Thursday, February 14, 2013

Space Tour, Part 3A - Alamogordo, NM

Cholla with snowfall at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park
The city of Alamogordo (elevation around 4,000 feet) in New Mexico lies in the wide Tularosa Basin between the San Andreas Mountains to the west (San Andreas Peak at 8,229 feet) and the Sacramento Mountains to the east (Sacramento Peak at 9,255 feet).  For the first couple of days, we camp at the Oliver Lee Memorial State Park just south of town at the base of the Sacramento mountains overlooking the valley.  We awaken on our first morning to snow on top of the cars, RVs and cacti - just a dusting really, but snow just the same!  But when we head into town, we see that the top of Sierra Blanca (White Mountain) to the northeast is COVERED in snow; about one foot apparently.  Three days later, all that snow is gone, thanks to the constant sun and the dry air (snow mostly evaporates out here).
Sierra Blanca - I pressed the shutter just as the finches flew!

Our campsite at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park
We try to take Grady for a walk behind our campsite, but it is dense with bushes and "Cow Tongue Prickly Pear" cactus.  As he is following a narrow path, something spooks him and he turns to run back to the trailer - right through two large cactus plants.  His paws hit the prickly pear several times during his escape, and he and I spend the next two days removing the tiny hairs from his pads and between his toes.  He doesn't want out after that, although a large group (flock?) of Gamble's Quail pecking their way through the foliage intrigues him - from the window.

Our campsite at Lake Holloman (AFB)
By our third night, we are camped on the shores of Lake Holloman which is part of the Holloman Air Force Base beside us.  I discover this free camping area on the internet, but the website shows a maximum vehicle length of 26 feet.  So we try calling the AFB to find out if our 31-foot trailer (50 feet with the truck attached) would fit, and - get this - NO ONE at the base, including the manager of the Outdoor & Wildlife Recreation Area, knows anything about camping at the lake!  So, we just scope it out (sans trailer) during our first day, find a large spot with space to turn around, and come back on day 3 with the trailer.  No problem.  We prefer to be here rather than at the State Park because it is a half-hour closer to the things we've come to see.

Now, when I say we are camped beside a "lake", think big pond.  And, there's a strange odour when the wind blows from the northwest across the "lake" that smells like the air inside a rubber tire (and don't ask me how I know what that smells like!).  However, the odour doesn't linger and doesn't bother us after the first few minutes.  The smell probably comes from the alkalinity in the water as this area is really one big alkali flat, the remains of ancient lakes and selenite (gypsum).  The sand and dunes at White Sands National Monument (4 miles west) are the wind-eroded gypsum, and as white and fluffy as snow.  There are no trees at the lake, but the view is decent enough with the mountain ranges on either side of us.  I think the trees died from whatever is in the lake and they've been cut down as their carcasses are piled up about 100 feet from the shore.  There are a few birds, red finches, which Grady likes to watch.  Each morning, there is a layer of ice on the lake which quickly melts in the warm sun.  Daily between 3:30 and 4:00 pm, sonic booms shake our trailer.  And, thanks to the AFB, we get our own private air show every day.

After a couple of days of lounging around, we go to the New Mexico Museum of Space History.  For $10 each, we see a 45-minute IMAX film on the Hubble telescope, and tour the museum.  Both are fantastic.  The museum is mostly dedicated to New Mexico's contributions to space flight and exploration, and there are many.  To the west of us is the White Sands Missile Range (beside the National Monument) where most of the Apollo rocket tests and mission training were conducted.  Since the 1950s, acceleration and deceleration tests have been done at the Holloman AFB, as well as training and launching chimpanzees into space.  In 1982, the Columbia space shuttle landed at the White Sands Space Harbor on the Missile Range.  New Mexico hosts the X-Prize Cup, a contest for private industry to create a reusable manned space plane that can return to earth.  Sixty miles north of Alamogordo is the Trinity Site where the first atomic bomb was exploded on July 16, 1945.  The site is only open to visitors twice a year in April and October.  And there are many other historical events.  Museum exhibits also include the International Space Hall of Fame, dedicated to those who have made a significant contribution to the space program, from Galileo and Sir Isaac Newton to Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Goddard and Edwin Hubble, not to mention numerous astronauts like Neil Armstrong (first man to walk on the moon), Yuri Gagarin (first man in space), and even Marc Garneau (first Canadian in space).  I even got to land the space shuttle in a simulator, and did an excellent job (no crash & burn) even without listening to all of the instructions!

The IMAX movie, Hubble, is incredible.  Shown on a giant curved screen that fills even your peripheral vision, which is actually a little disorienting (and I've been suffering from migraines every couple of days again ever since we returned to the higher elevations in New Mexico), the film is absolutely amazing.  A lot of the movie is spent showing the shuttle missions during which the Hubble was launched and repaired, but real images of what Hubble has revealed in the universe are also featured.  I have seen TV shows documenting these discoveries, but my television doesn't surround me like this theatre.  Still images taken by the Hubble telescope are sequenced together in this film to simulate a flight through the universe to distant galaxies.  It is estimated that there are 100 billion galaxies in our universe, which is more than I can comprehend.  And to think that we will likely never travel beyond our own solar system.

We will stay in Alamogordo to tour the White Sands Missile Range Museum and the Space Murals Museum, as well as to hike the Alkali Flats Trail in White Sands National Monument - next installment part 3B.  Time is running out though, and soon we have to return home.

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