the night launch everything was open in the middle of the night.

STS-129 Atlantis on Pad 39a (200911150015HQ)
(Photo © NASA) View of Shuttle Atlantis on Pad 39A this morning

At 9:15am we had our ‘breakfast with an astronaut’ in the Early Space Exploration building. There was a HUGE line of people and the doors opened a bit late at 9:30am. The breakfast was held in a large room with round tables and about (I guess) 200 people were there to have breakfast. There were eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy, sweets and fruit. After a little while astronaut Frederick D. Gregory came out and held a little talk about today’s mission and the new Constellation program before taking some questions from the audience. It was a fun event to attend.

STS-129 Crew Walk Out (200911160001HQ)
(Photo © NASA) At the Astronaut Encounter we watched live NASA tv and saw the astronauts arrive at the shuttle in the Astrovan and then getting suited up in the White Room.

Buses to the NASA Causeway for those with causeway tickets started going at 11:30am. We headed to the buses around this time and were surprised that we were probably among the last 10% of causeway people to get on a bus. Many visitors remained at KSC to view the launch from there. Watching from the KSC is a restricted view (you only see the shuttle above the trees after it has left the pad) but bleachers and large screens had been set up and hundreds of people were already camping out on the grass.

Our bus drove the 15 minutes to the causeway where about 150 buses were parked three rows deep. The viewing area was HUGE. Being among the last to arrive there I thought we might have had to sit behind other people, but there was still a few hundred yards of unused space right by the water. At some points the view was slightly obstructed from small islands in the Banana River, so we walked along the water away from the bus until we found the perfect spot to set up our two chairs and spotting scope that we had been lugging along all morning.

View of the part of the causeway where we were sitting; this went on and on into the distance with more than 150 buses on the left

In the next half hour many more people arrived (also on non-NASA buses) and it quickly filled up behind us. We had a good place. I was really amazed of the great view we had. We sat 7 miles away and I thought the Shuttle would be a small speck in the distance, but through the scope I could even read the word “Atlantis” on the wing! There is one closer viewing area at the Saturn V building, which is 3 1/2 miles away … but our bus driver told us that from that angle the shuttle is hidden behind the Rotating Service Structure, so we had the best view of the orbiter on the pad.

People behind us

Commentary from NASA tv was playing on the speakers so we could hear what was going on. I was also getting tweets from All morning there was a thick layer of clouds above Cape Canaveral and chance of weather constraints prohibiting flight were 30%, but as the morning progressed the clouds slowly moved away and at launch time weather was good. Through the scope I could clearly see the removal of the walkway and beanie cap after the 9-minute hold, but I think I was the only one in our vicinity witnessing this as most people just had small binoculars.

At T-minus 16 seconds the Sound Surpression System is activated and 300,000 gallons of water are poured onto the launch pad to surpress the decibels from damaging the orbiter. I could see all the water clearly through the scope as well as the sparks from the burn ignitors to start the main engine.

At 2:28:10pm the shuttle lifted off the pad.

(Photo © NASA) View from the press area with the countdown clock

Here’s an HD video of the launch from NASA:

It was a tremendous sight. A huge cloud, then the shuttle became visible with its extremely bright engine flames below and about 40 seconds after lift-off the sound wave hit us. I followed the shuttle up with the scope. Two minutes and 10 seconds into the flight the two solid rocket boosters were jettisoned and I could see this clearly through the scope as well. Everyone around me was already packing up as they could no longer see the shuttle, but I was seeing the shuttle and both solid rocket boosters fall down. A few seconds later I lost sight of the shuttle but I could still see the two rockets fall down for about 20 seconds until I lost them in the clouds. Wow.

