Space is a weird place, and the quest to explore its mysteries in person has been no small source of strangeness and surprise. Here are some lesser-known facts about humanity's ongoing missions beyond Earth's atmosphere.
Above: Space Shuttle Endeavour lifts off on February 8, 2010, in the Shuttle Program's final night launch | Credit: NASA
Above: From the audio transcripts of the Apollo 10 mission, Lunar Module Pilot Eugene Cernan, Command Module Pilot John Young, and Commander Thomas Stafford discuss a close encounter of the turd kind. Via Distractions in Space.
So you wanna fly spaceships for NASA? You'll need a college degree in maths, science or engineering; a minimum of 1,000 hours a commanding pilot in a jet aircraft; and be able to pass a NASA space physical, which requires distant visual acuity, good blood pressure and – here's the real zinger – a height between 62 and 75 inches. You can prepare, train, and account for just about every other aspect of NASA's Pilot Astronaut requirements (you can even have your eyes corrected with laser surgery), but unless you're between 5'2" and 6'3", you aren't getting behind the wheel. (Fortunately, the height requirements for Mission Specialists – between 58.5 and 76 inches – are a little broader.)
Because – surprise! – designing spacecraft and getting humans to Earth orbit and the Moon usually means inventing brand new solutions to problems most people haven't even thought of yet.
Armstrong always maintained that the phrase he uttered while first setting foot on the Moon was not the grammatically incorrect "That's one small step for man," but rather "That's one small step for a man."
"I think that reasonable people will realize that I didn't intentionally make an inane statement and that certainly the 'a' was intended," he once told biographer James R. Hansen, "because that's the only way the statement makes any sense."
More recently, however, the controversial sentence has been attributed to a quirk of dialect – apparently central Ohioans (like Armstrong) tend to blend the two-word sequence "for a" into what Michigan State University researcher Laura Dilley describes as a "frrr(uh)" sound. As we wrote when Dilley's analysis first came to light:
The careful attention of the entire planet combined with what was admittedly a less than optimal transmission quality means that Armstrong's "for a man" sounded like "for man," even if he himself had no doubt he said the right thing.
Neil Armstrong maintained until his death that his "One Small Step" speech had been made spontaneously, and conceived shortly before setting foot on the lunar surface; but a recent interview with his brother, Dean Armstrong, suggests that Neil's iconic two-liner was actually planned several months before the Apollo 11 launch, over a game of Risk.
Edit: Andrew Chalkin, author of A Man on the Moon e-mailed us to clarify that Armstrong never claimed his statement was spontaneous. As he wrote in an article for SPACE.com:
Nothing in Neil's post-flight statements rules out the possibility that he thought up the "one small step" line before leaving Earth. He didn't say "I thought up the quote after we landed;" he said, "I decided what I would say after we landed."
And if you already knew about Nixon's speech (which he obviously never delivered), we bet you didn't know this: The clergyman tasked with conducting burial services for the Apollo 11 astronauts was instructed to adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, but to instead commend the astronauts' souls to "the deepest of the deep" – which is just terrifying and forceful and beautiful all at the same time.
Astronauts aboard several lunar missions have reported that moon dust smells distinctly of "wet ashes in a fireplace" and "spent gunpowder." (And according to Apollo 16 astronaut John Young, it doesn't taste "half bad.")
According to Louis Allamandola, founder and director of the Astrophysics and Astrochemistry Lab at NASA Ames Research Center, space is full of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that smell not unlike metal, diesel fumes and barbecue (astronauts returning aboard the International Space Station after a 6-hour spacewalk have reported smelling "burned" or "fried" steak.)
Photo via collectspace.com
Life Insurance for a Moon-bound astronaut in the late 60s was, understandably, ridiculously expensive. To ensure their families were provided for in the event of their deaths, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins devised their own life insurance policy. Via NPR:
"These astronauts had been signing autographs since the day they were announced as astronauts, and they knew even though eBay didn't exist back then, that there was a market for such things," [said Robert Pearlman, a space historian and collector with collectspace.com]. "There was demand."
Especially for what were called covers -– envelopes signed by astronauts and postmarked on important dates.
About a month before Apollo 11 was set to launch, the three astronauts entered quarantine. And, during free moments in the following weeks, each of the astronauts signed hundreds of covers.
They gave them to a friend. And on important days — the day of the launch, the day the astronauts landed on the moon — their friend got them to the post office and got them postmarked, and then distributed them to the astronauts' families.
It was life insurance in the form of autographs.
Today, it's not uncommon for one of these insurance autographs to fetch $30,000 at auction.
The Agency did its best to prevent and cover up the less radio- and family-friendly transmissions between its astronauts. One astronaut, in particular, had a habit of listing off profanities when his mind wandered. Anticipating a PR nightmare, NASA took an interesting preemptive step:
In preparing for his mission, NASA had the astronaut hypnotized. Rather than curse, a psychiatrist put the idea in his head that he would rather hum when his mind wandered. The hypnotized astronaut is rarely named, but only one man can be heard humming as he skipps across the lunar surface. Transmissions from Commander Pete Conrad are punctuated with "dum de dum dum dum" and "dum do do do, do do" making him the likeliest candidate.
Again from the Apollo 10 audio transcripts, Cernan, Young and Stafford discuss, somewhat abashedly, how to drink water in space. Via Distractions in Space.