Apollo 11: 50 Years On

Apollo_11_Crew

Credit: NASA

On 16th July 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin blasted off in a Saturn V rocket from Cape Kennedy in Florida, headed for the Moon. Four days later, Armstrong and Aldrin – in their lunar module Eagle – became the first human beings to touch down on the surface of a world other than the Earth, fulfilling President John F Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to land a man on the Moon before the end of the decade. To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of this momentous achievement, here are ten things you may not have known about the Apollo 11 mission:

  1. The Apollo 11 mission patch depicts a bald eagle – symbolising the United States – descending to the Moon, carrying an olive branch to symbolise peaceful intent. The patch was designed by Michael Collins, who traced the eagle out of a National Geographic book. He originally had the eagle holding the branch in its beak, but the outstretched talons in that design were thought to look too threatening; in the final design, the branch was placed in the talons instead.
Apollo_11_insignia

Credit: NASA

2. A few different reasons have been given for Neil Armstrong being chosen to step onto the Moon ahead of Buzz Aldrin, such as that it was more appropriate given that Armstrong was the mission commander, or that his reserved and modest personality made him better suited to handle the celebrity that would inevitably come from being the first man on the Moon. Officially, at least, the deciding factor was that the lunar module hatch opened inward towards Aldrin, meaning he could only get out first if he and Armstrong switched places in the cabin, which would be very difficult in bulky spacesuits.

3. The crew of Apollo 11 did technically see a UFO while they were on their way to the Moon – or at least, an object that they couldn’t identify for certain. It looked vaguely L-shaped, and appeared to be flashing; the crew held off reporting it openly in case an overexcited public got any ideas about aliens. The most likely explanation is that the object was a panel from the Saturn V rocket’s third stage, which was rotating as it went, and thus intermittently exposing its most reflective side to the Sun.

4. As Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the Moon, they overshot their intended landing site in the Sea of Tranquility; taking manual control in the final stages, Armstrong had to steer the lunar module away from a field of boulders, almost running out of fuel in the process. The reason for the overshoot was that the tunnel between the command module and lunar module hadn’t been completely vented before the two spacecraft undocked; the residual air gave Eagle an unexpected little nudge, which put it slightly ahead of where it was supposed to be when the descent began.

5. Another problem that occurred during the landing were that program alarms repeatedly went off; coded 1202 and 1201, the alarms indicated that the spacecraft’s computer was overloaded. This was later determined to be because the rendezvous radar had been left in automatic mode, in case Armstrong and Aldrin needed to abort and rendezvous with the command module; this was giving the computer extra data to process, while it was already handling all the data related to the descent. Fortunately, these particular alarms had previously come up during a simulation for the Mission Control team, so guidance officer Steve Bales could advise Flight Director Gene Kranz that the computer could handle the issue and an abort wouldn’t be necessary.

6. The first ever walk on the Moon was quite conservative, in terms of time and distance. There were only 2 hours and 31 minutes between opening the lunar module’s hatch and closing it again; Armstrong and Aldrin spent their short time on the surface collecting rock samples, setting up experiments and the American flag, and receiving a congratulatory call from President Richard Nixon. The furthest that either man went away from the lunar module was when Armstrong spent a few minutes investigating a crater about sixty metres away.

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Credit: NASA

7. According to Neil Armstrong’s biography First Man by James R Hansen, there are only five still photographs of Armstrong himself on the lunar surface, including one where he can be seen reflected in Buzz Aldrin’s visor. For most of the moonwalk, Armstrong was holding the single Hasselblad camera, and on the occasions when Aldrin had the camera, he was preoccupied with scheduled tasks.

8. Shortly after the moonwalk, Aldrin noticed that a switch on the control panel had been inadvertently broken off; this switch happened to be the one which armed the lunar module’s ascent engine, used to lift off from the Moon. Fortunately, when it was time to lift off, Aldrin was able to operate the switch anyway by sticking a felt-tip pen into the socket.

9. Armstrong and Aldrin didn’t sleep well during their rest period on the Moon. For one thing, there wasn’t much space to get comfortable in the cramped lunar module cabin; Armstrong lay on the engine cover, his head resting on a shelf and his legs in a sling, while Aldrin curled up on the floor. As well as that, the cabin was cold, the life support systems made noise, and they couldn’t take their spacesuits off. From Apollo 12 onwards, astronauts on the Moon slept in hammocks, and from Apollo 15 onwards, they were able to remove their spacesuits when going to bed.

10. The Apollo 11 mission brought 21.6 kilograms of moon rock back to Earth, from which three new minerals were discovered. One was named tranquillityite after the landing site, the Sea of Tranquility; another was named armalcolite, after Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins.

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My Third 10K – With Ice Cream Bonus!

Garstang 10K

Today, I took on my third official 10K event: the Garstang Ice Cream 10K, recommended by a friend at work, and being held in support of the Garstang Ice Cream Festival next weekend. Having run 10K in two of the three weekends leading up to the event, and maintained the same pace as the Blackpool 10K in April, I was feeling reasonably confident. Arriving in Garstang early (parking was limited and I didn’t know how many people would be participating), I had time for a walk around the small market town. I hadn’t known until today that Garstang used to have a castle, which was mostly dismantled after the English Civil War; only part of a single tower remains today, standing on top of a hill.

