DAVE'S ASTRO TRAVELS
Doing Astronomy for over 40 years you tend to make contacts and run across people with tour groups who see the fascination the night sky has for most folk and want to bring that feeling to as many of their passengers as they can.
I've been lucky enough to tour New Zealand's astronomy scene with a major tour group, Grand Pacific Tours, visit the USA on several occasions for magazines and/or tour groups, travel on the famous 'Southern Spirit' (sister train to the GHAN), visit most states of Australia on astro binges, meet Buzz Aldrin and Sir Richard Branson and talk space stuff, plus take part in dozens of other astronomy and space related adventures.
Coming up for 2012 I've been invited to give a series of astronomy talks to a large group of USA astro enthusuasts onboard a cruise ship. We'll be sightseeing the islands around Australia ending up in Cairns in November to watch the total solar eclipse. In this and following page links you'll see some of the places we've been. Hope you enjoy it.
DOING ASTRONOMY ON THE 'SOUTHERN SPIRIT'
A Rare Opportunity - Astronomy On One of the World's Most Famous Trains
I've been selected by Great Southern Railways(GSR) to run a series of illustrated astronomy/space related talks during January 2010 on-board their sister train to the GHAN - the 'Southern Spirit' - as a special guest speaker for their 'Platinum Service' customers.
My partner Robin and I were flown to Melbourne last week (January 16) to join up with the tour and had an absolutely amazing time. This train is fabulous, the service is second to none and the on-board food probably better than I've experienced in any overseas top class restaurant.
The best views of the night sky are found in the Australian outback. This 'Grand Tour' takes us through the heart of Australia. We stopped in Glenrowan for a re-enactment of the Kelly gang siege, visited many towns along the way and ended up our leg with a night at the Parkes Radio Telescope where we were given the run of the visitor's facility area for the night.
We watched several first class astro movies, a presenter had a special 30 min talk all about the Dish telling us what did and didn't really happen at Parkes on that special Moon landing day. Most gaped in awe as I did after hearing about what did, and did not happen during that amazing time in history! Where you there?
Remember who you were with on Moon landing day? I got most of the passengers outside after that and ran a laser guided sky tour that seemed to be very well received indeed. We traced out some of the better constellations and I showed them how to tell the difference between stars and planets. I explained how the early explorers navigated by the patterns in the night sky. I also demonstrated an easy way to locate the south pole using the Southern Cross.
Robin and I are joining the tour again this week for the return journey from Queensland. I'll be talking to a whole new group of passengers. I can highly recommend this trip. One of the best train journeys in the world. I guess it gets even better for us as all expenses have been covered ... and I get paid to do the tours!! More next week.
Here's more detail on the Journey - Bell-boy outfits, all aboard whistles, the gentle rocking motion, the sound of champagne corks firing at the dining car's roof - what could be more elegant and relaxing than a trip on a luxury train? The Southern Spirit - the latest offering from Great Southern Rail, the people who operate the Ghan - might just restore everyone's faith in train travel.
To ensure Great Southern Rail delivers on its promise of luxury it has ordered five new platinum carriages for a cost of around $12 million. The cabins have been designed by a luxury boat builder to a completely new floor plan inspired by the world's most lavish trains - think South Africa's Blue Train or Europe's Orient-Express.
In your private platinum cabin you can sprawl out on a double bed, lather yourself in moisturizer in the ensuite bathroom, sip champagne wearing your complimentary pyjamas, select your pillow from a menu and summon a waiter with the press of a button. In fact you could easily be tricked into thinking you had checked into a five star hotel - until you pulled up the Roman blinds and saw the scenery gliding past.
And if by some strange occurrence you get sick of your cabin you can take a stroll to the Queen Adelaide restaurant car where the food just keeps rolling towards your mouth - oysters, beef and cheesecake. The only downside to all this luxury is that it comes at a price.
SECOND WEEK - DOING ASTRONOMY ON THE 'SOUTHERN SPIRIT'
Throughout January I was selected to run a series of illustrated astronomy/space related talks on-board Australia's Great Southern Railways train 'Southern Spirit'. Who would think you could, talk about planets and stars, ...... and even show them the night sky, all from a moving train while indulging in 5 star service at the same time?
