#AdlerGalaxyRide Road Journal, Day 8

This post is part of a series of travel journals for the #AdlerGalaxyRide, a biking science roadshow over the 300+ miles between Chicago and St Louis. You can follow our ride by checking the website, following @AdlerPlanet on Twitter and Instagram, or searching for the #AdlerGalaxyRide hashtag.

We were preceded by a segment on bohemian fashion and threatened by Boehner’s looming resignation announcement, but otherwise the morning segment on Fox-2 St. Louis went off without a hitch. Leila and I lit up the plasma ball and a few emission tubes on the air, got in a brief discussion of how we use light to identify elements in space,photo 4 thanked our host, and then it was back in the van to head out for the last ride segment. Colleen caught a break on this ride, having gotten stuck with the hot, wearying stretch of pockmarked frontage road the day before– our first stretch was mostly on one of the Madison County Transit bike paths, partially shaded and smoothly paved. We did pass another “sewage lagoon”, this one backed up against a new subdivision. Our last day of riding was a shorter one, and in spite of my now worn-out legs and the cold I’ve been nursing, felt all the easier for not being near the roaring highway.

Chain of Rocks Canal

Chain of Rocks Canal

Our very last stretch ran along the sparkling Chain of Rocks Canal, leading up to the bridge by the same name, where the bike route we’ve been following officially ends. Unfortunately, the path along the canal once again seems to have been surfaced by someone who’s never ridden a bike– or at least whose proclivity for gravel leans towards the weathered cyclist we encountered back in Elkhart, who claimed to love it. I will sacrifice some toughness points to that man and his Death Valley Velo Club jersey, because he can keep his gravel… I will have none of it, please and thank you.


OMG WE DID IT! Photo credit: David Miller

We knew we must be close to the route end, but stopped in the shade of an overpass for a water break; I noticed a swastika amongst the graffiti under the bridge a ways off. As we wound down off the path next to the canal, a small ramshackle house sat in the trees and brush nearby, one window curtained with a confederate flag. The house must have been there forever— there was no neighborhood around to speak of, nor any other residences at all, for that matter. We biked up the road past it and I saw a few figures in the distance walking towards us— one crouched down and pointed something at us, and then I realized: it was David holding his camera. We were at the end of the ride!

We all cheered, high-fived and toasted. I splashed my bike and christened it Our Lady of the Highway— I rarely name inanimate objects, but I think this one earned it— after all, she survived not only the 350 mile ride, but a fair amount of raised eyebrows when I said I’d be riding a Japanese road bike from 1984 on this trip. Remember, while having fancy equipment makes certain things easier, it doesn’t make those things any less possible: any working bike will get you around, one way or another.

photo 3 (17) photo 2 (22)We loaded up into the van and went to set up at the St Louis Science Center Planetarium, located in a (beautiful) building shaped like a tagine dish (contrary to our expectations and much to our confusion, the dome-shaped building is the science center and not the planetarium as you might think). We had considerably fewer visitors at this last event, I think because the planetarium had closed prior to an event later that evening, and the park doesn’t lend itself to foot traffic. Still, we got in a bit of sun-viewing, and showed off some demos to the people who were around, and afterwards demolished several pizzas at the nearby Pi Pizzeria. Team Galaxy Ride then spent our last couple of waking hours exploring the City Museum, which might be the most magical place on Earth.

I had a devil of a time falling asleep last night— despite being exhausted I felt wired and overwhelmed. I can’t believe it’s done! As I write this on the Amtrak home (Taryn et al. kindly drove the van back early this morning, letting me sleep in and catch a train later), we’re tracing our path backwards through the towns Galaxy Ride stopped through on the way south (funny enough, we’re currently delayed near Elkhart, exactly where Kyle and David and I had to haggle to cross the train tracks earlier this week). After another solid night of sleep I hope to write an epilogue, but for now suffice it to say we had a fantastic week and made a lot of people happy and excited about science, and I’m hoping we will get to do this again next year.

See you in space!

