Best Place to See a Rocket 2012 | Titan Missile Museum | People & Places | Phoenix

It's hard not to feel awestruck when gazing up at the 103-foot Titan II missile that's housed underground at this submerged former nuclear silo in southern Arizona. Truth be told, had things gone differentially during the Cold War, neither we nor the rocket (nor many like it) would be around right now. Thankfully, World War III never happened and the silo never got to fulfill its intended purpose. Instead, it became a tourist attraction after being decommissioned by the U.S. government in 1982. It's the only museum of its kind in the nation, as each of the 32 other Titan II launch facilities around America has been destroyed, sold to private interests, or turned into condos. Visitors can descend more than 140 feet to explore the adjacent command bunker, where a simulated launch sequence is run during tours and one can get an up-close view of the inert weapon of mass destruction.

As each year passes, British billionaire Richard Branson seems to be inching closer to making his dreams of providing jaunts beyond the stratosphere a full-fledged reality. According to the website for his space tourism company Virgin Galactic, however, booking a ticket aboard a sub-orbital vehicle like the VSS Enterprise is expected to cost a hefty $200,000 per person. In other words, zooming well beyond the Kármán line, the sky-high boundary where the atmosphere ends and the rest of the universe begins, is likely going to be well beyond the means of your average person. Those seeking a more frugal foray into the final frontier (albeit of the faux variety) oughta consider an excursion to the Challenger Space Center. Besides housing a collection of space-related exhibits, astronaut ephemera, and monuments to the shuttle program (RIP), the Peoria attraction allows patrons to play the role of astronaut for a couple of hours. You can serve as a member of a flight crew manning a high-tech nerve center that mimics NASA command and control facilities or hop inside the "Earth Space Transit Module" for a simulated voyage to mockups of either a Martian colony or the International Space Station. It's nowhere near the same as actually slipping past the surly bonds of gravity and admittedly requires plenty of imagination to fully enjoy the experience. Then again, stretching the imagination is what led mankind to consider traveling into the cosmos in the first place.

When members of the International Astronomical Union downgraded Pluto to dwarf planet status in 2006, we practically heard Percival Lowell spinning in his grave all the way up in Flagstaff. That's because the mathematician and astronomer dedicated the last decade of his life to helping lay the groundwork for the discovery of Pluto, which took place in 1930 at the Northern Arizona star-gazing facility he founded that bears his name. A wealthy Boston socialite who had an affinity for the wonder of the cosmos, he ventured to our neck of the woods in 1894 due to the wealth of clear skies and a lack of light pollution. After building Lowell Observatory, he used the Alvan Clark Telescope to survey Mars, a planet the eccentric millionaire was particularly obsessed with. Although he might've been completely bonkers when he confidently (and quite erroneously) declared there were canals crisscrossing the Martian surface, Lowell was definitely on the money about was the existence of an object orbiting the sun out beyond Neptune and Uranus. Dubbing it "Planet X," Lowell relentlessly searched the skies for it right up until his death in 1916. While, sadly, he never completed this particular quest, Lowell paved the way for his fellow astronomer Clyde Tombaugh to zero in on Pluto 14 years later at the observatory. Some guys have all the luck.

The planets and extraterrestrial phenomena of outer space don't seem as far away anymore, thanks to the wonders of technology and the speed of the Internet. These days, wanna-be astronomers or those interested in seeing what's out there in the cosmos can easily log on to the Slooh Space Camera or similar online skywatching sites and watch both lunar and solar eclipses, as well as witness asteroids and other cosmic detritus zoom through our corner of the galaxy. But as convenient as such laptop cyber-stargazing can be, it isn't as interesting as attending one of the East Valley Astronomy Club's star parties. After all, all those twinkling stars are best seen in the great outdoors, which harks back to something Plato once stated many moons ago: "Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another." And on a number of occasions each month, the 200-odd astronomy enthusiasts who make up the club, which has been scanning the skies since 1987, gaze into heavens using such heavy-duty telescopes as the Takahashi Epsilon-210 Astrograph at the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert or other rural locations around the East Valley. As they aim their high-caliber optics toward the void, members of the public are invited to squint through the viewfinder at the cosmic bodies populating our own solar system or at far-flung nebulae. If only they'd let us bring out our boombox and blast Holst's The Planets during such sky-watching sessions.

Author and Valley resident Michael Stackpole is a hero to nerds nationwide, likely because he's amassed a slew of achievements that some geeks only wish they could accomplish in their lifetimes. Over the past 35 years, he's designed critically acclaimed tabletop RPGs (Storm Haven, City Book I) and PC games (Star Trek: 25th Anniversary Edition), written popular novels in the BattleTech series, and appeared on the New York Times bestseller list multiple times. In the 1990s, George Lucas let him dabble in the Star Wars literary universe, allowing Stackpole to create some of the more iconic characters in the saga's history. Oh, and an asteroid was even named in his honor in 2008. Kinda makes your so-called feat of finally beating Diablo III seem a little weak by comparison, bro.

Upon first glance, Lance Greathouse looks like a fairly straitlaced guy. He's got a wife, two kids, a suburban home, and a sedate day job as a dental laser technician. Brewing inside the 52-year-old's head, however, are visions of twisted creatures, lethal-looking contraptions, and frightening fire-breathing monsters. Mind you, Greathouse isn't insane but is instead an imaginative cat, and such conjurings are merely inspirations for the kooky contraptions he's been building in his backyard workshop for years. "I come out here when I'm not working and try to think of the wildest stuff I can create," he says. So far, the tinkerer, gearhead, and DIY diehard has constructed robotic scorpions, mechanized skeletons, and wheeled vehicles with fearsome appearances. (A few even starred on TV programs like BattleBots and Robot Wars.)

