Alligators and Armed Guards

Lately, I’ve been shooting Star Trail pictures at night in Florida. For a successful picture, you need a clear night, no wind, a view of the north star, and something interesting to put in the foreground. So far, I’ve used palm trees and even the Ferris Wheel at the Port Canaveral Seafood Festival. But, with the upcoming #NASASocial event for the SpaceX CRS-3 mission, I wanted to get a picture with KSC in the background.

While the massive VAB is visible from all of the causeways in Merritt Island, the new, other highly visible symbol is the solid rocket boosters and external fuel tank positioned at the entrance to the Atlantis exhibit at the KSC VIC.

On Wednesday, the forecast was for increasing clouds, so I figured I would not be shooting star trails for a few days. But, late on Wednesday, March 12, 2014, I noticed a clear sky so we hopped in the car to try to find a vantage point where the Atlantis exhibit and the north star would be lined up. We found one parking lot where we set up and captured a 40-minute image, but frankly, the wind was too strong. We had rented a 500 mm lens from The Lens Depot in Oveida, and that big lens was acting like a sail, catching the wind and shaking the camera during the long exposures. The star trail at the end of 40 minutes was disappointing:

Shaky picture of a star trail

But, we continued on to scout other areas. If you could get into the KSC VIC parking lot, you would be south of the rocket boosters. Perhaps with a wide angle lens, you would get a good star trail. We pulled up to the VIC parking lot and two female guards were there at the entrance. I asked if there was any chance we could set up a tripod inside the parking lot? Not until the morning was the answer. I asked if we could set up in the driveway or along the road in front of the VIC? (The road is clearly posted with Emergency Stopping Only, but I figured I would ask. After all, the same signs are along S.R. 401 where people watch the rocket launches.)

The first guard responded “Not if you don’t mind getting shot by the armed guard”. The second parking lot guard jumped in with the better, “Only if you don’t mind dealing with the alligators.” I’ve seen the armed NASA guards – we spoke to one when we tried to get close for Morpheus Free Flight #5. He set the limits, and as long as we were outside the limits, everything was fine. Somehow, I doubt the NASA guards would shoot a photographer and ask questions later.  But, the alligators are real. A deep stream of water lines both sides of the road near the VIC.  Here is a picture Mary Ellen Jelen took of a gator and his lunch adjacent to KSC last week. In the end, I think the fear of gators was greater than the fear of the armed NASA guard.

Alligator and Bird near KSC

So, while we set out to get a nice, 40 minute exposure of a star trail over the solid rocket boosters, we had to settle for this 40 second exposure. Nicely, one airplane flew across in the 40 seconds. At least, we did not get eaten by an alligator.

40 second exposure


March 13, 2014 at 6:53 pm 1 comment

Watching a Morpheus Lander Free Flight at KSC

I’ve been scouting for the best place to watch a Morpheus Lander Free Flight. These notes are from FF7 on February 10, 2014. That flight ascended to 467 feet.

Locating the Launch Site on Google Earth

Search for 28.635984, -80.708661 in Google Earth. You should see the launch pad and the hazard field built to simulate the moon surface. You can zoom in on the hazard field and see craters and rocks. Note that the March 2013 image currently on Google Earth does not yet include the small Flame Trench built in late 2013.

Detail of Launch & Landing

If you don’t have Google Earth or a map that accepts coordinates, search for Kennedy Space Center and look for the large features like Launch Complex 39, the VAB, and the Shuttle Landing Strip. Zoom in on the north end of the Shuttle Landing Strip to find Morpheus test site.

Overview of KSC

There are not currently any official viewing galleries open to the public on NASA property. You are trying to get as close to the launch site with a view unobstructed by trees and low scrub.

Getting to the Area

From US1 in Titusville, turn east on the A Max Brewer Memorial Pkwy (Route 402). You will go over a large causeway (30mph and heavily patrolled). After 2.9 miles, the road forks. Follow the right fork to stay on Route 402 / Max Brewer / Playalinda Beach Rd. Note: On some launch days, there is an electric sign here advising that the road is closed ahead and urging you to turn left. While this is great advise for someone going all the way to the beach, you should ignore it as you can get to the Morpheus Viewing Site before the road closure. Travel another 2.1 miles to pass the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge – Visitor Information Center. Note: the visitor center has restrooms and sells water and soda. If you arrive early, have driven the road looking for better angles, and want to do something other than bake in the Florida sun, stop here.