Team Galaxy Ride (L to R): Leila Makdisi, David Miller, Taryn Mason, Colleen Incandela, Kyle Sater, Christina O'Connell, and me. Photo credit: David Miller

Team Galaxy Ride (L to R): Leila Makdisi, David Miller, Taryn Mason, Colleen Incandela, Kyle Sater, Christina O’Connell, and me. Photo credit: David Miller

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#AdlerGalaxyRide Road Journal, Day 7

This post is part of a series of travel journals for the #AdlerGalaxyRide, a biking science roadshow over the 300+ miles between Chicago and St Louis. You can follow our ride by checking the website, following @AdlerPlanet on Twitter and Instagram, or searching for the #AdlerGalaxyRide hashtag.

“I mean, even if it does clear up ahead, what if we get a mile in and have to ford a river or something?” Colleen and I both looked down at her racing slicks, and then back at what was supposedly the entrance to a bike trail– at least according to the GPS. By eye, we were very clearly standing in a yard waste dump, nestled between a pile of leafy ex-landscaping elements strewn with discarded produce (the pile of green over my shoulder in the picture below), and something quixotically labeled a “sewage lagoon”:

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We decided to reroute and return to the frontage road we’d already been on for miles– a hot, shadeless, unforgiving stretch monotonous in both sight and sound (the drone of trucks on the highway). Given that we’d just noticed an upcoming 10 mile stretch on said frontage road on the cue sheet, I have to say I’d been looking forward to the Farmerville-Waggoner trail, but it was not to be. After our detour we found it again, looking far more rideable (for one thing, we could actually see the trail) but still labeled with honesty:

photo 5 (9)In my book, “ride at your own risk” when discovered before the fact translates as “I dare you”, but when discovered after the fact, it definitely translates as “you made the right decision”.

We met up with Taryn, David and Leila aboard the Galaxy Ride van in Waggoner, where we rehydrated and snacked in the shade. I’ve yet to give Taryn a proper introduction in these journals yet– Taryn Mason is Head of Special Projects at the Adler, and with Christina’s departure has taken the throne as van-mom-in-chief. She might be the most organized person on Earth, and if she isn’t, she’s at least the most organized person on Galaxy Ride. Here’s Taryn smiling and stretching on the left, in the wonderful article Steve Johnson wrote about Galaxy Ride for the Chicago Tribune today:

Taryn Mason, Queen of the Road

Taryn Mason, Queen of the Road

Our next long haul on the frontage road was just as tiring as we’d expected– if slightly less monotonous on account of being covered with potholes, cracks and rough road. We arrived in Litchfield sweaty and salty, but found ourselves on the shaded green lawn outside the Litchfield Carnegie Public Library. The Litchfield Library is home to one (supposed) attack cat, a pretty black cat named Stacks. The librarian on duty told me that Stacks was named one of the top 40 library cats in Cat Fancy magazine, which is not an accolade I knew existed but which seemed plausible. The librarians say Stacks has been an insufferable diva ever since the award was given.

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Before long, we were flooded with visitors– apparently, the local science teachers told their students that they could get extra credit for coming to our event, which was great! We had our largest crowd yet– just shy of 200 people, in a town of roughly 7,000. It was also by far our most rambunctious group: several kids got so excited they tried to put their mouths on the eyepiece of the telescope, which is a new thing for us (and also why we regularly clean the telescope!). Just wait until the Smell-o-scope from Futurama finally gets invented…

Like this, but fortunately not like this at all

Like this, but fortunately not like this at all

At Litchfield on our cosmic distance scale, we’ve reached the black hole in the center of the Milky Way, so it was fitting that I also got to speak with a young woman who was designing her own course in high school around space (and in particular black holes). I asked her what she’d learned about black holes so far, and she proceeded to tell me essentially everything I know about black holes, which was awesome. A bit closer to home, I spent a lot of time letting people play with our meteorites and helping them figure out what each is made of based on weight and appearance. I like that activity in particular, because it goes to show what you can learn by holding an otherwise ordinary rock in your hand and examining it closely.

We’ve come to our final leg of the journey– we’ll be in the St. Louis Science Center Planetarium Friday night from 5-7pm! If you are looking for me, I will be the person in biking gear doing this:

I told you I have a lot in common with Chris Traeger

I told you I have a lot in common with Chris Traeger

See you in space!

