Scrabble and love

Apollo spacecraft to come back?

A couple of days ago, you may have read my post about my visit to the Marshall Space Flight Center — where I marvelled at the old, 1960s-class spacecraft like the Gemini and Apollo modules. As a spaceflight fan, I was enormously impressed by the ingenuity of the craft, but was stunned by how incredibly low-tech it was. “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,” I wrote.

Well, according to the U.K. Guardian, NASA is considering using Apollo-style craft once again — as a replacement for the grounded Shuttles:

The American space agency Nasa is thinking of resurrecting its Apollo spacecraft, which took men to the moon in 1969.

Nasa needs to get astronauts off the International Space Station in a hurry in an emergency. Its most high-profile plan is for an orbital space plane, which looks like a stubby version of the space shuttle. But with funds tight, the agency is considering other options. Nasa documents leaked to a space website reveal that these include docking an Apollo-style command module on to the station as a lifeboat. Nasa has even considered refurbishing modules built in the 1960s, and currently in storage or museums. The command module from the Apollo 10 mission is at the Science Museum in London.

“We are considering a number of options along these lines,” Nasa confirmed at its Johnson space centre in Houston.

This isn’t a joke or a prank — the report, which came out of a late-March 2003 meeting by spaceflight veterans, is online here! Most interestingly, it points out that the Apollo craft had one major advantage over the Shuttles: Escape hatches. Should something have gone wrong, it was possible for the crew to eject while still in Earth’s atmosphere:

The virtually full-envelope abort and recovery system provided a very high level of safety for the crew. The Launch Escape System LES) itself was a very simple but robust system to provide for crew escape starting from the pad through the most critical ascent phase.

By the way, here’s another funny low-tech coda. According to a story in MSNBC, Soyuz capsule re-entries so frequently overshot their landing points that one once touched down in a remote forest populated by hungry wolves. That’s when Russian space officials “decided to pack a sawed-off shotgun aboard every spacecraft.” I love it.

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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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