Specific Turns

Slow down after you pass the entrance to the MINWR Visitor Center drive. In a half mile, another driveway on the right goes to the MINWR Headquarters. Go past this driveway. Within 50 yards, there is a small dirt road to the right. A sign at the street says “Waterfowl Hunting Access”. Turn south onto this dirt road. A small green street sign indicates you are now on Peacock Pocket Road. Drive a short distance and you will see the maintenance buildings over the water to your right. Look for the maintenance pavilion that is closest to the road. You want to stop and park close to that building.


Cautionary Note About Peacock Pocket Road: Beyond the Morpheus Viewing Site, this road turns into a very narrow road that winds for 10 miles through the park. In every case, you have a dropoff on the left with a large alligator-filled body of water and a dropoff on the right with a smaller alligator-filled body of water. If you continue on this road looking for a good place to turn around, you will never find one, until you arrive back on Max Brewer after 45 minutes and (approximately) 372 switchbacks. This baby makes the Road to Hana look like a 6-lane interstate. It is great fun once you know what you are in for, but don’t just casually decide to go for a five minute drive beyond the Morpheus Viewing Site (hereinafter MVS), because it will be difficult to get out. Just past the MVS, you can execute a 5-point turn and get turned around. That is the best place to turn around. Drive further south and you will be doing 7-point or 9-point turns with alligators waiting for you to screw up.

What You Will See and Hear

At the MVS, you are 6707 feet from the Morpheus Launch Site. The noise from the launch and entire flight is loud and hits you right away. If you’ve watched an Atlas/Delta/Falcon rocket launch, you are 5-11 miles away from the launch pad. Sound travels at 5 seconds per mile, so you don’t hear the rocket until 50 seconds after the launch. With Morpheus, you are hearing it 6 seconds after it happens, so it is right there, right now. By the time you hear the launch, Morpheus will have cleared any trees and you can see a small silver reflection and see the jet stream from under the lander. The sound is much more impressive than the view. But it is still cool and worth the trip. (My father, a 91-year old WWII vet has failing vision and could not make out the lander. But even with his failing hearing, he could definitely hear it and enjoyed the trip.)

In the Morpheus Free Flights so far, the lander ascends quickly and then drifts down during the horizontal maneuvering. Once they are above the landing area, they will descend quickly. From this MVS on Peacock Pocket Road, the lander is traveling from right to left, so you can easily track the slow descent, horizontal movement, and then faster descent to land in the hazard field. I felt like I could see the lander until within about second of it’s landing. Free Flight 8 scheduled for February 13, 2014 should be a similar test. After this, Morpheus will be fitted with the hazard avoidance technology, so they may not be going as high and might be doing more testing and maneuvering closer to the ground.

What You Will Not See

You won’t see Morpheus on the ground. There is low scrub blocking the view of the Morpheus Launch Area. You also don’t have the typical hallmarks of a launch pad. With a regular pad, your eyes can scan for the towers surrounding the pad. You don’t have that here, so you are not even sure where to start watching. We were parked next to the maintenance pavilion, near the end, but not past the building. The launch happened immediately to the right of this unusual tree.

Use this Tree as a Guide

A Note on Cell Phone Signal and the UStream Live Stream of the Launch

I can barely get a signal on my Verizon iPhone in the Wildlife Refuge. I have much better luck with my 4G Verizon MiFi Jet Pack. Using the Jet Pack, I can get an internet signal and watch the uStream on the iPad. However, for both Morpheus and the last Atlas launch, I’ve noticed a 30-40 second time lag between the stream and actual events. Listening to the stream, you hear the poll and everyone says go. The FM gives his speech and says TC you are go to test. You then hear the TC from here on out. “Operator – Enable OA High”, “Stop APU Cooling”, “Operator, stop ACS Chill”, “Operator Activate Control Standby”, “Advance to Engine Ignition 1”, “Operator, SV105(?)” longer pause, “Operator Set <?> Flight”, “Set Control”, “Resync UPP”. At this point, before they’ve gotten to the count down on the stream, you can hear Morpheus live. If you are waiting for the countdown on the stream, the launch happens way before that.

Can You Get Closer?

