I went to Huntsville, Alabama, last week for a conference. Short story: I'm glad I went!
Truthfully, I usually only attend conferences in "interesting" places, as it is a whole lot of effort to write a paper, get it reviewed and approved and cleared for public release, and then to get work to schedule and pay for the trip. This on top of the not insignificant disruption that being gone for a week has on my ongoing, "real" work and my family life.
"So, why did you go?" you ask. Well, it's because my best friend from college lives down there and I hadn't seen him in something like 5 years. Seriously, that's the only reason I went. Now, it's not the only good thing that I got out of the trip, don't get me wrong. But I'd be totally lying if I told you that I actually wanted to go to Huntsville. Huntsville is a small, military town in the South. I grew up in a small, military town, and I served my mission in the South, so ... been there, done that.
Granted, Marshall Space Flight Center is there, but the conference tour of the facility was full before I realized I needed to sign up. So, my only real incentive was to go see my buddy, and I am so glad I did. Two of the five nights I was there I was able to spend with him and his family, and I loved every minute of it.
My good friend from college used to drive me crazy with his hair-brained schemes and exuberant personality. He was nearly always trying to get his homework done at the last minute (guess who had to help him?) or talking about kissing some pretty girl (guess who rarely did? (or did so too rarely for his tastes?)) or extolling the virtues of space power systems (um, yeah). Seriously, the guy was weird, but he was still my best friend and ever since our paths in life have diverged I've watched his career and family life from afar.
He ended up going to Georgia for graduate school after I got married and wasn't as much fun to hang around with anymore. It didn't take him long before he, too, found a pretty girl to marry, and not much longer after that before they started having children. They have three daughters now (they lost a son a while back) and have another little boy on the way. His wife is the kindest person, and she suffered my presence in her household with aplomb despite being 6 or 7 months pregnant (can't remember exactly ... but she's pleasantly round).
I was so grateful to be there in their home as their little girls very slowly got used to this stranger who so rudely interrupted their nighttime routine. Their oldest daughter is an extremely bright little girl who apparently reads anything she can get her hands on and who clearly thinks deeply about things. Their middle daughter is an exceptionally friendly little girl who told me all about her bunny with its floppy ears and asked me to take care of it when she had to go take a bath; I was charmed. Their baby girl is too little to talk to me, and she was a little fussy while I was there, but I chose not to take that personally.
But it was just so nice to be there. They are a wonderful couple that are doing good in their corner of the world. They have firm testimonies of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and keep their commitments to the Lord and His Church. Their home truly does have the Spirit, and it was a warm and inviting place where I felt comfortable immediately. I was so happy to see my friend teach his children during scripture study, and to learn that his wife was going to a women's conference at BYU -- an experience that I know is quite a spiritually uplifting one.
So ... if they're reading this, thank you!
The other night that I was able to spend time with him I went to a meeting of the Huntsville Gem and Mineral Society. Doesn't sound much like a party, I'm sure, but it was really quite interesting. I got to push the button on his computer to advance his slides during his presentation, so I made myself useful. He was presenting to the aged people in the room the merits of building thorium-based nuclear reactors. I'm a true believer now, as are they. What was fascinating was watching how enthralled the people were with my goofy friend as he got so excited about the subject, all the while wearing his political opinions on his sleeve (the crowd was friendly to his views, as it were ...). The people weren't some drooling senior citizens, either, but most were retired army folks who have forgotten more about chemistry and geology than I'll probably ever know. I'm very glad I went.
The conference itself was really great. I had the opportunity to visit with a lot of people that I needed to visit with anyway about some work things, especially some people from ESA. In true conference form, I also trade some business cards, gathered some "conference crap" (pens, pins, patches, gizmos, and other trinkets from the vendors who had booths there), and broadened my understanding of the state of the art of deep space mission operations around the world (bottom line: most are playing catch-up to JPL, but are doing so alarmingly fast).
I also spent some time at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, which was fascinating. Unfortunately, my timing wasn't so good due to the current uncertainty surrounding the U.S. space program. My overall impression when I left was a feeling of awe at what had been accomplished in the '60s during the Apollo era (seriously, you just can't understand the sheer magnitude of a Saturn V until you're standing beneath one), but, more overwhelmingly, I had a feeling of sorrow. The whole place is effectively a mausoleum to lost spacefaring capabilities -- a reminder of "what could have been".
I also went on a drive-about to see the beautiful, old, plantation-style homes around Huntsville, and to see the beautiful green sights. A funny moment came when I pulled off a highway at a "scenic view" stop, only to find the view completely obstructed by trees.
I also noted that the town has a lot of churches. It's a beautifully green town with an interesting geologic past -- the plethora of strange rock formations and caves in the area are astounding.
I also had the opportunity to go to the formal dinner (underneath the Saturn V at the museum!) and listen to the famous Gene Kranz recount his experiences in mission control during the Apollo 13 mission. It was familiar, but still kind of fun to hear it from him.
All in all, it was a fun trip, and I'm glad I went!