A few minutes later a woman came on the intercom and dryly announced: “A huge dark cloud of hydrochloric acid, which you can see above the launch pad, is blowing in our direction. Please move to your bus immediately.” … Holy crap! We quickly got our stuff together and headed for our bus. The papers for the launch had a disclaimer about the risks of attending a launch (among which thunder storms and the fact that droplets of hydrochloric acid that appear after launch can cause some mild skin irritation). As far as we know everyone made it to their bus and no tourists were killed by the acid. 😉

It took about 20 minutes until our bus left (we saw two dolphins swim by in the meantime!) and we got back to the KSC about 15 minutes later. It was incredibly busy at the Space Shop as we picked out some souvenirs and then headed to the car. It wasn’t very bad to get out of the area and we were in a short traffic jam for only a few minutes.


November 16th 2009 | 9:29 pm CET | 1 Comment »

Waiting for the shuttle launch, take two

Posted by Arthur in Space, Travel

We are once again at the Space Coast in Florida to try and see a shuttle launch. After two days of driving over 1,000 miles we arrived at our hotel in Titusville last night. Today we spent the morning at Viera Wetlands (two new lifers: American Bittern and Green-winged Teal!) and the afternoon at Kennedy Space Center, where we saw Space Shuttle Atlantis on launch pad 39A.

The launch is scheduled for tomorrow at 2:28pm and, like last time, we have launch transportation tickets to bring us to the NASA causeway. This is our second try to see a launch after our failed attempt in June.

At least the weather is MUCH better now, less hot and less mosquitoes than in June. It’s a pleasant 80°F all week. Keep your fingers crossed for good weather conditions tomorrow and no more leaking fuel tanks or other technical problems. We finally want to see this thing go up! 😉

Launch Status building at Kennedy Space Center
Me at the Launch Status building inside Kennedy Space Center this afternoon,
where we got an update on Shuttle Atlantis and upcoming missions

November 15th 2009 | 7:34 pm CET | No Comments »

Happy Halloween

Posted by Arthur in Photos


October 31st 2009 | 9:21 am CET | 1 Comment »

Getting tickets for the next Space Shuttle launch

Posted by Arthur in Space

Yesterday morning at 8:00am CT launch viewing ticket for the next Space Shuttle launch went on sale. We tried this back in June when I managed to get causeway tickets but we drove to Florida just to find out that STS-127 had been scrubbed. For so long I’ve wanted to see a Space Shuttle launch, and with only six more launches left (the last Space Shuttle mission is in September 2010) we decided to try again for the next one on November 16th.

The NASA causeway is the best place to view a launch. It’s still six miles from the launch pad, but it’s an unobstructed view and it’s the closest they let regular people watch (the press and NASA people get to watch from three miles away). The number of tickets is limited and they are known to sell out fast. We were ready yesterday morning refreshing the order page on the Kennedy Space Center website a few minutes before 8:00am. On my screen I had a window open with an atomic clock to know exactly what time it was. At 7:59:50am the “Buy” button appeared on the order page. Amy and I, each on our own computer, immediately tried to buy two tickets, but no luck. It immediately said “Sold Out”.

Oh no, how can these tickets be sold out in a matter of seconds? We didn’t believe this and figured there must be a problem with the website. For the next few minutes we kept refreshing the page and trying to add the tickets to our shopping cart, but each time we got “Sold Out” . Then all of a sudden I got through and got a form to enter my details. Whoo-hoo! A clock at the top of the page started counting down; you have 8 minutes to complete the order and then the tickets will be made available to other people again. I had already put all my address and payment details in a Notepad so all I had to do was paste them into the form. When I was done and clicked the button to confirm my order I suddenly got the “Sold Out” error. Drats!

By this time it was about 8:10am and I knew for sure now that there was a problem with the website. After all, I should have had 8 minutes to complete the order! I decided to try and give them a call while Amy continued to refresh the page on her computer. I kept getting a busy signal for about 10 minutes and then finally got through. I pressed “2” for information about Shuttle launches, then “3” to order tickets only to be told that they’re experiencing a high volume of calls right now and please try again later. What? I finally got through and then they hang up on me? I hung up and tried dialing again and again and again. Each time it was busy and every 20 tries or so I got through but was hung up again.