The course went south out of Garstang before turning east into the countryside, circling north and west to arrive back in the town. The weather and the quiet country lanes were both very pleasant, and while it certainly wasn’t completely flat, the downhill stretches were longer and steeper than the uphill ones.

I did make one mistake: accepting a water bottle at the halfway point, then drinking too fast and too quickly. Probably as a result, I felt a cramp twice during the second half and had to slow down. Still, that’s a lesson learned for next time.

My official time was 53:46, not as good as the Blackpool 10K – where the course was probably more favourable – but still well ahead of my first one. Once I’d got my breath back, I went to collect the prize for completion: a free ice cream! I chose blackcurrant cheesecake flavour.

I don’t know yet what my next event will be, though I’ll certainly be having a second go at the Preston 10K later this year. My aim at the moment is to get used to running 10Ks, then gradually increasing my distance, in the hope of trying a half marathon next year.

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Book review: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

Rise Fall Dinosaurs

Most dinosaur books I’ve read take a general ‘big picture’ approach: they go over the well known taxonomic groups of dinosaur (theropods, sauropodomorphs, etc) with additional chapters describing things like the world that dinosaurs lived in, how they behaved, how non-avian dinosaurs became extinct, and the history of their study by palaeontologists. Steve Brusatte’s The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs – which I learned about from the excellent podcast I Know Dino, where Brusatte was recently interviewed – does things a little differently: while still covering a lot of ground on the subject of dinosaurs, it mostly sticks to a chronological telling of the story, placing focus on how and why dinosaurs evolved the way they did.

The book begins with how dinosaurs first evolved in the Triassic, on the supercontinent of Pangaea; following the extinction of many of the dinosaurs’ main rivals at the end of that period, we then learn about their diversification in the Jurassic and their heyday in the Cretaceous, before an asteroid finally ended their reign. There is plenty of detail on the factors that probably influenced dinosaur evolution, such as the movement of the continents, the resulting climatic changes, and the ecological pressures that dinosaurs faced from other reptiles and each other; it was especially interesting to learn more about all this and get a clearer picture of the Mesozoic world. Our knowledge of dinosaurs is constantly changing with new discoveries and technological applications, and it often feels hard to keep up; most of what I thought I knew as a child, when my interest in dinosaurs was at its peak, is hopelessly outdated now. But The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is packed with the most recent information, from the discoveries of new links in the evolutionary chain, to the use of Brontosaurus as a valid genus. The book isn’t afraid to point out what we currently don’t know, but it’s certainly impressive how much we do know.

Another thing that sets this book apart from most other ones I’ve read is how much Steve Brusatte talks about his personal experiences in palaeontology, from the places he has looked for fossils to the colourful characters whom he has worked alongside. This adds an extra level of engagement to the book, and gives a proper idea of what is involved with becoming and working as a palaeontologist. Brusatte’s enthusiasm is infectious, particularly when talking about his younger years and being excited to meet respected scientists like Paul Sereno and Walter Alvarez. At one point, he describes visiting the Great Hall of Dinosaurs in the Peabody Museum in New Haven, Connecticut, which he likens to visiting a religious shrine; I’ve added this museum to my list of places to visit when I’m next in the northeastern United States.

Highly readable and wonderfully informative, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is a must-read for anyone the least bit interested in dinosaurs; even enthusiasts who already know a lot about the subject will hopefully be left thinking about dinosaurs in new and interesting ways.

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Film review – Spider-Man: Far From Home

Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far From Home sees our young hero Peter Parker (Tom Holland) still processing the events of Avengers: Endgame; he’s lost his mentor, Tony Stark, and he and most of his friends have been blipped back into a world where five years went by without them. Peter is eager for the opportunity to take a break: a school trip to Europe, where he intends to pursue his new-found crush on MJ (Zendaya). But of course, fate has other plans, as Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) pops up to recruit Peter to battle a new peril: the Elementals, monsters from another universe who threaten to destroy the planet. Luckily, Peter has help in the form of Quentin Beck, a.k.a. Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), a resident of the Elementals’ alternate Earth, who is powerful, heroic, and totally trustworthy…

I’m sorry to say that the first half hour of this film was painful, being almost entirely devoted to high school drama and “comedy”. Yes, those things made up a significant portion of Spider-Man: Homecoming, but in that film, Peter’s fellow students were tolerable, certainly no worse than boring. Here, most of them – Ned, Flash, Betty, Peter’s love rival Brad, and especially the chaperones – are cringeworthy, and given too much screentime to deliver jokes that aren’t even funny. Zendaya as MJ (who is now referred to as MJ throughout instead of Michelle, though she’s still no Mary Jane Watson) isn’t annoying, simply by virtue of being quiet and snarky instead of in-your-face, but I still found it hard to buy or care about Peter’s attraction to her. Rather like with Harry Potter and Cho Chang, if I wanted the male protagonist to win the object of his affections, it was more because I cared about his happiness than because the girl was a well-rounded character who was a good match for him.

Fortunately, once the main plot involving superheroics and soul-searching gets going, it makes up for the more irritating and less interesting content. Once again, things are turned up a notch from Homecoming, but this time in a good way. Continuing in the same vein of doing things as differently as possible from previous Spider-Man films, having him move between different European locations like a spy movie gives a nice dose of variety. Tom Holland is still excellent as Peter Parker, still balancing the strength of a superhero with the vulnerability of a teenager who feels in over his head, and is even more unsure of himself following the death of his greatest supporter. I would have liked a little more time spent on Peter’s feelings about Tony, though.

