With current events unfolding, I guess it’s time to write this out. Maybe those stuck at home can enjoy a little vacation in their mind.
It had been a while since we took a vacation without the kids. Through a fortunate series of events, we planned a vacation for Presidents Week, when the boys would be out of school. Alicia’s mom offered to let Ryan stay with her for the week, and my mom offered to watch Alex. The boys, who are typical brothers who tolerate each other to a point, would get some rare time apart and fun times with grandma! Alicia and I, on the other hand, would be enjoying the high seas on a cruise.
We put Alex on a flight to Southern California to go with my mother. It was Alex’s first time traveling unaccompanied. We were sure he’d do fine. We talked with him about being respectful to his neighbors on the plane, as well as using his manners with the flight crew. Alex was really excited to go alone. We turned him over to the Southwest crew at the gate and waited for the plane to take off. After Alex was in the air, we went to meet with Alicia’s mom for lunch and to drop off Ryan.
The next day, we took the hotel shuttle over to Oakland International for our flight to Houston. I probably say this every time I write about flying, but there is definitely something magic about traveling by air. I love it. From the takeoff, where the sudden acceleration pushes you back into your seat, to the amazing views offered from 30,000 feet up, flying really is something special.
Sitting down on the plane, I was surprised that another low-cost carrier has seats with more room than other carriers that cost much more (I’m looking at you, United). While, we bought an extra seat to have a row to ourselves, I still really appreciate not having my knees pressed against the seat in front of me for the whole flight. Back to the extra seat. Getting an extra seat, that will remain empty, was something we first did on our trip to Curacao a few years ago. Some might call it an extravagance, but I call it a necessity to keep your sanity and remain comfortable on a long flight. We don’t buy extra seats on short flights – we can handle sitting next to someone for an hour or two, and usually the middle seat would be occupied by one of the children, but for a cross-country flight, that extra seat comes in handy. We strategically placed a “Seat Reserved” sign on the empty middle seat. I may be a little hypocritical here, or maybe not because we spent the extra money, but it really is weird to see how selfish people can be on airline flights. The airlines limit people to a carry-on and a “personal item,” essentially two carry-ons. I always bring two, but I make sure one of them will go under the seat in front of me. Anyway, I watch as several people bring two carry-ons and try to fit them both in the overhead bin, taking up space that could be used by other passengers. Put your purse under your seat, Karen! Oddly, despite the apparent lack of consideration for other guests when placing their luggage, people still act politely. Late-boarding passengers still politely ask those who have been seated if an item belongs to them and if it’s OK to rearranged them in the overhead bin. These same late-arrivals also ask if an empty seat is taken before just climbing over the guy in the aisle seat and plopping down.
We touched down at Hobby Airport in Houston in the early afternoon. As always, the plane’s cabin erupted into a symphony of click-clacking as people unbuckled their seat belts before we reached the gate. Another symphony of cellphone notifications began as everyone on board took their phones off airplane mode. It’s definitely the music of our time.
After gathering our bags, we made our way to our hotel and met up with Alicia’s brother and his wife. They had rented a car (a pretty badass Kia) and we were going to find something to do with the afternoon. We all decided to go to Johnson Space Center, home of NASA’s mission control and astronaut training facilities. We figured we could get a tour in before they closed. So we squeezed into the fabulous Kia and headed out.
As we entered the visitor parking area, we were greeted by a pair of T-38 Talon airplanes mounted on poles. NASA uses the T-38 as a chase and observation plane, and as a flight trainer for astronauts. During the Space Shuttle program, it was a NASA tradition for Shuttle astronauts to travel from Houston to Cape Canaveral in T-38s. A supersonic plane would be the ultimate commute vehicle in my book! Much better than a silver Kia.
The visitor center at JSC had a theater that provided visitors with a movie about the history of the American Space Program that left you wanting to shout, “Murica!” at the end. The movie was well done, and is highly recommended. If you’ve ever seen one of the movies at a National Park, this movie was similar to those.
The centerpiece of the visitor center is one of the two Shuttle Carrier Aircraft used to transport the Space Shuttle from one side of the country to the other after flights when the Shuttle used to land in California. The SCA is a modified 747 that was originally owned by American Airlines. Inside the SCA was an exhibit on how the SCA was envisioned, along with information about testing to see if it would actually work. Sitting atop the SCA was a full-size replica shuttle known as Independence. Independence was originally an exhibit at Kennedy Space Center, and was built from actual Rockwell International blueprints. While not an actual spacecraft, Independence is as close to a real shuttle as most people will ever get – the inside being a faithful representation of the flight deck and payload bay of a real Shuttle as the real shuttles on display are not open for tours of the cabins.
After walking through the visitor center, we took a tour through JSC. The tour we chose would take us to the Christopher J. Kraft Jr. Mission Control Center. The “MCC,” commonly known by its call sign “Houston,” has been used by NASA since the Gemini missions (Mercury missions were controlled from Cape Canaveral). The building houses the historic Mission Operations Control Room 2, where the Apollo XI mission carrying the first astronauts to the moon, was controlled. Stepping off the tour tram, you could feel the history emanating from the building; This was “Houston.” Our specific tour would take us up to the fourth floor of the building to what they were calling the Orion Mission Control Room. This specific control room is currently used as a backup to the control room used for the International Space Station and for training new mission controllers. In the future, around 2030 as told by the tour guide, this control room will be used for Orion missions, and for the first manned landing on Mars. History is all around at JSC.
After leaving JSC we searched the area for some Texas barbecue. You can’t go to Texas without getting some barbecue. We found a place called Delta Blues. Our waitress, who claimed to be a converted vegan, was very friendly and helped us with recommendations and sauce pairings. We started off with appetizers of deviled eggs and pork belly. Both were quite delicious. Three of us shared a family platter consisting of a heaping portion of various meats and unlimited sides. The plate had smoked brisket, turkey, chicken, pork, and two kinds of sausage. We chose mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, and collard greens for the sides. The meat melted in your mouth, and the sides were full of flavor. Plus, there was so much food, not even three of us could finish it! Though I certainly tried.
On Sunday morning we took a car from Houston to Galveston to get on our ship the Liberty of the Seas. Liberty had arrived in Galveston late Saturday night, earlier than normal, due to heavy fog in the area that threatened to close the port. We ran into some of this fog on the way to the port. Hopefully we would be able to get out. From the moment we set foot in port, precautions were being taken to minimize the possible transmission of various illnesses, including a particular one that was starting to make news – coronavirus. Hand sanitizer stations were everywhere and people were being told to wash their hands frequently. The cruise line had also taken additional precautions by screening passengers for symptoms prior to boarding and preventing boarding by those who had traveled to China, Hong Kong, and Macau within the two weeks prior to the cruise. Illness is common on cruise ships, mostly flu and norovirus, but has never really bothered me. I always take precautions to minimize risk, such as washing hands and avoiding sick people. I wasn’t worried about this one.
The fog remained over the Galveston area as people continued boarding and we got closer to sail time. Looking out lounge windows during the safety drill, I could see towers of oil platforms docked across the channel disappear and reappear as fog moved through. After the drill, Alicia and I headed up to the front of the ship to a “hidden” spot we heard about from prior cruisers. This spot was the ship’s helipad. As we sailed off into the fog, the ship’s horn blared several times as a warning to other vessels that the big dog was coming through. A couple of dolphins played in the water ahead of the bow. Guests played “king of the world” by standing at the tip of the deck and stretching out their arms. Everyone was ready to make the most of this trip.