At 8:30am or so the website homepage finally said that all tickets were sold out and I still hadn’t been able to talk to anyone on the phone. I found a Tweet from someone that said “DO NOT TRY the website. Call them instead.” and on the Facebook page of Kennedy Space Center some people were having a discussion about the website problem and some said they had just been able to order tickets by phone. So I didn’t want to give up.

I figured out that after being told to hang up I could press “0” to return to the main menu and try it again without having to dial again. Hey, that was handy. I went through this maybe fifty times: 2, 3 .. told to hang up .. 0, 2, 3 … told to hang up .. 0, 2, 3 … etc. FINALLY I got through and was put on hold. I was going to speak to the next available rep. By this time it was 8:45am and I didn’t have any hope that tickets were still available, but at the very least I wanted to find out if my online order from earlier had gone through.

After 5 minutes of waiting I finally got to speak to someone. She said that they still had tickets left! But only “dine with an astronaut” tickets. These tickets are $20 more expensive and you get to have breakfast with a real astronaut in the morning before you take the bus to the causeway to see the launch. Well, I didn’t have to think twice about that! Of course, gimme two of those! I gave all my details over the phone and that was it.

Wow, that was a stressful one hour of trying to get these tickets yesterday morning. I never received a confirmation by email yesterday, so this morning I called them again (got through right away this time) and they confirmed that we’re in the system and the tickets will be mailed to us on November 2nd. I’m so looking forward to going to Florida again and really hope the launch won’t be scrubbed this time. Keep your fingers crossed!

STS-125 Clears the Tower

October 21st 2009 | 7:35 am CET | 10 Comments »

Good backyard bird week

Posted by Arthur in Birds, Illinois, Life in America, Nature

We’ve had a good week for backyard birding. Not only did the White-crowned Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos return for the winter, we also had five new song birds! Since we moved to this house in February we’ve been keeping track of all the birds we’ve seen in our backyard. This week we added five new species.

It started last Monday with a Yellow-rumped Warbler that was hanging out in the back and the next day Amy spotted the first Chipping Sparrow at our feeder. On Wednesday we heard a thump against the window and found a little Golden-crowned Kinglet laying on the roof, knocked out. We picked it up and put it in a box in a warm place. A half hour later it started to scratch around in the box so we let it out in the backyard. The kinglet immediately flew to our tallest tree and we watched it for a while as it was flitting around the tree top looking for bugs. Yesterday we saw our first Red-breasted Nuthatch flying back-and-forth between a feeder and a tree and just a few minutes later a Ruby-crowned Kinglet was hopping around the big tree where we had earlier seen the recuperated Golden-crowned.

Wow, that makes 30 different species in our yard so far! I never guessed we’d get so many in our suburban neighborhood! Especially the beautiful warbler and kinglets were a huge surprise. We’ve also been seeing a Cooper’s Hawk almost every day, terrorizing our song birds. Last week we saw him eat a House Sparrow and Amy caught it on video (gruesome!). He likes to sit on the lightest slat of our fence, which is the same color has himself, so he blends right in.

Here’s our complete backyard species list:

  1. Ruby-crowned Kinglet (16 October 2009)
  2. Red-breasted Nuthatch (16 October 2009)
  3. Golden-crowned Kinglet (14 October 2009)
  4. Chipping Sparrow (13 October 2009)
  5. Yellow-rumped Warbler (12 October 2009)
  6. House Wren (3 August 2009)
  7. Blue Jay (31 May 2009)
  8. Northern Flicker (25 May 2009)
  9. Red-tailed Hawk (24 May 2009)
  10. Ring-billed Gull (19 May 2009)
  11. Baltimore Oriole (18 May 2009)
  12. Common Grackle (6 May 2009)
  13. White-crowned Sparrow (6 May 2009)
  14. Tree Swallow (May 2009)
  15. Brown-headed Cowbird (April 2009)
  16. Common Starling (30 March 2009)
  17. American Tree Sparrow (30 March 2009)
  18. Downy Woodpecker (20 March 2009)
  19. American Robin (18 March 2009)
  20. Song Sparrow (15 March 2009)
  21. Red-winged Blackbird (15 March 2009)
  22. American Crow (March 2009)
  23. Northern Cardinal (15 March 2009)
  24. House Sparrow (12 March 2009)
  25. Mourning Dove (6 March 2009)
  26. House Finch (6 March 2009)
  27. Black-capped Chickadee (3 March 2009)
  28. Cooper’s Hawk (March 2009)
  29. Dark-eyed Junco (26 February 2009)
  30. American Goldfinch (22 February 2009)

Blue Jay

October 17th 2009 | 9:00 pm CET | No Comments »

We need a tax on plastic bags

Posted by Arthur in Environment, Life in America

I’ve been living here now for just over a year, and I can’t believe the amount of plastic that is being used, especially at grocery stores. We usually bring our own reusable bags when we go shopping, but 99 out of 100 other people don’t, at least not where we shop. Even gallons of milk, with a perfectly fine handle to carry, are often double-bagged (or triple!) because the cashier or bagger thinks the milk is too heavy for just one bag. It doesn’t even occur to them that the customer could just as well carry the jug by its handle. The other day we went to K-Mart to buy a six-pack of half liter bottles of Coke for our road trip. The pack had a beautiful strong handle to carry them, but the cashier still tried to double-bag them before we stopped her. What a waste!

Sometimes it’s even impossible to not use the plastic bags. Many grocery stores have baggers at the end of every register that start bagging your stuff before you have a chance to hand them your reusable bag. And places like K-Mart and Walmart often have one of those carousels full of plastic bags at every register that cashiers drop the stuff in, making it impractical to use your own reusable bag because there’s simply no space to put it.

Pile of plastic bags

According to, the people of this planet use over 500,000,000,000 (500 billion) plastic bags annually, or almost 1 million per minute! One million new bags a minute?! That’s hard too imagine. According to the Wall Street Journal, the United States alone uses 100 billion annually, which cost the country an estimated 12 million barrels of oil to produce.

When we lived in Holland we would occasionally drive down to France to do some grocery shopping for things we couldn’t normally get, at mega supermarkets like E. Leclerc or Carrefour. Until a few years ago they were using plastic bags everywhere. They would give you a hundred for free if you wanted to, packing just a few items in each bag. Every family was leaving their local supermarché‎ with their purchased goods in a ton of plastic bags. Then all of a sudden the government passed a law to tax plastic bags. The next time we visited the country every single French shopper was carrying their re-usable bags into the store. It was an amazing transformation, but it was like it had never been any different. It is that easy!

Back in 2001, Ireland was the first nation to tax plastic bags as a way to stop them from littering the countryside. Before the tax, every Irish man, woman and child would use an average of 300 bags per year, a total of 1.2 billion per year for the country. Besides generating more than $175m for the government, the 7-year-old tax has reduced the country’s use of disposable bags by 90%. Apparently that is not yet enough, because this week the Irish government announced it is doubling its tax from 22 euro cents to 44 cents per bag.

France and Ireland are not the only countries that are taking measures to push consumers to use more eco-friendly products. Belgium enacted a “picnic” tax in 2007, which includes saran wrap and aluminum foil. Earlier this year, even China banned stores from giving out free plastic bags!

Obama promised change and the environment is among his to priorities. So what about a federal tax on plastic bags, or at least encourage states to implement one? Sure, in the beginning people will be outraged, but before they realize they’ll be walking from their car to their local Piggly Wiggly with a nice reusable shopping bag. We’ll save millions of barrels of oil each year and 100,000s of sea turtles too.

