Category Archives: Science & Technology

Science or technology posts.

On the moon?

Early on in our trip planning, White Sands National Monument was on our list.  But then we decided that we’d like to see some of Utah “before it got too cold,” so we planned to go west on I-40 all the way into Flagstaff and then north.  We decided that we’d do White Sands, NM some other time.

Well, “too cold” seemed to be following us all the way across the country (local temperatures were often 15° to 20° below normal—we started to think that it was our fault!).  We decided that we would drop down to a more southerly, i.e., warmer, route—I-10—after Bosque del Apache.  Yea!  White Sands was back on the route!

White Sands National Monument visitors’ center, built in the 1930s.

We knew that there are basically two “White Sands” things.  There is White Sands National Monument, and also White Sands Missile Range, the largest military base in the country in terms of area. The Missile Range is closed to the public (of course), so we focused our imaginations on the Monument, which we thought was completely separate.

It turns out, it isn’t so separate.  The Monument is completely inside the missile range; it closes to public access any time the military launches a missile. Phew!

The other thing we didn’t know was that the missile range has a museum open to the public! Did I mention in a previous post that I like space-oriented things?

White Sands Missile Range Museum

The first day, we went to the museum.  Since you’re entering a military base (by all of about 100 yards), you must present ID, and they run a quick check with the FBI to see if you’re a baddie. (Sorry, no pics of the entrance station where we had to register.  That is apparently a serious no-no.)

Outdoors display

We spent most of the time at the museum outside at the rocket display.  It was neat to actually see some of the rockets whose names I knew from the ’60s.

The Patriot, launched from a truck
Some of the missiles in the outdoor portion of the museum

 

The OH-50, an unmanned helicopter developed in the 1950s for anti-submarine warfare. Drones aren’t new! Although it is no longer in use in combat, it is still the only unmanned helo to be combat certified.  The OH-50 is still used at the Missile Range to tow targets.
WSMR is an Army base, but used by all branches of the military. This is a Navy guided missile launcher tested here.

The rockets on display here were almost all developed for the military, but they also enabled our manned space program.  Until the Apollo program’s use of the Saturn V booster, all of the rockets used for our manned space flights were repurposed military rockets—Redstone, Atlas, and Titan.  The Redstone held a special place in my memory because it was used for Alan Shepard’s and Gus Grissom’s sub-orbital flights at the start of Project Mercury, the beginning of the US manned space program.

I didn’t know that the Redstone was designed to be “transportable.”  From the information sign in front of the rocket:

As a field-artillery missile, Redstone was mobile and transportable by plane, truck, or train. However, when on the move, it needed a convoy  eighteen miles long, with 200 vehicles carrying approximately 10,000 individual pieces of equipment and more than 600 men.  The Redstone itself was carried on three trucks—its nose section (warhead), midsection (power plant and fuel tanks), and tail section—to be assembled in the field.

Transportable?  Maybe.  Stealthy? No way!

Indoors

There was also a nice indoor portion of the museum. Part of it covered the computing resources used in the early days of the missile age.  Here is a “patch panel” used to program a computer in the days before software.  This is from a computer used into the ’70s!

A quote on the information card: “You had to be a bit crazy to work on the patch panels!”

One way of gathering data about test flights is to track the rockets visually, with “cinetheodolites.”  Each of these required two operators, and many were used around the range.

A cinetheodolite ($75,900 on eBay!  Get yours today!)
Housing for a cinetheodolite

Trinity

There are moments that change the course of history forever; one happened here. On June 16, 1945, the world’s first atomic explosion happened on White Sands Missile Range, at the Trinity Site.  The Trinity Site is only open to visitors twice a year so we weren’t able to see it first hand, but a good portion of the museum’s indoors display space is devoted to it.

A one-third scale model of the bomb that was detonated at the Trinity Site.

The Trinity bomb was the same design as the second bomb, dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, to end World War II.

White Sands National Monument

On the second day, we went to the National Monument.  Mile after mile of white “sand,” actually gypsum.  After having seen the delicate gypsum florets in Mammoth Cave, it was amazing to see this much gypsum, literally piled up.  Kathe thought it looked like we were on the moon!

