23-May-2003 -- Steve Adams and I began our first confluence adventure at 6 am on Friday, May 23, 2003. We drove south from Wichita, Kansas, in a pounding rainstorm. I believe we saw three victims of hydroplaning within the first 50 miles, which brought us to the Oklahoma border on 35S. We hit Oklahoma City around rush hour, took the 44W bypass, and were soon heading west on I-40, running parallel to good ole Route 66. Steve's trusty Garmin GPS made my navigational expertise (hah!) almost superfluous. We stopped in western Oklahoma for breakfast but didn't linger, because the natives were suspiciously eyeing the two strange gentlemen in a checker-topped MINI Cooper. As I told Steve before this journey began, two guys driving a checkered MINI through New Mexico and Texas, not listening to country music-now that's a hate crime waiting to happen!
Anyway, we crossed the Texas border and continued to admire the beautiful cottonwood trees along I-40. I believe we hit Amarillo around noon, at which point we turned south on I-27 and drove towards Lubbock. We took the exit for Cotton Center and rolled into town about 1:15 pm CDT, right on time. The entire school population (6th through 12th grades) was out on the grass, awaiting our arrival, in the 90-degree Texas heat. They were at least as excited to check out the MINI Cooper as they were to see the confluence at 34°N, 102°W. I contacted the landowner on whose cotton farm the confluence lies months before the trip; she and her husband agreed to let us on the property if we brought along the entire Cotton Center School student body! This turned out to be 83 students in grades 6-12. They all received extra credit from their science teacher for the project (how does extra credit work if each student gets it? Oh, well, I'm not a philosopher).
I was worried a bit about rain thwarting our attempts to walk hundreds of feet across a cotton field, given the experience of a prior visitor. The landowner told me, "Honey, if you and your friend bring rain to Cotton Center, you will be declared rain gods and not allowed to leave town." It did seem rather dry in this part of Texas. By the way, the fire witnessed by another former visitor was definitely not planned, according to the landowner. That visitor just happened to witness an unfortunate conflagration at the town's cotton mill (and has the pictures on the confluence website to prove it).
Since neither fire nor rain was in the forecast, we saddled up to bag our first confluence. The students boarded buses and Steve and I followed the landowner out northwest of town, within about 400 feet of the confluence. Once on foot, Steve and I led the way; actually, Steve's Garmin receiver led the way but we followed closely. We navigated across row after row of small cotton plant shoots while school officials barked orders to the students to not trample the plants. We had no trouble locating the confluence in the middle of the cotton field, though as students crowded around to view the zeroed-out GPS, many of the satellites were blocked from view! We took digital pictures in eight traditional "compass" directions (N-NE-E-SE-S-SW-W-NW), snapped a few shots of the GPS receiver with all zeroes, and took a few crowd shots as well. During this time, I was answering student questions about GPS satellites and the confluence project while Steve was being interviewed by two local newspapers, the Hale Center American and the Plainview Daily Herald.
We headed back to the school around 2 pm, since I also had agreed to talk to the students about my job with NASA. We gathered in the school auditorium and talked for over an hour about my job as a propulsion engineer on the Cassini mission to Saturn and on the Mars Exploration Rovers mission. I showed a six-minute Mars video and then took many questions from the audience. Many of these students traditionally do not attend college, so I was very happy to show them an example of the type of career possible with a college education. They were very bright and inquisitive, especially for the end of a school year. One student asked about my annual salary, and the audience gasped when I told them. I reminded them, of course, that southern California has a pretty high cost of living. Steve helped the students view a Mars vista through 3D glasses, while I showed the pupils a piece of aerogel, the lightest solid in the world. I also passed around a space shuttle tile (not from Columbia) and my iron meteorite. The principal finally interrupted our Q&A session so that Steve and I could hit the road for our next target. We were on the road for 34°N, 104°W by 3:30 pm, only fifteen minutes behind schedule. We had bagged our first confluence and done some truly rural NASA outreach in the process!
Steve and I would like to thank the landowners, the Cotton Center science teacher, and the students of Cotton Center School for making our first confluence visit so memorable. Also, thanks to Steve's wife, LeAnn, who supported him in taking a wacky road-trip in the MINI with his old high school buddy.