Wednesday, October 11, 2017

October 11th – Our Cruise Ends With A Bang in Port Canaveral

If Silversea wanted to finish this cruise on a high, they couldn't have commissioned a better fireworks show than to give us the chance to watch a rocket launch at such close hand from Kennedy Space Center.

Because, SpaceX (the Space Exploration company put together by Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk) was scheduled to launch a communications satellite from Kennedy at 6.53pm, and we were leaving Port Canaveral at 6.00pm. So, the Captain kindly allowed us to wait offshore for the launch time – although, we fully expected the launch to be delayed or even cancelled, as is often the case.

I was getting the live updates online on the progress of the launch as all the checks were done, and all indications were that it was going to plan. As T-minus 90, went to T-minus 30, to T-minus 5, our excitement levels were going stratospheric. Were we really going to witness a rocket launch? I've always dreamt of it.

Tracy and I were almost jumping up and down with excitement at the front of the ship as the seconds counted down, then we saw the ignition (we had been looking at the wrong launch pad, but we quickly worked out which was the right one). The flame was incredibly bright, but strangely enough there was no sound – the wind was blowing in the other direction.

We must have been about 6 miles away, but from this distance the rocket seemed to leave the launch pad at a slower rate than I thought it would, although it quickly soared away into the atmosphere. Only after a minute or so, did we hear a distant rumble that lasted for just a few seconds. The trail of vapour as it disengaged from its fuel tanks left a lingering trace in the sky as the fierce flame turned into a distant dot of light, before disappearing altogether.

It was amazing to think that this fleeting yet exhilarating glimpse of the space programme would have been the culmination of years of planning and billions of dollars of expenditure. It was a privilege to watch and an incredible send off for what's been a really enjoyable month on the Silver Muse.

Whoever told you that it's not rocket science was lying after all.

PS. After a few days in Florida, we'll be back in the UK for a couple of weeks, before heading off to Hong Kong to join the Silver Shadow for a month-long journey down to Sydney. See you on November 3rd!

October 10th – A Space Cadet at the Kennedy Space Center

When I was growing up, pretty much every child wanted to be an astronaut. But, with the winding down of the American Space Programme since the last Space Shuttle mission in 2011, the concept of space exploration seems to have lost its hold on the public imagination.

But, if you wanted to re-ignite anyone's interest in Space, you just have to send them to the fantastic Kennedy Space Center in Florida – a place that combines being an education centre, a high-tech theme park, and a literally space age working facility. Witnessing all these different facets in one place made for an inspiring day, where we marvelled at the skill, the bravery, the ingenuity, the technology, and the sheer daring to put man into space.

The people behind the Visitors Centre have clearly learnt a lot from the other Orlando theme parks like Disney World and Universal Studios – the whole place resounds to a stirring background theme tune that was a cross between Apollo 13 and Star Wars, while the slick films use state of the art technology to bring the wonders of space travel and rocket science to life, and the passionate voiceovers draw you into the excitement of the space race.

But, behind all the impressive gimmicks and staging, what impresses most is the hardware itself – we walked around the Space Shuttle Atlantis, its bodywork scarred by millions of miles of space travel. Just the small details were fascinating – like its super-light tiles that could resist temperatures of over 2,000 degrees centigrade (mind you, some of them cost up to $1million each). To create re-usable technology like this was truly ground-breaking.

We visited the Heroes and Legends exhibition, where we saw that it really did take the Right Stuff to be one of the early astronauts – you needed an incredible brain and enormous skill, but also a level of bravery that bordered on the reckless. The massive achievements of these people make you feel small by comparison.

One of the highlights was a talk by an astronaut while we had lunch – in this case it was Space Shuttle astronaut, Bruce Melnick. His talk had just the right amount of detail – telling us about the incredible training and skills required, but also filling us in on the mundane details that everyone wants to know about, but is too ashamed to ask – what the food was like, how did they go to the toilet?

Then we drove around the Kennedy site to see the various launch pads. If the morning had felt like we were visiting a remnant of a glorious past, it was good to be reminded that Kennedy is still working site, and that the space programme is still an ongoing process. Manned missions may be on hold for the time being (although the goal is a mission to Mars in the next decade or so), but rockets are still being launched on a regular basis – in fact, we saw the SpaceX rocket being readied for its launch tomorrow.

Finally, we went to the Saturn V exhibit, which detailed the amazing achievements of the Apollo Moon Landings. Aside from the sheer size of the enormous Saturn V rocket that we walked underneath, it was hard to get your head around what was achieved, given the limited technology of the day. To achieve all this with such rudimentary computing was incredible.

The whole day was a great combination of entertainment and education, presented in an incredibly slick way that just about avoided being cheesy. Whenever the voiceover threatened to head towards hyperbole, it was the incredible achievements and bravery of the NASA astronauts and technicians carried you along.

If only I weren't too old, too cowardly, and too inept, I might start to dream to be an astronaut again.

October 8th – Birthday Boy in Morehead City

What more could a boy (ok, middle aged man) hope for, than getting the chance to celebrate his birthday in the exotic town of Morehead City, North Carolina?

What is there to do in an obscure little place like Morehead City, I hear you ask. Well, in a town of just 8,000 people without much in the way of history or sights - not much.

UNLESS…. you just happen to be visiting while the North Carolina Seafood Festival is on. Because, we had chanced upon the city on one of the few weekends when there's in fact quite a lot going on – loads of food stalls, fairground rides, music, and about 100,000 visitors over the weekend (maybe about 20,000 people there on the Sunday we were there).

To be honest, this wasn't a particularly high brow affair, but there was a jolly atmosphere in town and the people were all very friendly. Being a fishing town, I was expecting lots of tasty seafood morsels on offer, but everything was deep-fried with a lot of typical southern fare, plus a few exotic touches as well – deep-fried snickers bars, and even deep-fried shrimp encrusted in Frosted Flakes. Now, as anyone who knows me will testify, I do love Frosties, but even I drew the line at fried frostie-prawns. Needless to say, there were quite a few big boned people waddling around the festival.

Fortunately, we had eaten before we got there, because we had caught a taxi over to the charming little town of Beaufort, just across the water. As the third oldest town in the state, there were a lot of historic houses (18th and 19th centuries at least) to look around, and the townspeople did a great job of welcoming us to the town and showing us round.

Without visiting Beaufort, this might have been a disappointing day, but in fact we had a very nice time. Actually, the people of Beaufort were fairly disparaging about Morehead – and, even when we asked some Morehead people what the best thing to do in their town, it took them a good 5 minutes to come up with anything. And, that involved getting out of town, and going fishing!

Some days you don't have stunning natural sights, or amazing buildings, or momentous history to discover; but, you can still have fun anywhere – even Morehead City.