Well you can and last month your author Dave Reneke from Australasian Science magazine did just that, on board this fabulous train. The Southern Spirit - a sister train to the famous GHAN. David was invited by Great Southern Railways to take part in the inaugural rail journey of Spirit across Australia as a guest speaker on astronomy, part of the company's 5 year, themed journeys program.
He and partner Robin were given complimentary passage for the first week as the train followed a route from Uluru and Alice Springs, down into South Australia then across to Melbourne and into southern NSW. The scenery of a trip like this has to be seen to be believed.! In fact David and Robin went on the train twice, a week apart. Firstly on the inaugural upward leg and again on the return journey from Queensland. "It's an amazing country and the skies outback are so clear," David said. "The passengers seemed to enjoy it and we did too."
David gave a series of lectures each time on-board the train and organised a night at the 'Dish' - the famous Parkes Radio telescope where the first Moon landing images were received in 1969. A short talk by their resident lecturer Mikalya about what really did and didn't happen on that day, as portrayed in the movie, was enthusiastically received.
"On-board the train you couldn't ask for better service, David said. "This is one of the great rail journeys of the world and I look forward to going again next year." Since becoming a radio correspondent, writer, columnist and media personality, David has carved out an international profile and reputation. It's a big year ahead. As well as developing his webpage business further David is set to continue his popular Astronomy Outreach program for Aussie schools, expand his writing portfolio, take part in overseas astronomy tours with other large travel companies and, a few more E-Books are on the way.
One of the best things about travelling like this is the people you meet. I mean, you just can't help get caught up in everyone's life... and every body has their own unique story. Their own unique fingerprint on this planet. We met up with quite a few fellow travellers, most baby-boomers like us, who were at the stage of enjoying the best life has to offer.
They enjoyed the night skies too which was good for me because, after all, that's what I was on-board for... to be the 'astro-entertainer' on the journey. In such a short time it's all over and everyone heads back home. The memories, the videos, the pics I took will be the lasting reminder of a fabulous working holiday and a great train. Not to mention the aspects and scenery of Australia we encountered along the way. Would I do it again.. you bet! Would I recommend it to anyone else? For sure!!! And you can quote me on that.
This 'Grand Tour' travelled through the heart of Australia. I gave a lecture on basic astronomy and ran a highly spirited astro tour of the night sky at the Parkes Telescope for the large group of passengers. I led an organised tour through the famous 'Dish' visitor's centre and the guests enjoyed a great evening of 3-D movies, the run of the visitor centre and a great talk by resident Parkes Telescope lecturer, Makalya, on the facts and fallacies found in the movie 'The Dish.'
Thanks also to manager Chris Holingdrake for helping make the night a huge success. I highly recommend this facility to everyone!!!! All meals on excursions are included on every trip and my wife Robin and I went on both the upward and downward legs. The service from Great Southern Rail was absolutely second to none!
I've conducted hundreds of astronomy/space nights like these and never tire of seeing the delight on people's faces when I explain to them the beauty of double stars, galaxies, planets and beautiful nebula clouds. Southern Spirit passengers can indulge in 12-night grand tours, in some instances taking in three states and six cities.
And for the first time Melbourne and Brisbane will be included in Australia's luxury train travel experiences. Southern Spirit journeys will be available from November through February each year and will combine train time including overnight sleeps with five-star hotels and add-on events and experiences, similar to land excursions during sea cruises, or options on bus tours.
Great Southern Rail's new Platinum Service on the The Southern Spirit gives passengers a private space almost twice the size of the previous top-of-the-range Gold Class on the Ghan and the Indian Pacific. The cabin includes an en-suite bathroom with permanent toilet, sink and shower (no folding down). During the day it has a sofa, ottomans and table and windows either side with Roman blinds. Places on The Southern Spirit are limited and highly sought after.