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#AdlerGalaxyRide Road Journal, Day 6

This post is part of a series of travel journals for the #AdlerGalaxyRide, a biking science roadshow over the 300+ miles between Chicago and St Louis. You can follow our ride by checking the website, following @AdlerPlanet on Twitter and Instagram, or searching for the #AdlerGalaxyRide hashtag.

“What’s this about?” He seemed to come from nowhere: a man in his 70s, wearing a Death Valley Velo Club cycling kit, rounding the towering grain silos near Elkhart IL to come to a stop by the Galaxy Ride van. It had been a bit of a drag, getting to Elkhart– construction near the railroad tracks blocked our way to the county road we were supposed to be riding down, forcing us out of the way and down a road covered in large, deep gravel. We had to haggle with the construction worker blocking our way over the tracks, who was as happy as your average bridge troll to let us pass, but did so anyway.

“I love gravel! Once you get into it, it’s addicting.” Our new friend lived in the area, and was out on a 60 mile loop ride that he mentioned with the nonchalance of someone who rides that far on the reg. Indeed, he said he was retired, and that gave him a lot of time to ride– he wished us well, and rolled on.

The road into Springfield was hot and busy, the last several miles along the wide shoulder of a highway. David and I briefly considered stopped along the ride– we’d been looking for a moving river for him to drop bread into for Yom Kippur– but our only option was a broken-glass-encrusted overpass spanning the Sangamon River, and we decided not to risk a truck sweeping us both off the planet. We wound our way past a diner with a large shrine to the Virgin Mary in their outdoor patio, through the state fairgrounds, and on to downtown Springfield.

We soon found ourselves in the shadow of the beautiful capitol building, setting up our demo materials outside the Illinois State Library. Before long, our visitors began to trickle in– the owner of a nearby bike shop and his two teenage daughters, both of whom insisted on getting inside the Hoberman sphere to reenact hydrostatic equilibrium. We had some very enthusiastic space fans at today’s event; one little boy, probably around 4 years old, informed me that his favorite dwarf planet is Eris. His mom asked if Eris has any moons, to which he replied “Dysnomia!”, which makes him hands-down the smallest person I have ever heard utter that word. Both the sun and the moon were visible through the telescope during the event, so I snapped some space paparazzi shots:

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I spent a long time talking with a young man who was thinking about his college options, with the goal of eventually going to space– specifically Mars (“I figure my generation is the generation,” he said). We discussed majoring in engineering versus physics or astronomy specifically, and that if you go to grad school in the sciences you don’t pay to attend (in fact, the school pays you to work as a teaching or research assistant). I’m always happy to share that particular fact, because I remember what a relief it was for me to find that out– there was no way I would have been able to afford to pay for grad school, so I was thrilled to discover that I would actually be earning a living while pursuing my studies. I gave him my card and encouraged him to be in touch.

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We finished up the night showing people the spectra of different elements and letting the kids play “rainbow detective”– seeing if they can figure out what air is made of by looking at glowing emission tubes and matching the spectrum that they see.

Tomorrow, we’re on to the second-to-last leg of the trip, the road to Litchfield! Sadly this stop also means that we bid goodbye to Galaxy Riders Christina and Kyle, both of whom have obligations at home taking them away– but we welcome two new Galaxy Riders for this last bit of the journey: Leila Makdisi, Facilitation Lead at the Adler, and Colleen Incandela, Senior Educator at the Adler! Here they are, posing with the pre-Halloween wares at our Walgreen’s pit stop tonight. See you in space!

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#AdlerGalaxyRide Road Journal, Day 5

This post is part of a series of travel journals for the #AdlerGalaxyRide, a biking science roadshow over the 300+ miles between Chicago and St Louis. You can follow our ride by checking the website, following @AdlerPlanet on Twitter and Instagram, or searching for the #AdlerGalaxyRide hashtag.

A man on a Segway sped across the deserted town square in McLean IL, body pointed forward like an Irish Setter on the hunt. We watched him disappear round the corner of a small bank building that looked suspiciously lived-in.

