When your mission is to explore the realms beyond earth, sometimes things get weird. Really weird. Like, lawsuits over Mars and conspiracy-feeding video mistakes levels of weird. Welcome to the stranger side of NASA.
In order to close World Space Week with a bang, we decided we should deliver a few of the strangest (and sometimes, most embarrassing) moments in the history of American space travel.
NASA’s been around for nearly six decades, so there are plenty of historical quirks to recap. We narrowed down the list just a bit. How about we get right to it?
No, you’re not reading that wrong. The ‘90s were truly a weird, weird time.
When the NASA space program began exploration of Mars with the Pathfinder spacecraft and Sojourner rover, a few guys in Yemen made a fuss over the planet being “their” property inherited from ancestors more than 3,000 years before. The men were pretty upset that NASA had the audacity to land on the planet without their permission, so they decided to file a lawsuit and presented documents “proving” their ownership of Mars to the country’s prosecutor general.
And apparently (also, unrelated), another man spent his days selling real-estate deeds for property on the moon at around the same time. What an odd decade for space travel.
Get this, though: the guys went even further with the lawsuit, asking NASA to seek their permission before releasing any information on the atmosphere, gravity or surface of the planet. Oh, how I wonder what their reaction was to the announcement that NASA found strong evidence of liquid water on Mars (which would really suck for anyone planning to take their vintage cars there).
Naturally, NASA brushed the men off and went about their business. Like NASA news chief Brian Welch and Pathfinder mission manager Richard Cook told CNN, Mars and the solar system belong to all of humanity—not just some guys in Yemen.
Welch says a 1967 international treaty holds that everything in the solar system, except Earth itself, is the property of everyone in the world and no one country.
“Just because we land on Mars first doesn’t mean the United States owns it,” he said.
There you have it, folks: the universe is for everyone. (On a side note, could you even imagine drawing territorial lines in outer space?)
So basically, what we’re saying here is that whole “space race” thing with Russia was for bragging rights. But we still stuck an American flag on the moon’s surface. OK.
Know when mom starts trying to dig out the old home videos to embarrass you in front of a new (or old) acquaintance, and she can’t find them? NASA did that exact thing with the raw video clips of the Apollo 11 moonwalk from 1969.
Maybe that first example isn’t such a bad thing — people usually aren’t too upset when some of the more embarrassing home videos manage to get lost while guests are visiting. But, NASA losing one of the biggest moments in history? Oops.
In fact, it ended up being three years worth of “oops.”
Realizing that the tapes were lost in 2006 and beginning a long search, it took until 2009 for NASA to admit that the magnetic tapes were likely among the 200,000 erased and reused to save money while recording satellite data. In the same year as the 40th anniversary of the landing, no less.
After admitting to the goof, officials at NASA sought out TV broadcast footage of the landing to have enhanced. Broadcast quality varied back in those days, so NASA went through video from CBS News archives, kinescopes and the like and called on Lowry Digital of Burbank—responsible for restoring plenty of old movies—to merge the best-possible clips of the moon landing.
The first moon landing reproduced by a Hollywood company. Conspiracy theorists must’ve had a field day.
NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building is, to cut to the chase, quite large. So large, in fact, that it rains in there sometimes. Rain. From actual clouds. Indoor clouds.
The structure built in 1966 is located at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and has an enormous air-conditioning system, but clouds still manage to form below the ceiling on the more humid days and drop some rain on lower floor. Notice that “floor” is singular—this gigantic, 525-foot building is single story (because, when you think about it, a space vehicle might be a bit too heavy to put on a second or third floor). It’s the fourth-largest building in the world as far as volume, and the doors used to bring spacecraft in and out are a whopping 456 feet high. That, my friends, is a grand entrance (or exit).
Though the VAB re-opened to the public for the first time since the 1970s back in 2011, tours closed earlier this year so that employees could get to work on NASA’s newest heavy-lift rocket. Sorry to break it to you that the VAB is now closed us outsiders — if you want to see some rain clouds these days, you’re just going to have to go outside.
What a drag.
In order to allow astronauts to get a feel for what life is like on the International Space Station, NASA built a replica on Earth—then they made a giant swimming pool out of it.
Talk about putting all of those trips to the kiddie pool to shame. The giant water slide that was so cool when you were younger doesn’t hold a candle to this.
While it’s fun to think that they just drop astronauts in a pool for giggles (jumping in the water with a super-heavy space suit — astronaut initiation, maybe?), it actually serves as a mock zero-gravity environment similar to what astronauts will experience in space. The facility is the Neutral Buoyancy Lab about 20 minutes away from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and NASA’s method of choice for spacewalk training has put astronauts underwater since the 1960s (the NBL came about in the late 1990s).
During training, astronauts spend about six to eight hours training underwater for every hour of extravehicular activities (i.e., spacewalks) that they will do while aboard the ISS. The pool itself is gigantic — it holds 6.2 million gallons of water in order to submerge the faux ISS model.
Since visuals work pretty well for this particular explanation, here’s a pool-day video from CNET Magazine:
What would make this process a whole lot cooler is the addition of astronaut floaties, just because. But then again, floaties probably aren’t allowed in space because they wouldn’t do much good. Abort mission.
Since we’re on the topic of water already, let’s talk about how aerospace engineering relates to water guns — that’s quite a weird combination.
Or is it?
Let’s just start from the beginning. Master’s degree in nuclear engineering in hand, Lonnie Johnson joined the U.S. Air Force and got involved in developing the stealth-bomber program. He got on board with NASA as well (not literally, though. He was an engineer, not an astronaut), where he acted as a senior systems engineer for the Galileo mission that went to Jupiter.
As cool as that all sounds, the guy gets cooler. In 1982, Johnson was trying to create a heat pump in a very scientific and well-tested work area, a bathroom, and decided to attach his homemade nozzle and tubing to the sink. Visualize it, kids (or, channel your inner kid in order to visualize it) — wssshhhwwwsssshhhh. the Super Soaker was born.
Before a royalties dispute with Hasbro, it’s estimated that Johnson put about $20 million in his pocket from the more than $1 billion in worldwide sales. Winning the dispute granted him a small fortune of $73 million, so now the guy is pretty wealthy. And to think, an idea yielding nearly $100 million in profit started in a bathroom.
I’m off to find a nearby bathroom and scratch some lottery tickets. Maybe I’ll get the same result—you know, without having to invent anything.
Photo credit: NASA via AP, AP Photo/NASA/Neil Armstrong, AP Photo/John Raoux, File, AP Photo/Pat Sullivan, YouTube
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