September 30th 2009 | 9:06 am CET | No Comments »

Grass police

Posted by Arthur in Life in America

The house across the street from us has been empty since we moved in here. Every two weeks or so a landscaping company, hired by the owner, comes by to mow the grass. We noticed that the last few times they forgot to remove some weeds in front of the garage, and those are now a couple of feet tall. No big deal, you hardly notice it.

This morning there was a white truck, with the text “Code Department” on the side, parked in front of the house. The driver was straining his neck looking at the house while taking notes. The man stepped out of his truck with a measuring stick and walked around taking pictures of the weeds while holding the stick next to them.

1832 lawnmower

I like a nicely manicured and landscaped lawn, it looks beautiful, but is it any business of the city to tell people how long their grass should be? Now, if my neighbor had piles of garbage on his lawn, was playing loud music late at night or had a hemp farm in his backyard, those are things the police should write a ticket for … but grass that is a few inches too long? Come on!

When we moved here in February we went to the City Hall to ask if there was any information they had for us, about garbage pick-up and things like that. There was nothing. Actually, all they gave us was a newsletter from 2007. I had no idea there was a grass ordinance like this. I just checked their website and indeed grass in our community may not be taller than 8 inches (20 cm).

A couple of weeks ago our neighbor came to borrow our lawnmower because his had just broken down and he claimed that the ‘police’ had told him that morning to mow his lawn or get a fine the next day. I didn’t believe him about the police until today. The neighbor’s grass didn’t seem that long at all! Maybe some patches were slightly over 8 inches, but to fine him for that? Come on!

Slightly longer grass is actually better for the environment. Besides the obvious reason that using your gas-powered lawnmower less often saves gas, longer grass also requires less watering as moisture is reserved in the leafs and it provides a natural habitat for insects, worms and other food for birds.

I understand people want to live in a neat Wisteria Lane-type neighborhood with perfect lawns, but it seems a bit ridiculous to give out fines for having grass that is a bit too long.

September 29th 2009 | 12:31 pm CET | No Comments »

Day at the Field Museum

Posted by Arthur in Chicago, Illinois, Museums

Today we spent the day at The Field Museum in Chicago. It had been a while since we had been to this excellent museum. One of the reasons we went today was to see a lecture by author Glen Chilton on his new book about Labrador Ducks. Amy wrote some more about this here.

Field Museum
Main Hall of the museum

Field Museum
Me in front of the display of T-Rex Sue

September 26th 2009 | 11:13 pm CET | 1 Comment »

Rocky Mountain NP, 5 years ago

Posted by Arthur in Travel

Five years ago today we were in Estes Park on our roadtrip to Colorado and the Rocky Mountains. We stayed in a cottage at Tiny Town (now apparently called Trout Haven Ranch Cabins) and spent the day in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Tiny Town Cottages, Estes Park CO
Tiny Town Cottages, Estes Park

Chasm Falls
Chasm Falls on Fall River Road

Stellar's Jay
A Stellar’s Jay

View from Trail Ridge Road
View from Trail Ridge Road

Alpine Visitor Center
Alpine Visitor Center

Elk seen from Alpine Visitor Center
Herd of elk seen from Alpine Visitor Center

Drop on leaf

Rocky Mountain National Park

On our drive back to Estes Park it suddenly started snowing. The sky darkened while the mountains were still illuminated from the low sun …

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

September 10th 2009 | 3:13 am CET | 1 Comment »

Hummingbird Festival

Posted by Arthur in Birds

Last Saturday we visited the Hummingbird Festival at Camp Sagawau. We learned about hummingbirds, watched how they capture them for banding and we saw a bander at work. Amy posted about the event on her birding blog: I was a migrating hummingbird, Capturing fast fliers, Tools for banding a hummingbird and Hummingbird groupies.

Hummingbird banding

September 3rd 2009 | 9:58 pm CET | No Comments »