This plant’s root system causes these hills to remain even after the dune has moved on.

The leaves of this tree are thick and very waxy

It was interesting to walk on the dunes.  I have lived near the water all my life except for our time in New Hampshire, and am used to walking on sand—including the sand dunes on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  The gypsum packs much more tightly than sand,  and is very easy to walk on in comparison.

We went sledding down the dunes on a plastic saucer (like would be used on snow).  Despite waxing the bottom of the saucer, other than the color of the dune’s surface, it wasn’t anything like sledding on snow!  It was quite sticky, but once you got going, it was fun riding down the dune.  Kathe got some good rides, but I fell out of the saucer each time! Unfortunately, I didn’t get any good video of me tumbling down the dune. (Sand-sky-sand-sky-sand-sky…)

The dunes are always moving, driven by the wind.  Keeping the tourist area road open is a constant problem.

Harder than plowing snow? I don’t know…

We had a really good day there, walking some trails and seeing the scenery.  Al finished with a ranger-led walk just before sunset.  The guide is an astronomer by training,  working as a paleo-geologist.  He described some of the research going on at the whole White Sands site, much of it outside the bounds of the Monument.

On the desert floor (where there isn’t currently a dune), the water table is only a foot or two below the surface. The geology  of the area depends on this.

A wet stick shows that there is water about 18 inches down this hole. The water table (the level of the water below the ground) is closely monitored.

The yucca plant below may be 30 or more feet tall.  It is rooted on the desert floor, and as a dune comes along it grows to keep its leaves and flowers above the level of the dune.  Unfortunately, when the dune passes, the yucca can’t support its long stem.  It collapses and dies.

You didn’t think I’d leave without a sunset shot, did you?

Blue sands at sunset

If you get a chance, do plan to go.  White Sands National Monument is other-worldly.  (Lunar?)

Bucket list: √ and √

Go get your bucket list. I’ll wait while you go find it.

Now add these two items which are in New Mexico, if they’re not already on your list:

  1. The Very Large Array,  otherwise known as the VLA, and
  2. Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

√ and √!  Our bucket lists are now two items shorter!

The Very Large Array

I’ve been a space fan since the late ’50s, when my dad took me out in the yard and showed me one of our first two satellites—Explorer or Vanguard—at this point I don’t remember which.  I remember watching all of the Project Mercury launches on TV with him.

I’ve known about the VLA for a long time (yes, even before the movie Contact!), but I had never been there.  Now we have!  It is even more impressive in person.

The VLA is a radio telescope, one of the most sensitive in the world.  From the National Science Foundation website:

Among a broad range of scientific capabilities, the VLA addresses four primary science themes: measuring the strength and topology of cosmic magnetic fields; imaging young stars and massive black holes in dust-enshrouded environments; following the rapid evolution of energetic phenomena; and studying the formation and evolution of stars, galaxies and active galactic nuclei.

Phew!

The VLA is open to scientists all over the world who must submit research proposals to compete for telescope time.  The proposals are reviewed for scientific worth and feasibility. It is so highly competitive that, “Even highly ranked proposals are not guaranteed to receive observing time.

The VLA is a long way from anywhere.  We approached from the east, from I-25, and it is over 50 miles away—50 miles of passing almost nothing but beautiful scenery!

Typical central New Mexico scenery (not actually on the way to VLA–where I neglected to take pics!)

Located on the Plains of San Augustin, the site is both high at approximately 8,000 feet, and ringed by mountains. The height reduces the amount of atmosphere-induced distortion of the radio waves, something I had never considered.  The mountains block most of the man-made radio interference.  Any electronic devices you may have with you like cell phones, tablets, fitness trackers, smart watches, etc. must be turned off—completely. Digital cameras are (surprisingly) OK.  Needless to say, having your cell phone off doesn’t matter as there is absolutely NO coverage!