“If you had asked me a moment ago what I was going to see in the next two minutes, that would have been my last guess,” said Kyle.

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Today’s ride was a hot one– already close to 80 degrees as we prepared to depart. This morning we were joined by Steve Johnson, culture writer for the Chicago Tribune, who rode with us for our first leg of travel between Normal and Lincoln. As we all grabbed coffee and a bite this morning, people came over and asked us about the ride (having seen our Galaxy Ride shirts), which was really cute. We rolled out of town on Normal’s tree-lined bike path and headed out of town, quickly finding our way back to the cornfields and the baking sun. We headed over a few rolling hills, bid Steve goodbye about 13 miles in, and pressed on. For the most part the riding itself was pretty tiring– while the corn is still high in the fields we passed further north, harvest time has definitely come to downstate Illinois: combines roared over the stands of corn, pouring yellow rivers of corn kernels into a following vehicle (and sadly, leaving us without much of a windbreak). photo 5 (7)

Our lunch break in McLean was at sheltered picnic tables on a small town green, with trucks from local excavator companies occasionally circling like sharks, and a small arcade museum on one side. At our next break, we stopped through Atlanta IL, took a bunch of ridiculous selfies with a large statue of Paul Bunyon holding a hot dog, and investigated a laundromat/50-cent bookstore (which was more or less exactly what you picture). With Christina cajoling us to drink more water, we rolled into Lincoln just before 5– and were greeted by an amazing crowd! Roughly 150 people joined us at the Lincoln Public Library, with both adults and kids of all ages playing with our demos and checking out the moon for the entire time we were there. I have been really pleased to see what a wide range of people have cophoto 1 (19)me out to our events– this evening I spent part of my time trying to explain demos with large groups of people, and talking in-depth with a few people who came with questions at the ready. Thanks to all in Lincoln who came to join us– tomorrow we’re off to Springfield!

See you in space!

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#AdlerGalaxyRide Road Journal, Day 4

This post is part of a series of travel journals for the #AdlerGalaxyRide, a biking science roadshow over the 300+ miles between Chicago and St Louis. You can follow our ride by checking the website, following @AdlerPlanet on Twitter and Instagram, or searching for the #AdlerGalaxyRide hashtag.

Kids stretching the fabric of spacetime, up to their elbows in flour, and squealing in delight over a leaf-blower: today’s event at the Normal Public Library was all hands on deck for the Galaxy Riders! Even before we had finished set-up, visitors had started to trickle in– and it wasn’t long before the front lawn of the library was packed with people of all ages.

Welcome to Normal IL!

Welcome to Normal IL!

We’ve focused on hands-on demonstrations for Galaxy Ride, rather than just having talks or pictures. Since we are anchoring the ride around distances in the universe, we have a number of interactive demos featuring scale models (e.g. the Earth and the moon as basketball and tennis ball, with a length of rope for people to vote on how far apart they should be at that scale). We also use the event as a way of bringing people into discovering other topics in astronomy: for example, we’ve brought along a few Hoberman spheres, which I’ve been using to talk about stellar evolution. One of the spheres is about 4 feet in diameter, and I have yet to meet a kid that doesn’t want to get in and stand inside. Today, I discovered you can actually teach really little children about hydrostatic equilibrium (the balance in stars between the self-gravity of their mass pulling inward, and the outward pressure of nuclear fusion): if you get a few in the sphere, you can shrink the sphere on them and get them to do the hydrogen fusion dance (so, basically wiggling) to make enough energy to keep the star expanded! We also had a cratering activity with a tray of flour and projectiles of different weights and sizes, and the always-popular Bernouilli’s principle demos using our trusty Science Leafblower.

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Of course, one of the highlights of our programs is just being able to show people incredible things in the sky; today, early guests got a glimpse of the current spots freckling our sun’s face, while later we observed the craters of the moon. The Illinois State University Planetarium put on a free show about celestial motion and the upcoming lunar eclipse (this Sunday, 9/27!) after our event, so hopefully the citizens of Normal will be out to appreciate the show this coming weekend! We also met Leo Edwardsson, who told us that he was hoping to revive the Interplanetary Bicycle Ride using the Lakeview Museum’s Community Solar System in Peoria— so stay tuned if you are nearby.

