Saturday, October 08, 2011

Paragliding Spam

During the dawn of the American space program astronauts didn't have it easy. Sometimes they called themselves "spam in the can," referring to the tight quarters inside the early capsules and also the lack of control they had over the vehicles.

This was way before the days of the space shuttle. Instead of gliding to a landing like a plane after a mission, the astronauts just fell into the ocean, the fall slowed down by parachutes. A whole Navy fleet would search for the floating capsule and then it would be fished out. Predicting where the capsule would land wasn't an exact science with the early missions.

Until I picked up an old book the other day, I didn't know that there was a plan to return the Gemini astronauts hang-glider style. Flipping through the slightly musty pages of America's Race For The Moon: The New York Times Story of Project Apollo (1962) I spotted an illustration for a proposed capsule design that would allow it to return home on land.

Apparently NASA was hoping to use a paragliding parachute so that the capsule could glide through the sky, landing on a dry lake bed like the shuttle would years later. Skids would be added so that the ungainly-shaped capsule could land in proper fashion.

Doing some online research I found a YouTube video that explained that dummy models were tried out but the design was too challenging, there wasn't enough time to perfect it. Caught up in the space race -- "Gotta beat those damn Commies to the moon!" -- the project was soon abandoned.

So it can be truthfully said that a Gemini astronaut never left skid marks on a bed.

And within the pages of the same book I spotted a photo of President John F. Kennedy giving a speech in front of an early mock-up for a lunar excursion vehicle. To me that LEM looks like a Martian tool shed from a 1950s EC comic book.

With the end of the space shuttle program -- it didn't save money as promised with its re-usable orbiter -- NASA is returning to the capsule design, this time with a bit more elbow room for the spam aboard.


X. Dell said...

Yes, but will they look as cool as the thing JFK's standing in front of?

Interesting history. Makes you think of all of the the start-stops that took place before the final designs made their way to the heavens.

Marvin the Martian said...

Spam in a can! That's what the US astronauts called the Russian cosmonauts, because the Russians had almost zero control over their own ship - it was all ground-based control. God knows, they might defect, you know.

Doug said...

Eh, no point in putting that much effort into a fake event anyway...