Approaching the VLA—still a fair distance away

The 28 antennas are huge!  The dishes are 25 meters (82 feet) across, and they over 200 tons each. When pointed up, they are 90 feet to the apex. You can’t really get an idea of how big until you have something to use for scale.

Four flights of stairs and we’re not even up to the pivot!

Twenty seven are in active use; there is always one in maintenance; they rotate through all the antennas to keep them all in good condition.

The VLA has four configurations, called “A” (far Apart), “B”, “C”, and “D” (Darned close together).  The configuration is changed every four months, and we were very fortunate to visit when the telescope was in configuration D.  In configuration A, each of the three arms of the telescope is thirteen miles long, and photography wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun!

Antennas close together! The beauty of Configuration D.

The VLA is laid out in three legs radiating out from the center, spaced at 120°.

Looking out the north leg, currently comprising 11 of the 27 antennas.

To reconfigure the array, and to bring antennas in for maintenance, they use a transporter. Top speed is 5 MPH; however when transporting an antenna, it usually moves about 2 MPH.

Zero to two in… several minutes.

The reason for the different configurations is that antenna spacing controls the field of view, how wide a portion of the sky it can view, and resolution, how small a feature it can distinguish.  Close spacing (like now) offers a very wide field of view, but relatively poor resolution.  The widest spacing, configuration A, views a much smaller portion of the sky, but can distinguish much smaller features.

At its widest spacing, the telescope is about 22 miles across.  To allow even finer resolution, the VLA is one component of the VLBA, the Very Long Baseline Array, which has a maximum distance between antennas of 4971 miles (8000 km).  The VLBA is controlled from the same building as the VLA, in Socorro, New Mexico; the antennas are spread out from Hawaii to the U.S. Virgin Islands and points in between.

If you want to see the VLA, go soon.  Its replacement is currently in the works, called ngVLA, which will increase its power and its resolution at least tenfold. The individual dishes will be smaller, but there will be many, many more! More information is here, and here (FAQ).

√ The Bosque del Apache NWR

Several years ago I heard about a great place for bird photography, especially for sandhill cranes and snow geese.  It wasn’t over-hyped! In the two days we spent there, we took on the order of 3,000 pictures!

The peak of the bird population happens during the depth of the winter in December. At that point they have approximately 20,000 sandhill cranes, 50,000 snow geese, and 50,000 ducks of various species.

The refuge is heavily managed.  The staff plant several food crops during the summer to feed the birds through the winter—mostly corn.  They plan to feed 100 pounds of corn per bird across the winter.  That is a LOT of corn! They also flood fields with water from the Rio Grande river to give more shallow water areas so the birds have safe places to spend the night. When we were there,  only a few of the fields were flooded; more to come!

Even now in November, there are a phenomenal number of birds here. During the day, the birds are spread out widely across the 58,000 acres of the refuge.  Even so dispersed, the density on any of the feeding areas is pretty high!

Sandhills feeding
Snow geese soaking up the rays.

At night they congregate in a few, relatively small wet areas—being in shallow water protects them from many predators.  This congregation into a few areas results in massive “fly-ins” and “fly-outs” at sunset and sunrise. Photographic heaven!

Go ahead! Count the sandhill cranes. I dare you!
Predator spotted! Snow geese flying out.
Incoming! Sandhills arrived in groups like this continuously for over a half hour.
Three sandhills landing simultaneously.

During the second day, we took two  (free!) tours with naturalists to find other birds which were located on the Reserve. Many were too far away to get good pictures of, but here are a few of the birds we saw.

A trio of cedar waxwings – one of Kathe’s favorites!
Phainopepla, the desert black cardinal.
We think this is an American Kestrel, a small falcon.
A bald eagle, in a snag.

In addition to so many birds including quail and turkey, there are many other species of animals on the refuge including mountain lion, bobcat, jackrabbits, and lizards.

It will take us weeks to work through all of our refuge photographs! Based on this fabulous experience, we’ve decided we’d be thrilled to visit as many wildlife refuges around the country as possible. Fortunately, there are quite a few in Arizona where we will spend the winter. Yahoo!