Tuesday night we’ll be in Lincoln, and finally outside of our solar system, where we’ll be writing to you from the nearest stars. See you in space!

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#AdlerGalaxyRide Road Journal, Day 3

Basically what I feel like on long bike rides: Kimmy Schmidt is right, you can do anything for 10 seconds... over, and over, and...

Basically what I feel like on long bike rides: Kimmy Schmidt is right, you can do anything for 10 seconds… over, and over, and…

This post is part of a series of travel journals for the #AdlerGalaxyRide, a biking science roadshow over the 300+ miles between Chicago and St Louis. You can follow our ride by checking the website, following @AdlerPlanet on Twitter and Instagram, or searching for the #AdlerGalaxyRide hashtag.

Yesterday was our longest haul– 74 miles from Dwight to Normal, IL. When we first planned the trip, this was the segment that scared me a little (at that point, I hadn’t ridden further than 55 miles in a day). But, one of the great things about riding a bike is that increases in distance really never feel all that bad– if you can ride 20 miles, you can ride 35; if you can ride 35, probably 55 is not going to hurt… and if you can ride 55, well, probably you can ride almost 75? I battle tested this theory in August by riding my bike out to and back from our Perseid Meteor Shower event at Cantigny Park, about 35 miles west of Chicago. Something I hadn’t thought about is that, of course, I would be riding home those 35 miles in the dark, because duh meteor shower viewing parties are at night. However, after that, I figured the ride from Dwight to Normal would be No Biggie– and in fact it was a breeze!

OK, sometimes it was literally a breeze:

Cyclists beware: while wind turbines look cool, they also sometimes mean headwind.

Cyclists beware: while wind turbines look cool, they also sometimes mean headwind.

David Miller under a weathervane made of a motorcycle.

David Miller under a weathervane made of a motorcycle.

Fortunately the day was sparkling with sunshine and mostly flat, over beautifully paved farm roads. Galaxy Riders Kyle Sater and David Miller took turns joining me for part of the ride– and since no clouds threatened to darken our horizon I broke out the speakers and we listened to music (mostly Johnny Cash and Marvin Gaye, although Kyle survived a stretch of Propagandhi and Rise Against in the last 10 miles).

Besides the company of my fellow cycling Galaxy Riders, though, I have to give props to our awesome four-wheeled Galaxy Rider, Christina O’Connell! Christina is the head of Public Relations at the Adler, and has been given the additional title of Galaxy Ride Van Mom this week. She’s been navigating our science equipment to our various meetup points, making sure we eat and rehydrate, and generally keeping morale high. If you’ve been following our progress on the Adler’s Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feeds, you’ve seen Christina hard at work. Thanks Christina!

Christina O'Connell, Galaxy Ride Road Mom.

Christina O’Connell, Galaxy Ride Road Mom.

After our long ride we had a night of much needed rest, and today have been gearing up for our program at the Normal Public Library! It’s an exciting stop for us, because at this point in cosmic distance, we have reached Pluto. Pluto has been in the news a lot recently, having just gotten its first-ever glamour shots taken by the New Horizons mission. I often tell people that these images are a little like seeing a photograph of a relative you’ve heard of forever, but whose face you’ve never seen: aside from just being stunningly beautiful, the Pluto images allow us to study the details of the surface of our neighbor dwarf planet and compare it with bodies in our solar system we know better (much like you would look for family resemblances and differences).

One of the most striking things about the surface of Pluto is that is shows signs of possible geological activity, and we don’t really understand why yet– on Earth, geological activity still happens because we have a melty center, heat left over from the planet’s formation and added to by radioactive decay of elements in our core. On other worlds, like Jupiter’s moon Io (the most volcanically active place in the solar system), heat is created by Jupiter’s gravity tidally kneading Io like a ball of dough. But Pluto is small enough that we wouldn’t have expected it to have much internal heat left, and there’s nothing capable of tidally heating it nearby. So for now, Pluto’s surface remains an unfolding mystery– which is great! People often think science is in the business of providing answers, but really what we do is uncover more interesting questions (while answering the easier ones along the way). For now, we’re off to the Normal Public Library to talk with folks there about the Galaxy Ride, and the Illinois State University Planetarium is offering a free show about highlights of the fall night sky right afterwards. Tomorrow, we’re rolling out of Normal and on to Lincoln. See you in space!