For detailed information regarding these exclusive Australian rail Journeys visit thesouthernspirit.com.au or call for a brochure on 1300-881-416.
We're Back! USA Trip Filled With Fun and Disaster.... Read On
Dave standing under the mighty Saturn-5 Moon Rocket at the Kennedy Space Centre. A must see attraction!
We flew out of Australia on October 28 with the intention of watching the last launch of space shuttle Discovery. After a 14 hour flight, got to San Francisco Ok and then transferred to a 5 hour Orlando flight, arriving late the same day we left (Time zones).
The very next morning our hosts, Tom and Trish Savage who both work in the space industry around Cape Canaveral, had us up and about for the famous Cocoa Beach Air Show.
The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds headlined the 2nd annual Cocoa Beach Air Show! Military aircraft demonstrations include the USAF F-15 Strike Eagle, C-17 Globemaster III and the USN F-18 Hornet! Military jet demonstrations, parachute team jumps, civilian aerobatic performers and formation flying teams with soar over the beachfront on October 30-31, 2010 from noon to 4pm.
This was an amazing day featuring the cream of fighter and civilian aircraft and flying demo's all weekend! We then had a full day at the Kennedy Space Centre. This is a fun park for all ages - rockets, history, gift shops, tours etc etc...you name it. Rode on the Shuttle simulator and lived to tell the tale. Visited the large (VAB) vehicle assembly building and stopped along the way at some of the historic launch sites.
You could see the shuttle in the distance from each stopping point. Checked the news site and guess what... another hold on launch. One more day taken outa my short allotted time before I returned home. OK, then it was off to Florida's famous 'Twister Airboat Rides'. As the brochure says, "Glide thru the grassy marsh of the ST. Johns River & Lake Poinsett at speeds of up to 45 M.P.H.
As the boat slows down to an idle you will have several photo opportunities to take photos of our local wildlife, such as alligators, eagles, and several species of wading birds by the hundreds, and visit a natural cypress swamp." And we did! Great fun.
The offer was made for me to fly Tom's light plane around the pad where the shuttle was waiting to launch and naturally I said Yeah! Now this was cool...flying 3,000 feet over Cape Canaveral and taking in the fantastic coastline sights, including seeing Discovery on the pad! If I'd have gotten too close an F-15 would probably have shot us outa the sky so I was careful to fly 'within the lines.'
Kennedy Space Centre
The shuttle was being delayed on a daily basis and this was peeving everybody. There were many thousands of people from all around the world there for the week and every time an announcement was made it was for another problem. We got one break when they said, finally, "all systems GO" for a Wednesday launch and I started getting the old butterflies. A 40 year dream was about to come true!
Now, it hadn't rained for 36 days straight BUT guess what happened that day? Yep, I was p...d off! With a hold underway we headed off to have a look at a place that knocked me for a loop...a complete warehouse, as big as Coles or Woolies that sells nothing but fireworks!
Remember 'Cracker Night'? Sky King Fireworks is Florida's premier fireworks chain with the 12 best fireworks stores in Florida. There are aisles packed ceiling high with every type you can imagine. We picked up a few rockets and shot them off. I eyed off a bag full of 'Tuppeny Bungers' (did your ears prick up?) and tried to figure out how I'd explain this to customs.
Tom, our Floridian host, bought a few bargain packs at $199 each and a few other smaller bundles for celebrations through the coming year (I'm sure he's a pyromaniac!)... Americans must have a lot of dough!
Back home and news of another launch hold. They fixed the leaking seals but now there's an issue with a switch. "S..t!!!" OK, we head off now to the local gun range to take our frustrations out of a few unassuming paper targets. Tom has a collection of hundreds of guns, pistols to sub-machine guns and this was, literally, a blast! It's legal over there to carry a gun... even the waitresses have one in their purses. Rule No1.. never argue about the food OR the bill, and always smile when you tip.
By about day 5 it was looking pretty grim for this launch. News had just filtered through that technicians refilling the tanks had spotted 'cracks' in the foam around the tank. The rumour was a lengthy hold BUT they said, "We might get lucky and fix it quickly." Yeah Right..pigs might fly! Tom suggested we head off to an amazing wildlife reserve called 'Alligator Farm' (Yes, I thought that too.)