Then there’s Mysterio. If you’re a Spider-Man fan, and you know anything about Mysterio, you’re going to see the film’s big twist coming a mile off – but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining; the resulting plot developments lead to some fantastic mind-bending moments and action set pieces in the second half. The general concept of Mysterio is adapted very well into the established world of the MCU; even his traditional look, complete with fishbowl head, is brought to life without being laughable. Jake Gyllenhaal is clearly having a great time in the role, portraying Quentin Beck with plenty of charisma and panache. Finally, there’s a surprise cameo in the mid-credits scene that is absolutely wonderful.

Compared to Spider-Man: Homecoming, the superhero element of Spider-Man: Far From Home is even better – but the high school element is much, much worse. So overall, it balances out to be about the same quality. Rating: 3.5/5.

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Film review: Apollo 11

Apollo 11 Film

Next month will see the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and in commemoration, two documentary films have been made: Armstrong, which comes out next month, and Apollo 11, which was just released in the UK. I had to travel some distance to see this film as it wasn’t showing at my local cinema (yet somehow they still found room for a documentary about Diego Maradona); I ended up going to the Trafford Centre outside Manchester as it was recommended I see it in IMAX. It was absolutely worth it.

Apollo 11 differs from other documentary films I’ve seen in that there is no narration, not even in the form of contemporary interview clips. Instead, the film presents archival footage – some of which has never been released to the public before – with the accompanying audio consisting of voice recordings from the time. These are allowed to do most of the explaining, assisted only by captions, simple diagrams of spacecraft manouvers, and countdown clocks sometimes being used for dramatic effect. (The one thing I could find to complain about with the film was that Flight Director Gene Kranz’s last name was misspelled as ‘Krantz’ in the captions.) This approach gives a pleasant purity to the film, allowing what you see and hear to speak for itself. While the quality of the footage naturally varies depending on what sort of film was being used, the best of it is so well restored that it’s hardly distinguishable from modern visuals.

The material is wonderfully edited together to give a full picture of the flight and everyone involved: from the astronauts in their cramped spacecraft; to everyone sitting at the seemingly endless rows of consoles in the Launch Control Centre; to the crowds of spectators watching the launch in awe, the glow of the ascending rocket reflected in their sunglasses. Even space buffs will get something new to think about from what is presented; for example, in the hours before launch, it is announced that technicians are working to fix a leaking valve on the rocket – and even though I obviously knew how everything would go, part of me still felt a little tension. I also liked how the film shows what Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did on their moonwalk besides collecting rocks and erecting the flag, as well as taking time to examine the isolation of Michael Collins in the command module.

Watching the film in IMAX definitely allows for maximum appreciation visually, both in terms of scale – particularly when looking at the Saturn V rocket at the beginning – and detail; for example, when the command module Columbia moves in to dock with the lunar module Eagle, you can see Eagle‘s panels ripple. When it comes to sound, obviously the big moment is the Saturn V launch – and when those engines ignite in an IMAX theatre, you don’t just hear it; you feel it. It’s so immersive that when the astronauts are ascending the launch tower, you feel like you’re right there in the elevator with them. The techno-style music is used effectively, such as how it gradually slows down when Apollo 11 is braking to enter lunar orbit.

Apollo 11 is a fantastic way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing – no matter what your level of interest in the subject, you should get something out of this film, and do see it in IMAX if you can. Rating: 5/5!

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Adventures in California: Part 4

Day 8 – 14th May

I’d elected not to take the Coast Starlight back to Los Angeles; it would come into Union Station late in the evening even if it was running on schedule, which I thought might be unlikely given that it was coming all the way from Seattle. So I took a Megabus instead. This meant I had to take another bus north – in the opposite direction from where I wanted to go – to San Jose Diridon Station in order to get on the Megabus, but it was on time and got me back without any problems. The journey back was on I-5, further inland than the train had been; mostly there was a lot of flat farmland stretching far away to the east, which eventually gave way to rugged hills as we approached LA.

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Then it was back on the Metro, where there was a man in a dressing gown and another who kept slapping the subway door when it closed.

Day 9 – 15th May

For my last full day, I headed down to the area close to LAX, where happily my hotel allowed me to check in early. There were a couple of things I wanted to see that were within reach of this point.

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A friend on Twitter had recommended I go down to the headquarters of SpaceX in Hawthorne; I couldn’t go in the building, of course, but I could see the Falcon 9 first stage that is on display outside. This isn’t just any old first stage, but B1019, the first booster that SpaceX successfully landed back on Earth following launch, on 22nd December 2015. It towers over everything around it, so much so that I had to go across the street to fit it into a single photo.

Although I was pretty tired – public transport gets wearing after a while, particularly in a busy city – I still wanted to go down to Venice Beach as well. The sky was overcast yet again, so I couldn’t see a proper sunset as I had hoped. But it was still very pleasant to stand on the pier, watching the waves coming in, looking out at the Pacific and reflecting on the fact that there is nothing in that direction for thousands of miles until you hit Asia.

