Spring Break Storm Chase/Bust

After last year's successful spring break storm chase, I booked tickets for this year's break Thursday 4/6. By Wednesday, a strong line of thunderstorms was forecast to pass through NYC right about the time of my flight. I tried to change my flight but American was not waiving their change fees. A couple hours before my flight, I checked the radar, and sure enough, a strong line of thunderstorms was forecast right before my flight time. And, of course, the flight was diverted, delayed several hours, and then cancelled. No seats were available for four days (!) so I cancelled the tickets, and missed some big weather on that Sunday. The weather setup still looked very marginal, but I was really itching to get out on the road, so I rebooked a ticket on Monday (4/10) on Delta and headed out to Dallas (and caught a nice sunset on the way, see above photo). It looked like a marginal setup for Wednesday out in west Texas/eastern New Mexico, so once I picked up the car after yet another flight delay I headed that way.  

I woke up Tuesday west of Dallas, and nothing much was forecast so I continued west to get in position for Wednesday. I enjoyed the wide open spaces and was able to clear my head after a a busy school year (which still goes for a few more weeks).

I ended up in Hobbs, New Mexico, and caught a nice sunset and moon rise in this region dominated by oil production:


Wednesday ended up being a pretty marginal setup, but I did navigate the spotty road network and the oil truck traffic jams and got on a couple severe-warned storms.

I headed south to Fort Stockton for the night, since another marginal setup was forecast for the next day.  

Thursday morning, on my morning run, I saw well-known chaser Daniel Shaw's truck parked outside my hotel, and just as I was wrapping up breakfast he came in and we ended up talking for a long time. He's a great guy who comes over from Australia for three months of storm chasing each year. I had been a bit down after driving around and not even getting any decent photos for a couple days, but Daniel's energy and enthusiasm cheered me up.

That Thursday was again a marginal setup, but since I needed to be back in Dallas Friday for my flight home, I was looking at a very marginal target of Wichita Falls, TX which was in that direction.  I set out on a leisurely trek back towards Dallas, and with a weak forecast, eventually abandoned the Wichita Falls target and ended up sand sledding in Monahans Sandhills State Park, and seeing the Million Barrel Museum.

I ended up for the evening in Abilene and found the Art Walk, which was fun.  I headed out of town to catch the sunset:


And of course while I was wandering around Abiline, a supercell formed in my previous target of Wichita Falls TX which produced a tornado.  And the next day, while I was sitting at the airport, Daniel, who I had just been hanging out with, caught an absolutely amazing storm.  

So I was in the right place but at the wrong time--I missed incredible storms by just one day, and I ended up driving almost 1300 miles for pretty much nothing. But that's storm chasing, especially when you don't have flexibility in your schedule. But in the end, it was good to get out into the wide open spaces, and get a break. And I'm hoping for better storm timing when I go out again in late May.

controlgeek.net/Timberspring Infocomm Orlando 2017 Geekout Call For Case Studies!

Infocomm 2017 in Orlando is on the horizon, so Jim Janninck and I are now soliciting proposals for our annual show control case studies geekout!  Here's a wrapup of last year's session (photo above).

The free and open to all event will be on the evening of Thursday June 15, 2017 during Infocomm in Orlando (location to be announced soon). 

We are looking for 15-20 minute (max) presentations on a real show control project, meaning two or more entertainment disciplines connected together (lighting and sound, sound and video, pyro and a performer, etc). 

Submissions must be submitted by 9am NYC time Monday April 24, 2017 on the link below. Jim and I will evaluate and select the projects, and in the case that we have more good presentations than we can fit, the earliest valid submission will get priority, so get those proposals in soon!

Submission link:


See you in Orlando!

A Bright Future for the Kennedy Space Center and the USA in Space

I was fortunate and honored to be given special access to the historic SpaceX CRS-10 launch mission from the Kennedy Space Center to the International Space Station on February 19th. I did this through the NASA Social program, which "includes both special in-person events and social media credentials for individuals who share the news in a significant way."  I had to apply, and they apparently check applicants' social media presence before selecting participants. I was accepted once before back in 2013 for an Antares launch from Wallops Island, VA, but the launch got rescheduled on top of a class that I teach. But I saw this opportunity, was able to jam it into my crazy schedule, and I'm really glad I did. It was an amazing and incredibly hopeful experience in these tumultuous times.

The CRS-10 mission was based around the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft on a resupply mission; CRS stands for "Commercial Resupply Services". This launch was notable for a number of reasons.  First, the rocket took off from the historic Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A, which was used for the Apollo program, and eventually modified to support space shuttle launches. In 2014, SpaceX leased 39A for a 20 year period; work on launches from this pad was apparently accelerated after the catastrophic failure of the SpaceX rocket during the CRS-7 mission. 

We had to show up stupid early on Friday February 17, and after a bus ride and a brief introduction we were shuffled into a media event with the amazing scientists who had experiments on the CRS-10 mission.