Hacking the Sun

As “Tim the Toolman” used to say on TV, “More power!”

We are planning to spend a good portion of the winter in the desert southwest.  Three main requirements for “boondocking,” also called “dry camping,” are having:

  1. self-contained fresh water,
  2. adequate waste storage, and
  3. electrical power.

While many people carry portable (or installed) generators (as do we), using generators on a continuous basis isn’t very tenable.  So we’ve added solar power capabilities.

This is an unusual post for us, in that it is fairly technical (also called “geeky”): nuts and bolts (and wires).

We wanted to be able to use all the devices we normally do, some of which use 12 volts DC (battery power): the lights, radio, water pump, ceiling fans, etc., while others use 120 volts AC (household power): the TV, Instant Pot, microwave/convection oven, etc.  We also knew that we wouldn’t be able to use our air conditioners, at least for any extended period.  They simply draw too much power.

The basics of a solar system for an RV are:

  1. solar (“photo voltaic”) panels to gather energy, and their controllers;
  2. 12 volt batteries to store the collected energy; and
  3. an “inverter,” which changes the stored 12V DC energy into 120V AC, for those components which need it.

First, some pretty (or pretty geeky) pictures.  Then for those who are interested, the details.

Our solar panels are mounted on the roof.  They can be flat for travel and we will leave them flat when we’re somewhere that we will only be staying briefly, or where we can’t orient the trailer to be on an east-west axis so that tilted panels can face south.

Six of our eight panels, without tilt

When we will be somewhere for a while and can orient the trailer properly, we can tilt the panels to more directly face the sun.

Panels can be tilted to capture more solar energy
Three panels, tilted to face the sun

The solar panels can generate a range of voltages.  We need controllers to change the incoming voltage into the proper voltage to charge the batteries.

Controllers for the solar charging system

One hundred seventy four pounds of batteries equals 600 amp hours of lithium storage.

600 amp hours of Lithium batteries

Our inverter changes the 12 volts DC into 120 volts AC.

Our inverter for 120 VAC–household current.

Now the details… only two more detail pictures below.  Feel free to stop reading if you don’t want to dive into those details.

Solar panels

Solar panels are measured in terms of the number of watts they can generate under “standard” (ideal) conditions.  We chose to use eight panels, each of which can nominally generate 180 watts.

Watts and watt hours

Watts measures the amount of electrical power in use right now; it is analogous to speed.  Think “60 miles an hour.” If you want to know how far you’ve traveled, you need to know how long you have been traveling at 60 miles an hour. The electrical equivalent to distance is watt hours.  If you turn on a 60 watt light bulb, you are using electricity at the rate of 60 watts.  If you leave the bulb on for an hour, you have used 60 watt hours of power. The electric meter on your house measures the number of watt hours your activities consumed.

With our eight 180-watt panels, we theoretically have the ability to generate 1440 watts of power from the sun, under “standard conditions,” which are not often equaled in real use.  The amount of watt hours we can generate will depend on how many hours of sunlight we have (and whether it is cloudy or sunny, winter or summer, etc., etc.)

We’ll get back to watt hours below when we talk about our batteries.

Batteries

Two of the primary characteristics of batteries are the chemistry used, e.g., lead-acid, alkaline, or lithium-ion, and their capacity—the amount of energy they can store.

Chemistry

Until recently the standard battery chemistry for use in RVs was lead-acid, the same as in your car’s battery if you don’t have an electric car.  They are still very popular, primarily because of initial cost, but they have several disadvantages when compared to a newer chemistry, lithium iron phosphate which is abbreviated LiFePo4—say that 3 times fast!  In the comparison  LiFePo4 batteries:

  1. store more energy in the same size battery;
  2. are much lighter, at 29 pounds per battery instead of 61 pounds;
  3. can charge more quickly;
  4. have a much longer lifespan (in terms of the number of charge/discharge cycles and years); and
  5. can be discharged much more deeply.  Lead-acid batteries can only discharged to the 50% point without damaging the battery; LiFePo4 batteries can be discharged to the 20% point. This gives much more usable energy.

