"A Crazy Trip to Hawaii"

Heidi Hammel - March 3, 1996
Planet Advocate for Neptune

    I'm writing from the mid-level facility on Mauna Kea. Mauna Kea is a 14,000-foot extinct volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. The name "Mauna Kea" (MAH-nah KAY-ah) means "mountain of white" and you will soon know why.... The "mid-level" is really at 9,000 feet, a little more than halfway. It is here that astronomers sleep, and eat, and plan for their observations. We stay here because on the top of the mountain, the air is so thin that it is too dangerous to be up there for very long - there is not enough oxygen. So we only go up there to do the actual observations, and spend the rest of the time down here at the lower altitude. The name "Hale Pohaku" (HAH-lay poh-HAH-koo) means "house of stone," since the first building here was a little stone hut.

On the 14,000-ft summit area are many of the world's largest telescopes. We are here to use one of them, the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF). We plan to observe the occultation of a bright star by Jupiter, as I mentioned in an earlier journal. Let me tell you about the trip so far.

I got up yesterday morning at 5 am, since I needed to be at the airport by 6:15 to get our equipment checked in. We are taking a camera we built at MIT, which is more complicated than your average picture-taking camera: it fills 5 crates (including computers, electronics, tools, and stuff). The plan was that I would meet Jim and Jeff at the curbside at the airport, and they would have the van with all the equipment. Well, I was there right on time. But no Jim, no Jeff, no van, no equipment. I was worried, because there were predictions for a big snowstorm to hit Boston soon, and if we didn't get out on time, we might not get out for a while!

They finally showed up after a nerve-wracking 20-minute wait - whew! We checked in our equipment crates and our suitcases. It was a long 5-hour flight to Los Angeles, where we had to change planes. The whole terminal was PACKED with people, and we had to take a bus from the terminal we landed at to another terminal, and that terminal was also PACKED with people, plus it was under construction! It was a nightmare. We finally got out of there, and had another long 5-hour flight to Honolulu, where we again had to get on a bus and transfer from one terminal to another to catch a flight from Honolulu to Hilo, which is on a different island.

We finally got to Hilo at about 7 pm Hawaii time, which is midnight in Boston. It had already been a long day. But then the real fun began.

It was pouring rain in Hilo. Absolutely buckets. I had to get from one place to another, so I was running, trying to stay dry. But I tripped and fell into a deep puddle, and tore open my jeans and also my knee. So much for staying dry, and now I was injured to boot. To make matters worse, the airlines lost my luggage! All the equipment crates and other bags came, only mine was lost. So I had no dry clothes to change into. 1-hour drive, but because of the fierce rainstorm, I had to drive very slowly: I had to drive over two hours in a pouring rain storm while soaking wet, in torn and blood-stained jeans, in pain. It was awful!

When we finally got to the mid-level, I found a note: the summit area (the telescopes) had been abandoned several hours earlier due to dangerous conditions. All the rain in Hilo and on the drive was SNOW up on the top of the mountain! We had escaped the snowstorm in Boston, only to run smack-dab into an even worse one in Hawaii. Now you know the meaning of Mauna Kea - the White Mountain!

There was nothing left to do but go to bed. I had finally gotten into my dorm room, out of the wet and bloody clothes, had treated my wounds, and crawled into bed, when the bed started shaking. It was an earthquake! Fortunately, it was a minor one, and was over before I even had time to get out of bed. But what a way to end a long, strange trip.

Today we spent the day watching weather photos on the internet, talking with the road crews about when they think they will be able to get the roads clear to the summit. They don't think they will get through the 4-foot-tall snowdrifts until tomorrow evening at the earliest. We were planning to unpack up the instrument today, with installation and check-out tomorrow, so this is a major problem! The good news - the airlines found my suitcase, and it was delivered to Hale Pohaku in the afternoon. It was good to get out of the blood-stained jeans and put on fresh clothes.

Since we were planning to do much of our set up work today and tomorrow, we are far behind in our timeline. And we cannot tell Jupiter to slow down in its orbit. It will cross in front of that star on Tuesday morning whether we are ready or not! Stay tuned ....

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