All the experiments were fascinating, but as a storm chaser, of particular interest to me was the Lightning Imaging Sensor.  I asked principal investigator Richard Blakeslee about the difference in capabilities between this ISS-mounted sensing system and the system on the recently launched GOES-16 weather satellite (formerly GOES-R), which I was lucky enough to catch in November on an unrelated trip to Florida (video here).  It turns out that the main benefit to having the sensor on the space station is that it covers the entire globe, while the GOES satellite is in a fixed geosynchronous orbit mostly focused on North America. Very cool stuff. 

Next up, we got to visit the massive Vehicle Assembly Building.  This is the building where the shuttles were put together, and now it's being retrofitted for the NASA Space Launch System, which is the massive rocket system made to get to Mars. Work on platforms you can see in the photo was just completed last month

After this we headed over to Boeing's facilities, where they are constructing the Starliner capsule for manned space missions. We got an amazing tour with space shuttle astronaut Chris Ferguson, and saw a mock up capsule with a "Colbert One" sticker-it turns out that Stephen Colbert had been there before us, and they just aired a segment about this capsule just this past week. 

Next on our whirlwind tour was a presentation from the management of the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), detailing the facility's recent transformation from a place for government-funded missions to a public-private partnership, with multiple commercial tenants all sharing the services of the spaceport.  Things were looking bleak for the KSC after the termination of the shuttle program, but under the leadership of KSC director Robert D. Cabana and President Obama, the center has been transformed from what could have been an abandoned government facility into a thriving spaceport with multiple commercial and government space launch efforts all underway in one place.  You could feel the energy in the air.

We then got to go to historic launch pad 39B, which is in the process of being upgraded to accommodate modern launches, with some of the old infrastructure removed.  The scale of these facilities is simply breathtaking.  


After this, we hurried over to the SpaceX press conference, featuring SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell and KSC director Cabana. From this location, we got a pretty good look at the Falcon 9 rocket, which had been lowered down so technicians could work on a leak that had been discovered in the upper stage.

We closed out our whirlwind day with a presentation by Florida Power and Light on a partnership with NASA to save energy by making cold water during cheaper off peak times, storing it in a giant tank, and then using it when needed for air conditioning.

After a nap back at the hotel, we returned at midnight for an opportunity to see the Falcon 9 in the dark.

We returned again early the next morning for the launch, which ended up being delayed due to a leak issue.  After this, we got to visit the Ground Systems Development Operations facility where several of the ISS experiments are prepared.  They run a duplicate experiment as a control on earth, and we actually got some seeds that have traveled in space!  I will be planting these this spring.

We returned again the next morning for the launch.  It was raining, but the clouds stayed within acceptable parameters and we got a launch!  It was amazing. My only regret is that I didn't bring my high quality sound recorder, because the sound was simply incredible.

We couldn't see the rocket land, but we sure did hear the sonic booms!  The video below to me feels like we are finally getting the future we were promised when I was a kid.  It's just remarkable, and the rocket is doing this completely autonomously:

A Bright Future

Fishing for shrimp with lights In Titusville

Fishing for shrimp with lights In Titusville

The trip was inspiring in many ways and simultaneously illustrative of the current divides and tensions in our country. Our amazing NASA Social group and the fantastic NASA employees and retirees we spent our weekend with make their living in the booming, high-tech economies: several people on the trip actually make their living from Youtube revenues; others work for high-tech companies; and still others are educators. But Titusville, the nearest town to the KSC and where I stayed, has not fared so well in recent years. I watched a guy attempt to pass off a third party check at a store, and afterwards the clerk told me that counterfeit bills were very common in the area. "There's a lot going on here", she said, an impression backed up with fact: Titusville gets a "F" for crime from Areavibes.

After the first launch was postponed, I went (as I often do) driving around backroads looking to see what I could see. I ended up down a dirt road near a bridge that was shut down for repair over the Haulover canal. It seemed a bit sketchy, but I wanted to see the canal since manatees reportedly hang out there. Walking in, I saw an older SUV parked; all its windows were darkly tinted, but I could see that a large Hispanic family was sitting inside. The driver's side rear window was rolled down, and as I walked by a young kid in the back seat said to/at me, "Donald Trump!"  I wasn't sure what to make of this; it could have been meant as a threat, an accusation or a caution. Feeling a bit isolated, I laughed it off and didn't engage.  I've been to 49 states and have spent a lot of time in sketchy places, but this had to be one of the most surreal encounters I've ever had. 

However, I finished this trip feeling very hopeful. The revitalization of the KSC and the amazing work by SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Orbital, NASA and many others will benefit not only the immediate area on the Florida space coast but to the whole country. Half awake after the delayed launch, I had lunch at Steve's Family Diner in Titusville. It's a great place, and while many of the clientele have obviously had pretty rough lives and are just making ends meet, all around me people were talking about the launch. And after I returned home, I was talking about the trip to one of my students who grew up in a poor area deep in Queens. He said to me, "I don't have many heroes but [SpaceX founder] Elon Musk is one."  In the tumultuous times in which we live, this rocket launch was a literal beacon of hope for a bright future.

Full set of photos here, and on Instagram.