Nashville to Huntsville: Tow trucks and big rockets.

Right after getting my car at Nashville’s airport to begin my US road trip, I parked a block away from this intersection.

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It seemed precious as I began my travels in the “Bible Belt”. Since I’ll be back in Nashville next month to return the rental car and fly home, I left without doing much visiting.

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I did have time to notice that people here are very friendly, including the police. Although I couldn’t help but think the police may be too friendly. There is such a thing as too much information…

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Chattanooga was very pleasant in May, with 28 degree weather. I remembered going to neighbouring Georgia for work, two years ago. It was August and to describe it as a sauna would be fairly close to reality. Ross’s Landing on the picture, the former name of the city.

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Coolidge Park on the other side of the river, in booming North Chattanooga. There were a fair number of people in the parks, in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday. I presume they must be very popular on week-ends. They are certainly very nice.

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And Walnut Street Bridge, which was almost demolished in the 1980’s. No longer open for motorized traffic, it is now, at 720m, one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the world.

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A little known fact about Chattanooga is that it is the birthplace of the tow truck, so I just had to go to the world’s only Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum. They had the first tow truck ever built, completed in 1916 on a 1913 model car.

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The fastest one.

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And the biggest ever built, a US Army-sponsored prototype. Actually, the biggest mechanical one, to be precise. Monster hydraulic mining and military wreckers that followed dwarfed this one by a lot. All the trucks are privately owned by different people but are displayed in the museum.

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And the Hall of Fame. This is quite serious; a recognition of people from over 20 countries who have, over many decades, in some way or another contributed to the development of the industry.

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When I travel to South Dakota, I really hope I’ll run into this guy. I bet I’ll recognize him!

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And even more serious, this very nice memorial to the many tow truck operators killed while assisting people on the roadside. The monument is fairly recent and of the huge number of names on these four commemorative plaques, almost all are from the last twenty years. I had never given a second though to the fact that this seldom thought of first responder occupation can be one very much filled with danger. I think this perception is linked to the fact that we only take notice of “unusual” deaths. A wrecker driver getting run over is local news, while a cop getting shot is national news. Just as 20 children killed by 20 cars across North America in a single day is not newsworthy at all, while 20 children getting killed in one minibus will be talked about around the planet for weeks. But enough, let’s move on to something less depressing.

At the risk of publicly revealing my nerdiness, I am a big space program enthusiast. I once flew to Florida just to watch the last night launch of a Space Shuttle. Never before or since have I witnessed something even remotely as awesome. I also visited the Space Centres in Cape Canaveral and Houston, so I couldn’t miss the one in Huntsville, Alabama. Prior to the creation of NASA, the US rocket program was run by the Army and Huntsville is where Dr Werner von Braun and his team initially worked on moving beyond the V2 rockets developed during the war. It was the beginning of the Space Race, an epic scientific and engineering battle between the German rocket scientists captured by the West and the German rocket scientists captured by the Soviets!

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Such centres are popular with schools and theses kids were getting some explanations about the Rocketdyne F-1 engine they were standing in front of, an engine they could probably all fit in. It generates 6.77 Meganewton of thrust, roughly 2,000% more than an Airbus 380 engine.

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And the Saturn V rocket had 5 of them! This is a real, complete Saturn V rocket, but it was never meant to fly. It was used for ground based dynamic tests before the launch of Apollo 4. The only other two real Saturn V rockets are on display in Houston and Cape Canaveral. They were built for the Apollo 18 and 19 missions, before Congress cut the financing and thus terminated the expensive program.

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The Apollo 16 capsule. I found it very impressive to stand so close to a vehicle that orbited the moon (and transported two men who walked on it).

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There were no fancy ceramic alloys back then, so the command module had an ablative shield, one meant to be destroyed gradually by the heat of atmospheric re-entry. You just had to hope it would last long enough. It always did.

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And on the topic of simple technologies, IBM built an interesting exhibit about the “brains” of the rocket. There is a massive ring, the same circumference as the rocket and about a meter wide, filled with the electronics required to control the vehicle. Some parts are digital and some are analog computers, with massive converters to allow the two to talk! This was completely unprecedented technology at the time. IBM assembled a team of 2,500 to build it, with the help of 1,300 different suppliers! This memory module is about the size of my hand. It was revolutionary at the time, but to hold in memory this medium resolution picture I took, you would require 17 of them. And that was about the amount of memory they had to go to the moon and back!

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Finally, another Saturn V, but in this case a simple replica, to give an idea of its size standing up. It stood at 111 m and weighed 2,800 tons. It makes the mighty Space Shuttle look so small.

Although I may have seemed enthusiastic and I always like this kind of stuff, I would not recommend visiting both the Huntsville and Kennedy Space Centres, unless you are a big space enthusiast. They are really quite similar in content, unlike Houston, which is completely different. The old mission control room in Houston, complete with rotary dial phones, ashtrays and slide rules is just something else.

#USA

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