The closest that you can legally get is the parking lot for the Palm Hammock Trail, located 3800 feet from the launch site. An armed NASA guard arrives here at 11:50 AM and begins blocking the road promptly at noon. While the park advises that the road is closed from Noon to 4PM, the NASA guard reveals that he will stay there until 45 minutes after the launch. As people are heading east towards the beach, he has them turn around in the Palm Hammock trail parking lot and head back to the west. He will let you stay in the parking lot and walk up to the road. Although Google Earth indicates there is not a lot of trees between this parking lot and the launch site, some low scrub trees just south of the road could block your view. Right now, Morpheus is flying 90% as high as the VAB. (While I understand the following statement shows I did not completely pay attention in Trig class), if you can’t see the VAB because of the trees, you might not be able to see Morpheus (see the footnote for the trig). Get there early enough and drive 402/Max Brewer/Playalinda Beach looking for any signs of Morpheus. Most of the view along this road is blocked by trees.

What about the Other Roads Visible on Google Earth?

Several NASA roads go closer to the launch site. All are secured by locked gates that prevent you driving down those roads. While a pedestrian could easily walk past the gate, you are trespassing on NASA territory if you do that. In the photo below, red X represent locked gates. The red Y is a NASA badging station on Route 3. You need a NASA badge to get past this point. The green Z is a broken gate, but for a long-since abandoned road that is overgrown and impassable.

Locked Gates

How About Along 402/Max Brewer, Between Peacocks Pocket and Palm Hammock Trail?

There might be a good spot along here, but there might not. In this image, the green areas are dense trees. The yellow areas are low scrub. Trees near the road are bad. Trees further away are not so bad. After trying to draw a straight line from the launch pad to any road, the red line at 6700 feet is the only straight line I could find. But there might be others. (click the image to enlarge it)


What About Route 3, Just North of the Badging Station?

If you get to the area before the NASA guard closes the road, you could drive up to Route 3 and turn south towards the NASA Badging Station. This would get you 4800 feet from the launch pad, but again, heavy trees to the west of this road prevent a view of the pad. If you want to see for yourself, do it early. The worst thing would be to get caught on Route 3 at 11:59 AM, only to find your roadway back to Peacocks Pocket road is closed.

View from Route 3

On the @MorpheusLander twitter feed, they hinted at the possibility of better viewing spots in the future. However, for FF8, this point on Peacocks Pocket road will give you a good view and great audio of the entire flight. We’ll be there, in the off-white Ford Escape.

Footnote: the Trig of Hammock Trail Parking Lot

Say that you are a 6′ tall person standing at the Hammock Trail Parking lot. 150′ away from you, trees of unknown height are blocking your view of the VAB. The VAB is 29209 feet away and 525 feet tall. We aren’t really sure if the trees are blocking just to the roof of the VAB or a lot higher. In Excel, use =DEGREES(TAN(519/29209)) to learn that the angle of inclination of the VAB is 1.01 degrees on the horizon. For the apex of the Morpheus flight, use =DEGREES(TAN(467/3800)) to see that the apex of Morpheus requires you to be able to see 7.04 degrees above the horizon. (But that is only to see Morpheus for the 1 second it is at the apex… you want to see much more).

A near tree, height of 60′ at a distance of 150′ will block 22.9 degrees of view, or all of Morpheus.

A far tree, height of 60′ at a distance of 2000′ will block 1.718 degrees of view, allowing you to see much of Morpheus.

Doing the same trig from Peacocks Pocket, the VAB is blocked by a .95 degree obstruction. Morpheus will rise to 3.93 degrees. Even if you went a bit to far south on Peacocks Pocket and had to contend with the stand of trees 1384 feet away, you would still see Morpheus.


February 11, 2014 at 12:21 pm Leave a comment

Cloud Computing is Dangerous when You don’t Own the Cloud

Cloud computing is dangerous when you don’t own the cloud. I learned that lesson again this week when Facebook removed the page at Facebook. Gone are hundreds of Excel Q&A posts. Gone are event notices. Gone are the 2000+ fans who would be notified when I posted there.

Go to Bing or Google and start typing “Facebook removed”. They will suggest the most popular search phrases. Two of the top five suggestions are “Facebook removed my business page” and “Facebook removed my Fan Page”.  Here are a smattering of the first of 87 million results for “Facebook removed my business page”.



As I read through a few of those angry posts, most people received a cryptic warning via e-mail telling them why their page was deleted. No such luck in my case, the page is simply gone. Maybe I did not spend enough on Facebook Ads. Maybe an unhappy staffer is hacked off that we didn’t solve his problem at the message board. Maybe they simply hate Excel. Fans of Mike Girvin might recall when Facebook removed his ExcelisFun page at Facebook, wiping out 2000 videos he had posted. Luckily, all of those videos also reside elsewhere.