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Finally, I went to the Cheesecake Factory at Marina Del Rey. I hadn’t been able to indulge myself with good American food as much as I’d hoped on the trip; partly due to being on the go so much; partly because with other things to concentrate on a lot of the time, I wanted something quick and familiar at mealtimes. But that evening, I sat down and just went for it: a big bacon cheeseburger and a chocolate hazelnut crunch cheesecake. Oh, yes.

Day 10 – 16th May

The beginning of the journey home was a little more stressful than I’d hoped. As both of my flights were under Virgin Atlantic flight numbers, I was under the impression that I would need to check in at the Virgin Atlantic desk – but it never opened. Eventually, since the domestic flight to Las Vegas was operated by Delta, I went to their desk; but while they could check my luggage through to Manchester, they could only give me a boarding pass for the first flight. As I only had a small transfer window in Las Vegas, this got me concerned – particularly as due to high winds in Las Vegas, incoming traffic had been reduced and our plane was late in leaving LAX. I did at least get to sit to a very nice British man, who lived and worked in California but was going to watch Manchester City in the FA Cup final. He didn’t mind that I was a Liverpool supporter, since his wife was one too.

Thankfully, upon arrival at McCarran, I was able to transfer quickly between terminals using the tram, get my boarding pass and reach the gate just before boarding. From there, it was a smooth journey back home.

I took a lot of lessons away from my self-planned holiday in California. Next time, I will need to factor in a few more rest days, and as the American public transport could be stressful at times, I may hire a car. When it comes to sightseeing, quality is more important than quantity. And while the solo travel felt a bit lonely on occasion, it showed me that I am capable of planning a long itinerary and carrying it out; I dealt with problems when they came up, and I saw and did everything that I’d planned. Now I need to decide where the next adventure will be!

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Adventures in California: Part 3

Day 5 – 11th May

It was now time to leave Los Angeles behind for a little while, and head up north to Monterey. I would be travelling on the Coast Starlight, another Amtrak train that goes all the way between Los Angeles and Seattle. After the previous day’s experience, I was wary of Amtrak; but not only did the train leave Union Station on time, it was about as comfortable as an eight-hour journey can be, even in coach class.

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There was plenty of legroom, and the staff were very attentive. There was a cafe for snacks – I opted not to go for the dining car. You also couldn’t beat the scenery: arid and rocky not far out of the city, giving way to the beautiful blue of the Pacific, through Vandenberg Air Force Base to the rolling hills around San Luis Obispo. Adjacent to my seating area was an observation car, which not only had larger windows, but a couple of people providing commentary on the areas that the train passed through. As we approached Salinas, the hills looked familiar; I’d seen a picture on the cover of East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Steinbeck was born in Salinas and spent much of his life in that area of California, while setting many of his stories there too.

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The train was about half an hour late getting into Salinas, but since I had a guaranteed bus connection from there to Monterey, this hardly mattered. Soon I was checked into my hotel in the small coastal city, ready for the next day’s adventure: whale watching.

Day 6 – 12th May

It was a short walk up Alvarado Street to Fisherman’s Wharf, where Monterey Bay Whale Watch were based. At 8am, after a briefing, we got onboard the Sea Wolf II and headed out towards the open ocean, passing a large number of cormorants and barking sealions on the breakwater. I had opted for an eight-hour trip, to maximise the chances of seeing something. Mindful of the risk of sea-sickness, I’d taken some personal medication before setting out, and I was also hoping that having adjusted so quickly to sailing in Ischia five years earlier, I would be okay here too.

After about an hour and a half, we saw our first cetaceans, and plenty of them: a nursery pod of Risso’s dolphins. These dolphins, which can also be found in British waters, are recognisable by their blunt, rounded heads and the white scars they pick up as they age, both from fighting each other and wrestling with squid. With both the boat and the dolphins moving around so much, it was hard to estimate just how many there were, but the marine biologists on board reckoned there were over a hundred. They generally surfaced a few at a time, the calves easily recognisable among the larger adults.

The boat then headed off in search of humpback whales. Along the way, the wind started picking up; and unfortunately, after a few hours of feeling fine, I started feeling the effects of the choppier ride. We found several humpbacks, but I was feeling too queasy to properly appreciate most of them. I was, however, able to film a mother and calf; the calf put on quite a show, repeatedly leaping out of the water for us.

Eventually, with the wind continuing to rise, the boat headed back to harbour a little early, and I was relieved to step back onto dry land. I might not have seen any orcas that day, but at least I’d seen some whales; and while the sea-sickness had been rough, I didn’t want that to put me off trying again at some point in the future. Next time, I believe I’ll take a shorter tour, or try stronger medication.

That evening, I was hungry enough to head back to Fisherman’s Wharf to try some local food – specifically, clam chowder in a bread bowl. There were plenty of places offering it, but I ended up going with Crabby Jim’s as they were offering free samples outside. I also stopped by a nearby store to get my mum’s souvenir: a cuddly sea otter.

Day 7 – 13th May

Feeling like I had hardly stood still since getting off the plane in Los Angeles, I was ready for a rest day – but I couldn’t sit still for the entire day. I ended up taking a leisurely walk down to Cannery Row. The sun was shining brighter than it had done for most of the holiday thus far, and the path was very pleasant; if I’d had my running shoes with me, I would have taken the opportunity for a jog. Part of the walk gave a good view of the harbour, where I saw a group of sea otters, some playing, others relaxing on their backs as they are wont to do.