The LiFePo4 batteries  have some downsides as well.  They can’t be charged below freezing, and they are very expensive.

For us, the advantages outweighed the disadvantages, so we bit the bullet and got six 100 amp hour LiFePo4 batteries.  Ouch!

Finally, although both battery chemistries have “lithium” in their name, the LiFePo4 batteries are not the same as the Lithium Ion (Li-ion) batteries that are in your cell phone and in my Chevy Volt. Our batteries are slightly less energy-dense than Li-ion, but our chemistry is intrinsically fire-safe.

Capacity: amps and amp hours

Batteries are measured in terms of amp hours of energy that can be stored.  There is probably a reason the industry doesn’t use watt hours, but I don’t know what it is.

Amperage is the measurement of how much electricity is moving through a wire. It is similar to the amount of water coming out of a hose.  Like watts, it has a corresponding measurement for use across time, which is amp hours. In our water hose analogy, this would correspond to gallons of water.

Fortunately, amps and watts are related by a third factor, voltage. Voltage is like the pressure inside the water hose. Watts is amps times voltage.  If our battery is a 12 volt battery, then a one amp flow delivers 12 watts of power.  I hope I didn’t lose you there.   Our 600 amp hours of 12 volt batteries stores nominally 7200 watt hours of power. (I’m ignoring complications like “12” volt batteries are actually 13.2 – 14.4 volts.)

This picture shows the panels generating 42.7 amps of power at a voltage that is too high to apply to the batteries.  The controllers change it to a lower voltage at higher amps–retaining almost the same number of watts (there is a slight loss caused by the controller’s operation).

Lower voltage and higher amperage out–same watts.

And here is the current battery state.  Fewer amps going into the batteries because the RV is consuming some.

Bringing it all together, since our panels generate (nominally) 1440 watts of power, and our batteries store (nominally) 7200 watt hours, we can completely charge our batteries in five hours on nominally perfect days!

Your our mileage may vary.”

The inverter

The last major component in our system is a 3000 watt inverter. This can supply about 25 amps of 120 volts AC power.  However, to do that it has to consume over 250 amps of 12 volts DC from our batteries (inverters are not 100% efficient).  Remember that we have only about 480 amp hours of usable storage (80% of 600 amp hours).  So obviously we wouldn’t be using that much power for very long!

The inverter is sized large enough that we can run one air conditioner from it for a while, especially in the peak of daylight where we can pull power from both the solar panels and the batteries.  But if we need to run it continuously, we’ll have to spin up one of the generators!

To the desert!

So that is the package that we are counting on to keep us going in the desert this winter.  We’ll see how it goes… After all, this trip is an adventure!

Destination: Washington, D.C.

We were giddy when we realized we could spend the better part of a week in Washington, D.C. We’d only ever been with kids or as kids ourselves. We were long overdue for an opportunity to experience our nation’s capital as adults with no real responsibilities for anyone else!

We camped at the Cherry Hill Park Campground, in College Park MD.  If you’re coming this way in an RV, we highly recommend it. It’s the nicest place we’ve stayed so far, and by no means the most expensive. The Metro bus comes right to the campground and it’s a quick ride to the train station. And then just a 20-25 minute ride into the heart of D.C. It was SO easy to navigate.

And… the campground has single-stream recycling!

Each day at 4 PM, the campground offers a great orientation to the D.C. transportation system and an intro to two tours—we signed up for both. Terrific.

A week in Washington Is not nearly enough!  We didn’t have even that much time, but we had a wonderful time.  We went into the city four times; twice on our own and twice as part of the tours organized by the campground.

The first day we were there, we went into the city on our own and split up.  I (Al) went to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space museum near Dulles Airport.  If you are into the history of aviation and space exploration at all, this is a must see.