I know the page was there on Sunday, January 26, 2014 when I re-tooled the left navigation bar at



That link… was working that day because I tested it.

I started in 1998. Originally, everything was posted on the server that I own. As the Internet morphed, I started doing more posting outside of MrExcel – videos at Libsyn, videos at YouTube, blog posts at WordPress, article links at LinkedIn, some Q&A at Facebook. In retrospect, I was lazy. It was easier to let Facebook worry about Responsive Design rather than me having to buy a new book to figure out CSS, JavaScript, or jQuery.

Today, there are 747,000 pages hosted on the server. I have 259,000 registered members. The content lost when Facebook deleted the Facebook  page is tiny. I am not here to cry because Facebook capriciously wiped out a few hundred Q&A and 2000 fans. Yes, I feel bad any time any good Excel content gets deleted from anywhere. People took their valuable time to answer the Q&A, often with great answers, and Facebook deleted it all without warning. But that’s the danger when you are trusting someone else to host your content. Facebook owns those servers, not me, and it is their call what is worthy of staying and what is worthy of being deleted.

We’ve been slowly moving content back to the MrExcel servers. This blog you are reading is a collection of posts that were originally posted at Blogger or external WordPress sites and is now back on a server that I control. Microsoft might decide to prune the older posts at their Answers message board, but at, I am intent on keeping every post, going back to archives of the very first message posted in 1999. We are working on a site reorganization, and this tiny hiccup with Facebook wiping out my page has reminded me to pay extra attention throughout the website reorg to make sure the old content does not get lost.

If you look through a few of those 87 million results for “Facebook Removed my Business Page”, there are some stories where the page was returned. If you’ve read this far, can you spend two more minutes to help carry out the suggestions provided by others who have met the same fate?

Steps to Report a Facebook Business Page is Missing

1. Copy this URL to the clipboard. You will need it in step 2:

2. Go to the Report An Issue with Facebook Pages site:

Paste in the URL from step 1 and a short comment asking why the page is missing.



From now on, when I walk into a small business and see the sign “Will you Like Us on Facebook”, I will cringe, knowing that the small business is trusting a third party with whom they have no relationship to host their content and maintain their customer list. All of that can be lost in a moment when Facebook decides to prune.

February 6, 2014 at 4:54 pm Leave a comment

This blog has moved

All future posts will be at

July 25, 2013 at 4:31 am Leave a comment

Gearing up for Office 2013 Writing

I’ve written a few books about Excel and soon it will be time to update the QUE books for Excel 2013. This is a fun process, as I get to share information about all of the new features added to Excel 2013, tune-up past writing, and weave in new tips that I’ve learned along the way.

If you own any of these books:

  • Excel 2010 In Depth
  • Pivot Table Data Crunching
  • Excel 2010 Charts & Graphs
  • VBA & Macros for Microsoft Excel 2010
  • PowerPivot for the Data Analyst

Is there anything that you would like to see added? Is there a topic you hoped to find but couldn’t? Post a comment and I will do what I can.

July 12, 2012 at 11:00 am Leave a comment

Buy Mike Alexander a Dr Pepper 10

I think it is really funny that Mike Alexander is practically starring in the latest radio commercials for Dr Pepper 10. USA Today ran a story on Monday about the new diet soda for men, then a few hours later, I was in the car and heard a radio commercial for Dr Pepper 10. The commercial lists a whole bunch of attributes that describe the typical Dr Pepper 10 consumer. Here is a partial list:

  • If you’ve ever hemmed your pants with duct tape…
  • If you sport a handlebar mustache…
  • If you’ve blogged about bacon

I almost drove off the road laughing at that last one, because Mike Alexander regularly blogs about bacon!

Mike Alexander is my co-author on the Pivot Table Data Crunching books, a funny presenter, and the host of If you follow Mike’s blog, you know that most of the time, Mike blogs about some useful Excel or Access trick. But, on weekends, Mike presents a new bacon recipe, such as this post for bacon-wrapped smokies.

Is it a coincidence that Mike lives just 10 miles up the road from Dr Pepper’s Plano TX headquarters? I half expect to see Mike’s mug on the back of the Dr Pepper 10 can…

October 13, 2011 at 11:00 pm Leave a comment

Imitation? Flattery?

For several years, I’ve been selling my Excel Function Clock:

I was just shopping at Target, and they are now selling their own math clock. Great idea, just not as cool as the Excel Function clock:

To get your own Excel Function Clock, visit MrExcel Store at CafePress.

September 23, 2011 at 3:27 pm Leave a comment

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