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Cannery Row was the centre of sardine canning in Monterey until the 1950s, when the local fishing industry collapsed. It was another area that John Steinbeck was familiar with; his 1945 novel Cannery Row was the first of his books that I ever read. There is a monument on the street featuring Steinbeck, and various other characters symbolising the community: a Chinese fisherman, a madam and one of her girls, and Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist and close friend of Steinbeck’s. There was also a Bubba Gump shrimp restaurant, selling not just shrimp, but T-shirts bearing quotes from Forrest Gump.

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Adventures in California: Part 2

Day 3 – 9th May

On this day, I decided to do a circuit, from the La Brea Tar Pits, to the Farmers’ Market, to the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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The La Brea Tar Pits sit above an oil field, where asphalt seeps up to the surface in pits that were dug for mining. When you watch the largest tar pit, it constantly bubbles like something volcanic, as methane and hydrogen sulphide gas break the surface. In the 1870s, the site was found to contain more than asphalt: it was full of fossils, the remains of animals and plants that had become trapped in the tar and preserved as far back as 55,000 years ago. The best known fossils are large Ice Age mammals, like the Columbian mammoths which are depicted as sculptures in the largest pit, but mixed within the asphalt are much smaller remnants – from rodent bones to plant fragments – that paint a detailed picture of the environment at the time.

You can walk around the outdoor tar pits for free, but I was unsure whether to spend more money to go inside the museum itself, particularly when I had already seen prehistoric mammal skeletons at the Natural History Museum the day before. Eventually, I decided to follow my heart – another lesson I took away from this holiday – and went into the museum. I didn’t regret it. While relatively small as museums go, it provided another satisfying dose of fascinating fossils: ground sloths, sabre-toothed cats, mammoths, camels, horses, bears and dire wolves. As with the Natural History Museum, you could see into a real lab where fossils were being prepared.

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Following that enjoyable morning, I knew exactly what I wanted for lunch. On my last visit in 2012, the tour group had gone to Magee’s at the Farmers’ Market, and I had eaten a particularly delicious warm turkey sandwich with lettuce and mayo. So seven years on, I returned to Magee’s and had the exact same sandwich – which was just as good – followed by a cookie-dough ice cream cone. Then I took the bus up to Hollywood.

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For travellers who are unfamiliar with Los Angeles, the bus is considerate enough to announce each stop with an automated voice; and I couldn’t help but notice that once we turned onto Hollywood Boulevard, this voice had a particular cheerful inflection whenever it said ‘Hollywood’. I had already seen the Walk of Fame on my last visit, but I stopped by the Chinese Theatre to see if there were any new handprints. There were indeed some newer ones, which tended to be smaller and crammed around the edges; they included the late Stan Lee, La La Land stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, and the three main stars of the oh-so-memorable Hunger Games franchise. I also took some time to examine the stars on the sidewalk, and spotted some guys taking a photo with Donald Trump’s star. Compared to everything else I had done in Los Angeles thus far, I didn’t like the Walk of Fame all that much; with all the tourist traps and people in costume, it felt very tacky, and I didn’t hang around for long.

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Later in the day, I took a shuttle up the hill to the north, to visit Griffith Observatory. This observatory, which features an excellent view of the city, appears in many different films, such as the beginning of The Terminator. Free to enter, it features a variety of astronomical exhibits: I particularly liked the timeline of the universe, the pendulum which demonstrates the rotation of the Earth beneath it as it knocks over pegs every ten minutes, and a seismograph which registers you stepping or jumping on it. You can take a look through the telescope when it’s dark, but there was no point that day; the weather remained disappointingly cloudy.

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Day 4 – 10th May

Today, I headed to Union Station early in the morning for a day trip to San Diego. While I’d heard about the questionable reliability of Amtrak trains, I was hoping I would be lucky – but I wasn’t. Due to “mechanical issues”, my train was nearly an hour late in leaving Los Angeles; and because it had missed its window, it had to stop along the way to let another train pass in the opposite direction. The end result was that while I did eventually arrive in San Diego, I had less time in the city than intended, so I wasn’t able to walk around as much as I’d hoped. Fortunately, I still had time to see the museums I had already paid for online.

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The first of these was the San Diego Air & Space Museum. At the entrance, you are welcomed by a talking animatronic of Charles Lindbergh, standing beside a replica of the Spirit of St Louis. From there, the museum is a circuit, with historic aircraft both parked on the ground and hanging from the ceiling. They are so tightly packed that it isn’t always easy to figure out what each sign is referring to, so you need to use the map to determine what’s what based on position.

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My main reason for visiting was the Apollo 9 command module, which currently lives within a larger exhibit of space-related items and models. Apollo 9, which flew in March 1969, was an important milestone in the race to the Moon; astronauts Jim McDivitt, Dave Scott and Rusty Schweickart tested the entire Apollo spacecraft configuration in Earth orbit, including the first manned flight of the lunar module. These were the first Apollo spacecraft to have callsigns: the lunar module was named “Spider”, while the command module was called “Gumdrop”, as it was shipped to Florida wrapped in blue plastic.

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The second museum I visited was the USS Midway, a 64,000-ton aircraft carrier docked in the San Diego Bay. Midway was named after the Battle of Midway, a decisive naval victory for the Americans over the Japanese in World War II. (The Americans lost an aircraft carrier in the battle; the Japanese lost four.) She was operational from 1945 to 1992, before becoming a museum ship.