The museum is in  a huge hangar, and has a wide range of planes and space craft from very early days to recent history. Main displays include a Concorde SST, an SR-71 (the fastest—2000 MPH—and highest flying—80,000 ft—jet ever built — 32 were built in all), the space shuttle Discovery, and the Enola Gay. Beside those four, there are aircraft and space craft densely packed in the hanger, in three layers: one on the hangar floor and two layers creatively suspended in the air from the ceiling. I spent over three hours there and only scratched the surface. The density actually is a problem in trying to get good pictures of the craft because of the visual clutter in the background.

The SR-71 is very difficult to photograph in its entirety in this setting. It is huge.  It is jet black (get it?).  It is crowded by other craft.  Here is the port engine, a marvel of slide rule engineering—it was designed in the late 50’s—early 60’s— with NO computers!

SR-71’s engine and “spike”

The A-6 was one of the key bombers of the Vietnam era.

A-6

The Discovery has a prime place on the display floor.

Discovery. Thank you for living up to your name…
The engine nozzles. This thing is BIG!

If I had to have an Airstream instead of our current trailer, this is the one I would want!

The NASA “RV”

(Actually, it wasn’t made by Airstream.  Sure looks like one, though!)

One of the most famous airplanes in history:

Enola Gay–it dropped the first atomic bomb , on Hiroshima.

The Boeing 307 was one of the, if not the, first commercial airliners.  It  was based on the B-17C bomber from World War II.

Boeing 307

I wonder whether or when we’ll have another supersonic passenger plane.

The Concorde

The Global Flyer accomplished the first solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the world. Sixty seven hours and one minute.

Global Flyer .  The wingspan is HUGE!

A sampling of the planes suspended from the ceiling.

Too many planes to keep straight!

The museum is quite a distance from downtown area, but is well worth the trip!

Kathe: While Al was at the museum, I visited several museums on and near the National Mall. Within just a couple of blocks of wandering, I came upon a very long queue of folks waiting to get into the Newseum. As it turned out, it was FREE MUSEUM day in D.C. I hopped into line and immediately started chatting with a couple of women. Before long I realized that even though it was a free entry day (usually $25), I still needed a ticket. One of the women I was in line with graciously offered me a second free ticket that she had. Score!

I stayed at the Newseum for two solid hours and thought my head would explode! This museum focuses on the world of journalism and promotes first amendment rights through exhibits that include (among many others): 9/11, the Berlin Wall, a special FBI exhibit, a daily display of 80 first pages of newspapers from around the US and the world, a wide range of films documenting important world events, and an extraordinary gallery of decades of Pulitzer Prize winning photos.

The remains of the antenna tower from the top of the World Trade Center. Front pages of international newspapers reporting on 9/11.
This display includes eight panels from the Berlin Wall and the guard tower from Checkpoint Charlie – extraordinary!
During the overnight hours, the Newseum receives copies of the front page of more than 80 newspapers. They are printed oversized and displayed – fascinating to see how the same story can be reported from so many perspectives. An important display!

What is striking is that each of the exhibits includes a range of short videos by journalists who covered the story. It is without a doubt the most current, dynamic, compelling, and thought-provoking museum I’ve visited; I considered suggesting that they hand out Kleenex as you come through the main door — and yes, I took Al back to it later in the week! I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

You can also make YOUR opinions known at the Newseum. The opinion poll question is always related to the current day’s news.
It was refreshing to reread the First Amendment. Do you know what the five rights are?
A sobering memorial (at least two stories high) of journalists who have given their lives in their pursuit of the truth.

Just in! The Newseum set its all-time single-day visitor record on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, with 11,815 people visiting the one-of-a-kind institution. (Guess it helped that I was there!)

I also visited (somewhat briefly) the National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of Natural History, and the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden. It was a whirlwind and honestly, I could have spent days upon days visiting so many more museums — alas, I needed to meet Al and we needed to figure out where we would eat dinner.

Never underestimate the power of Google! We searched “Restaurants near Me” and found an Indian restaurant nearby — what a find! It turns out that Rasika is a restaurant which has won a James Beard award and we can see why. It was amazing!