Gorgeous new Pluto image taken by the NASA New Horizons spacecraft.

Gorgeous new Pluto image taken by the NASA New Horizons spacecraft.

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#AdlerGalaxyRide Road Journal, Day 2

This post is part of a series of travel journals for the #AdlerGalaxyRide, a biking science roadshow over the 300+ miles between Chicago and St Louis. You can follow our ride by checking the website, following @AdlerPlanet on Twitter and Instagram, or searching for the #AdlerGalaxyRide hashtag.

Today, we bent spacetime, dodged frogs, and gave someone the moon as a wedding present!

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Soon-to-be-less-sopping-wet bike shoes full of silica in trouser socks. As you do.

The day dawned cloudy and confused– in the storm yesterday I’d lost a screw out of my (still soaking wet) bike shoes, and David’s seat was stuck in an uncomfortable perma-low-rider situation, so our morning was spent zipping around Joliet and its surrounds in search of repairs. On a tip from one of our guests the night before, we visited Sumbaum Cycles (around since 1894!) who fixed us up. We made a few other unplanned pit stops– most notably for a very science-y solution to our soaked clothes: a bag of “crystal” cat litter. Crystal cat litter is made from silica, also known as the stuff you find used as desiccant! Nothing says fun like filling a discounted leopard-print trouser sock with cat litter in a parking lot so that you can stuff it into your shoes, but nevermind.

Once we were on our way, the skies cleared and we made fast time along the Wauponsee trail. My fellow Galaxy Rider for the day was the Adler’s Kyle Sater, head of Special Programs and probably best known as the major domo of Adler After Dark. The gorgeous landscape rolled off in in golds and greens on either side, not counting the towering orange and blue seating of the Chicagoland Speedway. The rapid popcorn of a nearby shooting range echoed in the distance. Along the trail, we passed a superhero: a man running with a winch strap around his ribs, pulling his two sons in a plastic wagon behind him! He cheerfully let me take his picture.

“The babysitter fell through” – thing this guy actually said

Today was a lot of mellow highway riding– a blissful downhill yielded our top speed of the day, 22 mph! Teeny snakes squiggled away from us as we rode, faster and smarter than the ill-fated frog roadkill we passed. Kyle and I screamed like children through a stretch particularly thick with dead frogs– what had previously been small, sad frog corpses suddenly turned into gigantic, half-cat sized dead bullfrogs, directly in the foot-wide path out of traffic. At some point we decided that the highway must be like the river Styx for frogs– towards the end of their days they must go to the bank to wait for the boatman. Presumably, some cross the road intact, only to become legend.

Galaxy Rider Kyle

Galaxy Rider Kyle Sater

We wound through lovely fields of corn and soy, and finally made it to the Prairie Creek Public Library in charming Dwight, IL! We had a great crowd of all ages, who gamely grabbed on to our “fabric of spacetime” (aka some stretchy cloth) for demos on gravity, checked out our plasma ball and spectral tubes to learn about stellar atmospheres, and talked about stellar evolution and the war between self-gravity and nuclear fusion in stars.

By wonderful coincidence, the library was adjacent to a wedding party, and we had the opportunity to invite the bride and groom to see the waxing crescent moon through a telescope for the first time.Screenshot 2015-09-19 23.38.03 I absolutely love watching people make what my friend and fellow astronomer Kevin Hainline calls the “Saturn noise” (generally applicable to lots of space things, I think): the “Oooooooo!” people make when they look through a telescope and see something amazing.


“Best wedding present ever!” – some cheap astronomer

We roll out tomorrow for our long-haul day, 75ish miles from Dwight to Normal. Tomorrow night we take our one-and-only no-events break, where I think the only “event” will probably be me passing out in bed at 8pm. Monday though, we’ll be at the Normal Public Library talking about our travels, the Kuiper Belt, and everything between and beyond.

See you in space!

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