After entering and having a little wander around the hangar deck, I proceeded up to the flight deck, where I was greeted by this beauty.

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Hmmm, where have I seen this before?

Yes, it’s an F-14 Tomcat, the star of one of my favourite films, Top Gun! Definitely a pleasure to finally see one in real life.

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There were plenty of other naval aircraft parked on the flight deck, from the F-4 Phantom to the sleek RA-5 Vigilante. I was able to learn what “Call the ball” means when Maverick is coming in to land; it refers to the lights on the carrier whose position tells a pilot whether their approach angle is too high, too low or just right. I also spent some time listening to a talk by a Vietnam veteran on how aircraft land on carriers. As seen in Top Gun, the plane uses a tailhook to catch one of a few arresting cables stretched across the deck; I learned many details I hadn’t known before, like how the wires are connected to hydraulics below deck which absorb the plane’s kinetic energy, and how the pilot must put the engines to full throttle upon touchdown in case they miss the cables and have to take off again.

The exhibits below decks were fascinating. When operational, Midway had a full crew complement of 4,500, and so had to function as a floating city to keep everyone happy and healthy on their long tours away from home. As well as the galleys, there was the sick bay, dental room, brig, laundry room, chapel, and even a post office.

Before leaving, I went to the gift shop to get souvenirs for my family. There was a lot of Top Gun-themed merchandise there; since my dad and sister love the film as much as I do, I got a cap for him and a T-shirt for her. There is a special pleasure that comes from picking out a gift for someone that you know they’re going to love.

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Game of Thrones: How I Felt About Season 8

(Warning: spoilers. Obviously.)

So, the final season of Game of Thrones. If you haven’t been living under a rock for the past two months, you’ve probably noticed that an awful lot of people on the Internet did not like it. Many of those people have produced detailed YouTube videos explaining how and why the conclusion to this much-beloved show was so unsatisfying, and I strongly recommend checking them out.

As for me, I thought it wasn’t that bad – it was still very watchable. That said, there were issues, especially in the last two episodes, mostly linked to there not being enough time to do everyone justice.

I was very satisfied with the first two episodes, covering the build-up to the big battle with the Night King. By the time Episode 3 began, I was suitably tense and trying to emotionally prepare myself for the character deaths that were undoubtedly coming (made even harder by the fact that I’d already been put through the wringer having seen Avengers: Endgame the previous day). The battle itself was an intense, desperate clash worthy of the build-up – well, aside from the fact that because of the lighting, it was very difficult to make out what was going on sometimes.

It is true that after seven seasons of emphasising that the Army of the Dead were the real threat everybody should be focussing on, instead of squabbling over who gets to sit on the Iron Throne, it didn’t feel quite right that the former conflict should be resolved before the latter and not serve as the ultimate climax of the show. But I think that scenario was difficult to avoid. First, even if the battle with the Night King was the climax, there would still have been the question of “Now what?” when it was over and the dust had settled. Second, there’s the problem of geography: the “good guys”, Daenerys and the Starks, are in the North, and so are the Army of the Dead – these opposing sides pretty much have to clash before a decisive showdown with Cersei and her allies in the South can take place. It will be interesting to see if George R R Martin can arrange the pieces to make things play out differently in the books.

Anyway, once the Night King was defeated, there came the last three episodes which had the job of wrapping up the whole show. And rather like how characters moved impossibly fast between locations in Season 7, the show deviated noticeably from its own rules of reality for the sake of the story. The big worry was that Daenerys’s troops were so depleted after fighting the Army of the Dead, she wouldn’t stand a chance against Cersei, whose own forces were bolstered by the Iron Fleet and the Golden Company. When Dany loses a dragon in Episode 4, the situation looks even worse. But when Dany does launch her attack on King’s Landing in Episode 5, the battle is totally one-sided in her own favour. Additional Unsullied and Dothraki have respawned like units in a video game; not that Dany really needs them, as she does most of the work herself with her one remaining dragon, Drogon, who suffers no injuries because the scorpions which landed multiple hits on a flying dragon in Episode 4 are now totally useless. One also wonders exactly how dragons produce fire in this universe; it’s clearly not the same as How to Train Your Dragon, where the dragons only have a certain number of shots before running out of fuel, since Drogon is able to produce blasts that can level stone buildings over and over again without any sign of exhaustion.

The emphasis placed on Tyrion begging Dany to stop her attack once the city surrenders makes it rather predictable what’s going to happen next – not that you want to believe it, since Dany suddenly deciding to needlessly kill thousands of innocent people is a major shift and a disservice to one of Game of Thrones‘s best characters. This could actually have worked if it had been given more buildup; Daenerys, who assigned herself the mission of bringing down tyrants, ending her character arc by becoming a tyrant herself could have been a great tragedy. Instead, it feels more like an attempt to oversimplify the endgame and allow the story to be wrapped up as quickly as possible. Having a conclusion where ultimately nobody wins the Iron Throne, and the monarchical system is re-invented instead, does make sense from a storytelling point of view; it brings the story to a proper resolution and sticks to the theme that those who want power are usually those who least deserve it. But to make that ending happen, Dany needed to either willingly give up the throne – which would require a lot more time on character development – or die. So the writers have her abruptly turn into a villain who clearly needs to be eliminated for the greater good, and Jon Snow reluctantly obliges.