On the second day we took a day-long guided tour of the city with a very knowledgeable guide. We visited the Air Force Memorial and the Marine War Memorial (also called the Iwo Jima memorial).  Then we took a water taxi ride from the wharf near the Lincoln Memorial to Georgetown.

“Bomb burst” maneuver, missing man formation
The Marine War Memorial, “Iwo Jima”
Lincoln Memorial from the Potomac River

We stopped at the Pentagon City Mall for lunch, and found a stand offering a wide variety of baklava squares that were imported directly from Lebanon.  They were incredibly delicious and oh, so sweet.  We got several and were able to make them last for several days, but it was tough.  It would have been so easy to eat all of them before the end of the tour!

After lunch we went to Arlington National Cemetery, and took their tram tour.  We hadn’t known that Arlington was originally the estate of Robert E. Lee, which was confiscated after the Civil War.  The very first graves (Union soldiers) had been interred in Mrs. Lee’s garden (making a clear statement to Lee). We stopped at the grave of President Kennedy, where Jackie Kennedy Onassis and two of their children are also buried.  The site is directly below Lee’s house, and was actually selected by the president when he visited the cemetery.  Admiring the view, he was heard to say, “I could stay here forever.”

JFK’s grave and RE Lee’s house

Next we went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a very sobering place.  We had both been to this site before but it was good to revisit it.  We were present for the changing of the guard ceremony.   The guard has been present 24/7/365 since it was initiated on April 6, 1948.  The markings of so many years of the sentries’ precise steps were visible in the dark orange on the granite platform. It is an incredible honor to be chosen for this highly competitive post.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

There are graves for one soldier each from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.  The crypt for the Vietnam War unknown soldier is now empty, as the entombed soldier was identified  in 1998 as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie through mitochondrial DNA.

Here is Kathe’s video of the Changing of the Guard ceremony.

Since the rain had picked up and no one really wanted to get off the trolley, the tour of Arlington was a bit shorter than usual. Our tour guide asked if we would like to visit the Pentagon Memorial. Yes! Several others on the tour had already seen the NYC 9/11 Memorial and the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, PA and were eager to see this 9/11 memorial as well.

The Pentagon Memorial is breathtaking — and a feat of imagination. There is a stainless steel cantilevered bench inlaid with granite for each of the 184 victims with their name engraved on it. The bench has a lighted pool of water underneath which reflects light onto the gravel field at night.  Each bench resembles an airplane wing and points one of two ways depending on if the victim worked at the Pentagon or was fated plane that crashed into the building. All of the benches for people born in the same year are arranged in a line going diagonally across the large area.

If the base points toward the Pentagon, it commemorates an employee. If the base points in the opposite direction, the victim was on the plane.
The victim’s name is engraved on the edge of the bench.  However, in this case, three other names and birth years are engraved below; this represents four members of the same family who were all victims aboard the hijacked plane.

Commemorative benches in line with this marker represented those born in 1953.
You can follow the stainless steel tracks across the memorial to count how many victims were born in a particular year. It was harrowing.

The third day we took a night tour to several memorials including the Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, MLK, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War memorials. While we had been to several of those before, those visits had not been at night nor in the rain.  Washington looks different at night!

Two of the memorials that really struck us were the Korean War Memorial and the FDR Memorial. The nineteen statues of soldiers in the Korean War Memorial were all facing in different directions, on guard, each wearing a rain poncho, and some in full combat gear. It was fitting that we visited the memorial at night and in the rain. The statues were surrounded by low shrubs that gave the sense that they were standing in rice patties. It was striking.

The bronze statues seemed to come to life.

The FDR Memorial was huge—it’s the largest memorial on the National Mall. There was a large open air room that depicted each of FDR’s four terms as President. The pathway through the memorial was meandering and featured bronze statues, water installations, stirring wall art, and FDR quotes. Near the end of the walkway was a beautiful statue of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. It was hard to take it all in; we’ll certainly visit it again. You can learn more about this monument here.

