A room, a road, a rocket and a road trip to remember

A few days before Christmas 2021, I packed my car, made a rough plan and left home for a solo road trip. Over the next 10 days, I'd end up driving 2469 miles (3973 km) through 10 states and having one of the best road trips of my life. One sees a lot of things on a trip that long. But this post is not going to be a detailed account of the whole trip (although do hit me up if you want the deets). Instead, I want to share three of the places I visited and what I saw there - a room, a road and a rocket- and the thoughts and emotions they stirred in me. 


In Philadelphia, I saw a room, The room where it happened. In this room, in 1776, the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, thus creating the United States of America. As if that wasn't claim to fame enough for a room, 11 years later, after having won the American Revolutionary War against the British Empire, some of them returned to the same room to debate, frame and ratify the Constitution of the United States.

If one considers the USA as a startup, this would be the proverbial Garage where it was born. One does not think of a country as a startup. And yet, at that moment in history, that's exactly what America was- A mere idea in the minds of a few individuals, an opinion about what they ought to be, and a whole lot of uncertainty on how it would all pan out. Seeing how small this room was, and reading about the people that met there and the events that transpired there, I understood just how precarious it all was then. It is said that after the Constitution was ratified, when Benjamin Franklin came out of the room and was asked by a woman what kind of government the delegates had given them, he answered "A Republic, if you can keep it". At that point of time, the United States was a bunch of delegates from 13 colonies, all located on the east coast of today's US, deciding they were no longer going to be British subjects. Over time, the leaders , through wars, treaties and actively promoting exploration and settlement, would expand westwards and grow the country geographically, economically, politically and socially into the superpower we know today.  Being in the room, one wonders whether the people that inhabited that room once had any inkling that the system and the Constitution they were debating would serve so well as the blue print for a powerful nation. And yet, their work has had an impact far beyond their own lifetimes, continuing to shape our world today.

Nearby is also the room that served as the first house of the US Congress while the Capitol Building in Washington DC  (and indeed the city) was still being built. Later on in the trip, I would visit DC and see the magnificent buildings that serve as the symbols of the American Government today. Seeing both the past and the present of the US political system in one trip made me think about nations and societies like I had never done before.



The Blue Ridge Parkway, is a 469 mile (755 KM) long stretch of road that snakes through the Appalachian mountains through rural Virginia and and North Carolina, connecting the Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The drive itself is beautiful. The road meanders through lush forests, bucolic meadows, has some gorgeous views of the valleys below and passes by some lovely towns and villages. All along the road, are preserved/recreated homesteads from the early 1800s, when European settlers and their descendants tried to establish a livelihood in the Appalachian mountains. Purely as a road trip, this is one gorgeous stretch of road to drive on. There is a reason this is the most visited National Park in United states.

Driving down this road, it's easy to think about it as just another road that has always existed or is somehow, natural. But when you dig into the history of this road and how it came to be, you realize that like all the best products that feel natural and obvious, this road is the end result of some extremely meticulous design, planning and execution as well as intense politicking for and against the road. The entire stretch was deliberately conceived and purpose-built to be a scenic byway, specifically to bring in jobs and visitors to the rural Appalachian region during the Great Depression in the 1930s. The road took over 50 years to finish!

The design details of the parkway are fascinating. As an example of the painstaking attention to detail, look at the wooden fence in the above picture. Looks like any other fence you'd find in the countryside. But this isn't a fence built by some country farmer. The designers of the road took pains to research the kind of fences that would have existed here in the 1800s and created fence standards that were used to design all the fences along the road! The same level of care informed the design of bridges, tunnels and other facilities along the road.

Early brainstorming on this road had proposed golf courses, amusement parks and other modern recreation facilities along this road. But the decision makers were able to advocate for and push through a vision of the road that showed off the natural beauty of the region and stuck with a version of the road that the chief designer of the road, Stanley Abbott described as "One Panorama following right on another". The result is a road that delights the soul, even though most people passing through it might never understand the efforts that went into this masterpiece. 


If one is asked to make a list of humanity's crowning achievements, the act of landing a human on the moon is right up there. It remains a singular achievement, unsurpassed in its audacity, complexity and sheer scale as a mission. Thousands of scientists and engineers owe their careers to the inspiration that this act ignited in them. So ever since I learned that there was a museum where I could go see the rocket that took humans to the Moon, Huntsville, Alabama has been on my list of places to visit. 

I had heard a lot of things about just how big the Saturn V rocket is-36 Storey building tall, 2.4 Statues of Liberty tall. But trust me, no picture does it justice. It's humongous. 

The US Rocket and Space Center is as close as you can get to a shrine to the Apollo program. The museum has some fantastic exhibits, showing the absolute nitty gritty of the program. Each layer that you dig deeper into the program, you are left aghast by the sheer complexity of each sub system of the whole thing. Most people usually appreciate the moment where Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. But the complex dance of things that had to happen right from the moment that the rocket left the earth, to the point where the Astronauts splashed back into the ocean, each step is absolutely incredible and an achievement in its own right. When President John F. Kennedy announced in 1961 that US must land a human on moon before the end of the decade, we understood very little about how long humans could live in space, what a journey to the moon would entail, or if we could dock and undock spacecrafts in space. What the engineers were able to achieve within that decade, without the kind of tools we have at our disposal today, is nothing short of miraculous. Over 400000 engineers, scientists and technicians are said to have worked on the program. The scale of it all boggles the mind. (If you are interested in all the things humans had to figure out before they got to the moon, this is a fantastic video about it)

But equally important is the human story behind the Apollo mission. Before the 1950s, the city of Huntsville called itself the Water Cress capital of world. But in the 1950s, the US Govt moved a group of about 200 German Rocket scientists and engineers to the town to work on rockets and missiles for the US Armed forces. These Germans, in a previous a lifetime, had developed rockets for Nazi Germany and were transferred to the US, almost as prisoners of war,  to keep them out of Soviet hands after World War II. This group would prove to be the cornerstone of America's rocketry and space program and turned Huntsville into the Rocket City of America. In 1958, the govt set up the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, the NASA center that would go on to be responsible for the whole of Apollo Program. Wernher Von Braun, an ex-Nazi SS party member, was named the first Director. 

So those are the three places I wanted to share. On the surface level, the three seem very different. But  there is a common underlying theme to all of them. All of them, started as very simple-to-understand visions- A country rooted in liberty, a scenic road through mountains and a goal to land humans on moon. Yet, all three represent exceedingly complex endeavors when you drill down into the details. Despite the complexity though, all of them were brought to life, thanks to the unyielding passion of some very strong individuals and the hardwork, tenacity of the many thousands that they led. And all of them, left behind products that far outlived their makers and served as the platform for future endeavors to be built upon.

The audacity and collective, societal ambitions that these represent are inspiring, to say the least. In our day to day lives, it's far too easy to be surrounded by people who are either too bogged down by their lives to be ambitious, or whose ambition is limited to job titles and monetary gains. So it was great to be reminded that there are bigger ambitions to aspire to, that the things we work on can far outlive us and have impacts that are bigger than us. And it was a reminder to be thankful for those who came before us and left behind things we benefit from today. They say travel expands your mind. For me, this trip most certainly did.