A majority of Greathouse's creations boast bad-ass propane-powered flamethrowers that emit conflagrations into the air, like the motorized armored three-wheeler dubbed "Lord Humongous." Greathouse's creations are a big hit out at Burning Man in Nevada, which he visits almost every year. He also brings out some of his more benign devices, like the "Ultimate Tailgating Station," a remote-controlled mobile grill and "party on wheels" that includes a barbecue, refrigerated beer tap, stereo system, and yet another flamethrower for roasting vegetables. It was seen on an episode of the National Geographic Channel's reality show Mad Scientists that he was featured on last winter. Viewers also got to glimpse some of the funky motorized wheelchairs Greathouse built for his late brother, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, including one patterned after Dr. Evil's chair from the Austin Powers flicks. "It's appropriate because some people seem to think I'm quite the mad scientist," he jokes. We don't know why they might come to that conclusion, Lance.

Without a doubt, modern medicine has come a long way since the long-forgotten era when doctors routinely gave bloodlettings or used such fantastically useless devices as electro-magnetic machines to treat ailments. For an illustration of this fact, look no further than the lobby of Phoenix Baptist Hospital, which features a unique and unusual museum of medical history. A pair of floor-to-ceiling glass cases located just inside the front door contains an expansive collection of antique doctor's tools, pharmaceutical and apothecary throwbacks, vintage medical ephemera, and other curiosities from a bygone age. Many shelves chronicle the various drugs, liniments, and tonics that physicians prescribed (many of which are in their original packaging), as well as old-timey pill bottles and numerous products containing opium. Curated by retired Valley gastroenterologist Robert Kravetz, who started accumulating the collection in 1971, the museum also includes many examples of medical practice like an ornate leech jar from Victorian England. If the prospect of having a vile blood-sucker attached to your flesh isn't scary enough, be sure to check out such cringe-inducing things as the large brass anal dilators (ouch) or the turn-of-the-century bone saw (double ouch). It's a great way to pass the time while you're waiting to see the doctor. Just be glad he won't be holding the business end of a leech in your direction.

Today, if you are exposed to nerve gas — like the sarin used in the notorious 1995 Tokyo subway attacks — the best that anyone can do for you is administer a cocktail of drugs that may keep your heart beating long enough for the gas to wear off on its own. The drugs themselves are dangerous, and they do not stop any of the damage that nerve gas causes. But researchers at Mor Lab at ASU are working to change all that using genetically engineered plants and a blender that would look more at home at a Jamba Juice than in a laboratory.

It turns out that our bodies already possess an enzyme that not only deactivates the chemicals in nerve gas but also rips them apart at the molecular level. The problem is that we naturally produce this chemical, butyrylcholinesterase (BchE), at such low levels that it cannot help us in the event of a nerve gas attack. BchE is a complex molecule and nearly impossible to isolate or synthesize in any quantity. That is why researchers at Mor Lab are teaching tobacco plants how to grow the chemical for us. By splicing the ability to create BchE into plants, they can grow entire fields of this life-saving enzyme. Because they are plants, harvesting is easy; they just need to blend the whole plant and extract the BchE. Clearly, there is still much work to be done, but the initial results are extremely promising. Who thought tobacco could do such good?

Arizona has more pools per capita than anywhere in America. Given our weather, that's not really a shocker. What might be shocking is that some of the stuff that grows in your pool if you don't clean it might actually end up saving humanity.

The Laboratory for Algae Research and Biotechnology at ASU is conducting a whole raft of research centered on humble algae, the green crud that gathers in old pools and lakes. Some of the most exciting research is with algae-based biofuels. Current biofuels rely upon converting crops, primarily food crops like corn, into biofuels that we can use in our cars. While this has seen some success, there are real ethical problems with using food for fuel, as well as questions as to whether it actually is sustainable enough to justify biofuel production. That's where the algae comes in. Algae neatly steps around the ethical and practical problems surrounding biofuels. For obvious reasons, nobody is going to complain if a vast algae harvest is used to make fuel, nor do we have to sacrifice wide swaths of farmland just to make it. Researchers at ASU can grow a lot of algae in a very small area, and all they need is water, sunlight and some basic nutrients. The algae themselves produce oils which can be harvested and then refined into biofuel. Harvesting a "crop" of biofuels is as easy as emptying out their tank and giving it a good scrub.

While Arizona's frequent haboobs, blazing summers, and year-round dryness can be a challenge for residents, it's also the perfect weather for testing equipment we one day hope to send into space. NASA's Desert Research and Technology Studies (D-RATS) team descends on the Arizona desert every summer to put new space-exploration technology and principles through the torture of an Arizona summer. While they are in the desert, the D-RATS team perform a variety of simulated space missions.

Some of the most recent experiments have been with the unambiguously named Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV). The SEV is like the wild space-going spawn of a pickup truck and a camper trailer, suitable for missions to Mars or to the surface of an asteroid. It's designed to be able to travel thousands of miles over rocky terrain with little or no maintenance. Astronauts can operate the vehicle in a "shirtsleeve" environment but quickly transfer into their spacesuits for a walk outside. While they are in the desert, the D-RATS team perform a variety of simulated space missions. Driving the SEV is unlike anything else out there because it has the ability to turn its multitude of wheels in virtually any direction and even use hydraulics to "crab walk" sideways across very difficult terrain. Granted, for as cool as it sounds, the SEV isn't for those with a need for speed. It clocks a top speed of only 10 kilometers per hour.

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