There are signs of haste in other areas, too. The fates of some characters, like Arya becoming an explorer or Jamie crawling back to Cersei like an addict needing his fix, seem less like something they have real motivation for, and more like the writers not knowing what else to do with them. Jon secretly being the true Targaryen heir to the Iron Throne ultimately has little real impact on the plot, and the prophecy of Azor Ahai is never given any resolution, among other loose threads. And yet there was still time for us to watch Tyrion rearranging chairs for about a minute?

Bran becoming king isn’t a totally terrible idea; Westeros could do a lot worse than a ruler who won’t actively cause trouble and will just let the right people do their jobs. (The competence of the Small Council is another matter, given that the current Master of Coin previously expressed unfamiliarity with the concept of loans.) But rather than saying that out loud, Tyrion declares that Bran should be king because nobody “has a better story” than him. I would disagree, given that Bran’s segments were often among the most slow and boring in both the books and the show, at least when he was spending his days being dragged around on a sled by the unappreciated Meera Reed.

What makes the writing issues especially unfortunate is that everything else about the show was still fantastic: the direction, the production, the music, and most certainly the acting. Everybody on-screen was giving it their all, and with their skill and how invested the audience already are in these characters, they bring even the most poorly scripted scenes as close as they can get to working. But if there’s one thing we can learn from Season 8 of Game of Thrones, it’s that no matter how good everything else is, you need good writing to hold it together. In On Writing, Stephen King says that you can write about anything “as long as you tell the truth” – meaning, your writing needs to be honest and reflect reality, at least as you see it. And in its last two seasons, Game of Thrones hasn’t been quite as honest as it once was.

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Adventures in California: Part 1

Like many people, I’ve got a list of the places I want to go and the things I want to do before I die. It’s easy to let that list sit somewhere, waiting for some unknown point in the future when you have enough time and/or money to start ploughing through it. But this year, I decided I could afford to tick at least a few items off it.

I really wanted to go back to the United States for a proper holiday, and I picked out California as the place to go, as there was plenty there that I hadn’t gotten a chance to see on my last visit in 2012. For instance, one thing I’d like to eventually achieve is seeing every Apollo command module, and California has two of them, plus the Space Shuttle Endeavour. I also signed up for some whale watching in Monterey, hoping that I would be able to see some wild killer whales, which are most likely to appear in April and May, or something equally interesting.

Travelling alone would give me the freedom I wanted, but it also meant a lot of hard work organising my itinerary beforehand, plus my usual travel anxiety niggled at me; while I’ve set out to other countries alone plenty of times, I’ve usually joined up with a group upon arrival – I haven’t gone on many holidays where I was completely solo. Still, at least I was going to a country where they spoke my language.

Day 1 – 7th May

I flew Virgin Atlantic from Manchester to Las Vegas, the same airline that I flew on for my very first trip to the States back in 2007. I watched four films in a row on the in-flight entertainment: Aquaman (very entertaining), Bumblebee (had much more heart than the other Transformers films), Mary Queen of Scots (boring and didn’t seem to know what theme it was going for) and Robin Hood (fairly fun, better than I expected, though not sure what era it was going for). The only downsides were that I had to have my second choice on the menu because they’d run out of chicken with mushroom sauce – even though I was towards the front of Economy class – and the landing in Vegas was pretty rough.

While getting through immigration didn’t take long, I did get a little confused going between the two terminals of McCarran International Airport to reach my domestic flight; I took a shuttle from outside, only to find I needed a tram to reach my gate, a tram that I could probably have used in the first place.

The flight from Las Vegas to Los Angeles was a smooth one, and upon arrival, I hopped on the Flyaway bus to Union Station. It was a long ride: Los Angeles stretches over a huge area, and the traffic is notoriously nightmarish. When I got to the station, I then used the Metro subway to reach my hotel in Hollywood, though I needed to figure out the system; you have to buy a Tap card and load all of your Metro fares onto it. (This could be used for both the subway and Metro buses, though as I found out, not all buses in Los Angeles are Metro.) After a very long day, I finally got to my hotel, collapsed on the bed, and all was well.

Day 2 – 8th May

First stop was the California Science Center, again using the Metro. While there, I couldn’t help but notice that I was the only person wearing shorts. It was about 16 degrees Celsius, which I suppose is cold by California standards.

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The California Science Center is free to enter, though it costs three dollars to make an online reservation to enter the Space Shuttle Endeavour’s pavilion. I had a look outside first – going past a very long queue of school groups – where a Lockheed A-12 was on display. I’ve never seen an actual SR-71 Blackbird, one of my favourite aircraft, but the A-12 is a close thing. It was a secret reconnaissance aircraft used from 1962 to 1968 before being replaced by the SR-71; in fact, because it only carried one person, the A-12 slightly outperformed the SR-71, with an operating speed of Mach 3.2 and a cruising altitude of 90,000 feet. The A-12 on display at the Science Center was a training aircraft, and has two seats, unlike the operational version.

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Inside the Science Center, three spacecraft are on display together close to the entrance escalator. Mercury-Redstone 2 was launched in January 1961 as a precursor to the first manned American spaceflight three months later; it flew up to an altitude of 157 miles and straight back down again, landing in the ocean 16 minutes and 39 seconds after liftoff. The capsule carried a three-year-old chimpanzee named Ham, who was none the worse for wear for his experience, and lived for twenty-two years afterwards.

