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Gemini stuns me

Okay, sorry I haven’t been blogging this week. But it’s because I was on the road and just got back — and, while I was away (in Huntsville, Alabama), I visited the Rocket Museum of the Marshall Space Flight Center. At the center, NASA has collected various rockets and space modules so you can see them up close. So I wandered around, and fixed my attention on the Gemini capsule. As you may recall, the Gemini capsules were intended to circle the earth a bunch of times with two astronauts on board — as a prequel to a moon shot. The idea was to see how humans responded to the rigors of space.

But here’s what blew my mind: The tiny scale and super-retro style of the Geminis. I mean it’s hard to tell from the picture above, but christ almighty — those things make a Karmann Ghia look spacious. Those guys were just totally crammed in there. And we think of NASA as being all computerized and automated, but lemme tell you, peek inside a Gemini capsule, and it’s literally nothing but manual controls, about 800 tiny manual toggle switches, and slider switches and rotary dials that look as if they’d been plucked of the front of a vintage Fender amplifier. These people weren’t just brave for riding this thing into space — they were insane. I mean, insane in a good way, because I’m a huge supporter of manned space travel (though I agree with critics who complain that the Shuttle is a lousy design and massive waste of money). But seriously, these guys must have been smoking huge, fat rocks of crack to get inside one of these things and head out into the void. After years of being a space buff, and reading tons about early space flight, nothing — absolutely nothing — could prepare me for the shock of realizing how totally and utterly barbaric those early space capsules were. Some of the panels on the Gemini look as if they were made from Meccano pieces; I’m not exaggerating.

If nothing else, NASA’s early space-shot puts you in complete and total awe of the existential force of hacker ingenuity. Because every component of those early spacecraft, NASA hand-tooled from scratch. It’s the most amazing hack I’ve ever seen in my life. And keep in mind, the Wright Brothers had only flown for the first time, what, 60 years earlier? Yet these NASA freaks were heading into space? Just because the president told ‘em they had to? In what amounted to A HERMETICALLY SEALED VOLKSWAGEN??? God almighty.

And one or two space trips wasn’t enough. They’d barely managed to keep two chimps alive in a capsule when they fired a few men up to circle the planet; then they shot the moon barely years later. Then did it again and again and again. And when the Apollo 13 flamed out in a total screaming mess, they just went straight ahead and launched another moon mission three months later. Three. Months. Later. I realize that the Cold War and bonkers McCarthyite ideology was driving a lot of this stuff, but come on — you have to be impressed by this total freakshow of innovation, risk, and single-minded purpose.

I sort of hope this sort of spirit can return to NASA today.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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