The first statue in the memorial depicts FDR in his wheelchair.
FDR was in office during the Great Depression.
FDR was a man who took his role as President seriously and with great humility.
One can see how tired FDR looks during his third term in office. His beloved dog, Fala, was always at his side.
Eleanor Roosevelt, the only First Lady depicted in a presidential memorial in D.C. She was a steadfast adviser to her husband and also served as our first ambassador to the United Nations.

The World War II Memorial was impressive and particularly beautiful lit up at night.

The World War II Memorial.

At the WW2 Memorial

Our last day in the city we visited two keystones in the federal government, and then re-visited the Newseum so that Al could see several of the exhibits that wowed Kathe on the first day.

We first visited the Capitol, which requires a guided tour unless you contact your Representative or Senator.  The guided tour was slightly disappointing to Al.  It covers just the crypt below the Rotunda, the Rotunda itself, and the Statuary Hall.  All of these were very crowded and we were not allowed to separate at all from the tour group, so that good photography was not possible.

Walking from the mall to the Capitol, you have to go to the far side to reach the visitors’ center.  When you get to approximately the  front side of the Capitol, the sign says “Average walking time: 8 minutes.”

Walking past the building you get several views of the Capitol.

On the side  away from the mall, you pass the main (ceremonial?) entrance to the Senate building, which is a wing added to the original Capitol building.

Here is the original Capitol building.  Until Reagan, presidents were inaugurated on these stairs.  Starting with Reagan, the inaugurations switched to the other side because the crowds could overflow onto the National Mall.

Every state can send two statues depicting important (dead) people from the state.  Most are in Statuary Hall, but some are in the main hall of the visitors’ center.  Here is King  Kamehameha I from Hawaii, the largest of the 100 state statues.

After an introductory film, we began the tour in the crypt, just below the Rotunda. The crypt is so named because it was intended to be the burial place for George Washington.  Washington’s express wishes in his will were to be buried in his Mount Vernon estate, which eventually were acceded to. In the center of the crypt is a marker which is the geographic center of the original extents of the District of Columbia.  If it were not roped off, here you could stand simultaneously in Northeast, Northwest, Southwest, and Southeast DC!.

The Rotunda has eight murals depicting  historic moments.  It also has a circular mural around the dome opening showing 400 years of American history.

The ceiling of the Rotunda has a painting named “The Apotheosis of Washington.”  Apotheosis means to elevate someone to the status of a god.  Washington, who twice voluntarily relinquished power, would have hated it.

The Statuary Hall was originally the House Chamber until the members could no longer fit, at which point the separate House building was added.

The ornate ceiling of the National Statuary Hall, formerly the House chamber

The spherical shape of the ceiling caused the room to have terrible acoustics,  making it very difficult to conduct business. The solution?  Build  a new House chamber!

We then walked through the tunnel from the Capitol to the Library of Congress, specifically the original Jefferson building.  The Library currently comprises four buildings: three adjacent ones in the Capitol district, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, and one at Fort Meade.

The Jefferson building’s interior is overwhelmingly beautiful. Whereas the Capitol required one to take a guided tour, here we opted for one which was leaving as we emerged from the tunnel. We’re glad that we did.

Our tour guide was an older gentleman who was so engaging and knowledgeable. He was overwhelmingly proud to be able to share the LOC with us. His main message to us was that there is no happenstance about ANYTHING in the LOC — every ceiling, wall, mural, stairway, statue, inscription, etc. tells a story about the pursuit of knowledge and the importance of reading and learning.
It is an inspirational place and yet one more place in D.C. that you couldn’t possible take in in just one visit.

One of many inscriptions throughout the Library of Congress.

The main reading room seen from the balcony above.

The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world (in terms of its collection), the official research arm of Congress, and also home of the U.S. Copyright Office. It comprises more than 167 million items, and adds 12,000 items to its collection each working day. It is considered our national library. It has more than 838 miles of bookshelves!

We left our nation’s capital with such a sense of awe and deep reverence and appreciation, especially for those who have served our country in the military and in service to our country. Perhaps it’s being a bit “older” that helped us to appreciate this beautiful city in a humbling way. We will certainly visit again!