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Gemini 11, the second-to-last mission of Project Gemini, was launched in September 1966, carrying astronauts Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon. Among the flight’s notable feats was that Conrad and Gordon performed a rendezvous and docking with their Agena target vehicle on their first orbit, then used the Agena’s engine to reach an altitude of 853 miles – the highest that any manned spacecraft has gone without leaving Earth orbit altogether. (The International Space Station, by comparison, orbits at around 250 miles altitude.)

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The command module from the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project was the last Apollo spacecraft ever to fly, in July 1975. ASTP was a cooperative mission between the US and the Soviet Union, marking the end of the Space Race between the two nations. The Apollo, crewed by Thomas Stafford, Vance Brand and Deke Slayton, used a docking module to dock with a Soyuz spacecraft in orbit. Following this mission, no American astronaut would go into space until the Space Shuttle made its first flight in 1981.

I was interested in the various models of unmanned spacecraft on display, but most of the other exhibits at the Science Center seemed to be aimed at a younger audience, so I went down to the Space Shuttle Endeavour exhibit. The first part featured various pieces from the Shuttle, and a movie showing Endeavour’s three-day journey from LAX to the Science Center, through the narrow streets of the city. Then I headed into the pavilion, to see my first Space Shuttle Orbiter. I was taken aback by the size of it, and fascinated by the details. Seeing an Orbiter up close, being able to examine the individual tiles and the texture, is really amazing.

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Endeavour is the youngest of the three surviving Orbiters that went into space. It was built as a replacement for Challenger, which was destroyed at launch in 1986. Its name is spelled in the British manner rather than the American ‘endeavor’, as it is named after the ship that Captain James Cook sailed to the Pacific in the 18th century. Between 1992 and 2011, Endeavour flew 25 missions and spent 296 days in space. Among its most notable flights were the first servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993, and delivering the first American module of the International Space Station in 1998. Since all of the Orbiters were constructed in Palmdale, California, being put on display in Los Angeles was something of a homecoming for Endeavour.

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Around the edge of the pavilion was a timeline of all 135 Space Shuttle missions, with a panel for each individual missions; the two missions with crew losses, STS-51-L (Challenger) and STS-107 (Columbia), were greyed out. There was naturally plenty of displays giving information about how the Shuttle worked, including one mentioning that Endeavour’s supports are slightly mobile, to reduce damage if there’s an earthquake.

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Outside the pavilion was ET-94, the last flight-qualified Space Shuttle external fuel tank to survive – it made its way to California from its manufacturing facility in New Orleans. It was so big that I couldn’t fit it all into a single photo.

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Just a short walk from the California Science Center was my next stop, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. My main interest was the dinosaur skeletons, of which there were a wide variety. Among these were three Tyrannosaurus rex of different ages – a two-year-old baby, a fourteen-year-old juvenile, and a seventeen-year-old subadult – displaying T-rex‘s different growth speeds throughout its life, and how differently proportioned individuals of varying ages were.

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Other displays included taxidermied American mammals in dioramas (impressive but also a little morbid), the skeletons of prehistoric mammals, information on the wildlife around Los Angeles itself, and upstairs, the ‘dino lab’, where you could see palaeontologists painstakingly cleaning and preparing real dinosaur bones. I had thought of going to the La Brea Tar Pits in the afternoon, but I was having so much fun at the museum that I stayed longer than I’d planned and went straight back to my hotel afterwards. One of the many things I learned from this holiday was that the quality of what you see is more important than quantity.

I was subsequently rested in time for the evening’s activity – something I’d wanted to do in America for a while: watch a baseball game. The Los Angeles Dodgers were playing the Atlanta Braves at home that night, and their stadium was a simple bus ride away from the hotel.

At Dodger Stadium, I bought a lapel pin and a traditional Dodger Dog, and settled into my seat. I was quickly caught up in the wonderful atmosphere, complete with organ music. Since it was Mexican Heritage Night, the pre-game entertainment included Spanish dancers and a mariachi band, who also played the national anthem. There were some baseball trivia questions, which of course I could only guess at: the only name I even recognised was Mike Scoscia, for his appearance in the Simpsons episode “Homer at the Bat”.

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My knowledge of baseball comes primarily from Wii Sports, but when the game began, I was able to pick up the rules pretty quickly. My row was mostly empty at the start, so wanting some company, I sat next to the guy at the end: his name was Jim, and he was nice enough to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge. He would point out things like “This guy is great for hitting home runs” and that it was surprisingly early for the Braves to switch out their pitcher in the fifth inning. (The Dodgers only changed theirs in the seventh, which is more typical.) I eventually had to move back to my ticketed seat as more spectators turned up about halfway through the game, which I suppose they do because it goes on so long.

I found myself really enjoying the play itself – there were a few home runs to get excited for – but there was also much more to see on the screens than at an English football match. Each time a batter stepped up, statistics for both him and the pitcher were displayed. In the two-minute gaps between innings, there were various distractions such as Kiss Cam (the camera focussed on couples who then had to kiss – anyone who didn’t was booed), and games involving the players and the audience. There was a Military Hero of the Game, a WW2 veteran celebrating his 99th birthday. And several Mexican waves made their way around the stadium. To cap it all off, the Dodgers won 9-4. This was definitely an experience to be repeated when I next visit the United States.

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