You can order an alligator burger there as well, and several other burgers made from 'critters' that inhabit the ponds. No thanks, I'll stick with my pie and sauce mate. A place I really liked was called St. Augustine's just out of Orlando.
Located about 2 hours northeast of Orlando on the Florida east coast, St. Augustine is the oldest city in the U.S. The streets are very charming and offer a very relaxing environment. There is definitely a Spanish influence here in its buildings. The historic Castillo de San Marcos is a Spanish built fort located in the city overlooking the coastal waters, which should not be missed during your visit.
Well, by the weekend it was looking like this shuttle launch may be put off till late November...if at all. I was disappointed we'd travelled so far along with gosh knows how many others but ya gotta be realistic, it's a safety issue and nobody wants to see another trajedy.
The issue really is that by now, after all this time, NASA should have gotten their quality control working a little more efficiently. Why hadn't these problems been noticed before? This is a BIG money spinner for Florida and brings in maybe a million tourists to the area. UPDATE:
NASA has found cracks in space shuttle Discovery's fuel tank. Discovery is grounded until at least the end of the month by a hydrogen gas leak.
The leak forced NASA to call off last Friday's launch attempt. Later, a 20-inch (51-centimetre) crack in the foam insulation of the fuel tank was discovered. On Wednesday, workers removed sections of the damaged foam for analysis. They were surprised to find two cracks in the actual aluminum surface of the tank. NASA spokesman Allard Beutel says tank cracks like this have been fixed before at the production facility in New Orleans.
But the work has never been attempted at the launch pad. Beutel says engineers are looking at what it would take to fix the tank at the pad. OK, pack up guys, we're headin' home! You'd think after all the disappointments you'd get a break right? Wrong. Fate had other plans.
After being dropped off at Orlando airport and catching a flight my travelling partner Jeff and I arrived at L.A. International airport 5 hours later to be told by a QANTAS official there was a problem and all Airbusses had been grounded... "Your flight has gone and we had to give your seats up to those who were waiting 2 days or more." Huh? What problem? What drama?
We'd heard nothing of the airline troubles that had been unfolding while we were tackling alligators, chewing on hot dogs and taking space rides. We were taken to a hotel hours later after the 300 other people and me in our group and had been 'processed' - we were told the wait for a flight back could be 3 days. What!!!! I couldn't even have a shave, brush the 7 only teeth I have left or change my clothes... you see my bag had gone missing!
All I had was what I had on. The next morning, after going to the airport to pick up some money off QANTAS to live on we were lucky enough to be selected to grab two only seats available for a flight that morning. A quick and expensive cab ride back to our hotel to pick up our meager belongings and we were seated heading home.
BUT, fate still had plans for us. After sitting in that thing for 13 odd hours we had reached Sydney and were preparing to disembark when the Captain told us Sydney airport had bee closed...due to a massive storm in the last few hours!!
(Yes, you're right... I did swear!) ..we were now directed to Brisbane!
We got there at something like 8.30pm but with the huge numbers of displace people like ourselves and all major airlines affected it was 7 hours standing around in the airport waiting area to get allocated some accommodation. Then, at 2.30am (yes, in the early morning), we were informed there were no more rooms available in town. (Oh bugger... I said. Another hour's wait and we were bussed to the Gold Coast (an hour's drive away) ... 7 rooms were found. I rang QANTAS when we arrived and requested an alternative flight time back to Sydney.
We got a flight at 7.45 am that morning which meant 2 hrs sleep at best. OK, it took off on time (Why???) and got me to Sydney, then another flight to Port Macquarie. I slept for 2 days straight when I got home. My bag?
Oh, I forgot to tell you, it was on the carousel when I hit my home town. Good work by QANTAS to find it and redirect to the flight I was on home. They've just sent me an email asking me to fill out a questionnaire on my recent international flight. I haven't been able to do that yet... not yet. What do think I'm gonna say?