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Good Luck, From Space

Astronauts and satellites get to watch the Games from Olympian heights

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The ISS passes over London. Image: NASA

If the spirit of the Olympics lies in nations coming together, than what better place to celebrate that spirit than the International Space Station? As current crew member Suni Williams told CollectSpace, ”I think the International Space Station and Olympics are very similar in that they bring together countries from all over the world. They work together, they compete and they bring out the best in each other.”

For as long as the station has been inhabited, astronauts have been sending messages to the athletes almost every summer and winter games. For the upcoming London games, the six astronauts in low-Earth orbit recorded a prime-time, go-get-’em hurrah with Brian Williams of NBC’s Nightly News that will air on an upcoming show, and another that will run during Friday’s opening ceremonies.

And that’s not the only way NASA has made its mark on the Olympics. In Beijing in 2008, Michael Phelps became the winningest Olympian ever, wearing a swimsuit that had design help from an aerospace engineer at the Langley Research Center in Virginia. The 1998 U.S. Speedskating team brought home two medals thanks in part to a polishing process created by a former NASA engineer, one of the many space program innovations put to use elsewhere, called “spin-off technologies.”

When Atlanta hosted the 1996 games, NASA and the FAA used the chaotic air traffic as an opportunity to test new developments in communications, navigation, and surveillance systems. Fifty helicopters providing support for the Olympics were part of Operation Heli-Star, whereby they were equipped with newly designed digital data-link systems and GPS, providing a real-world test before the equipment was put into general aviation use.

In the less practical, but more visually awesome category, NASA created these killer zooms of Olympic sites from space. Using a combination of images from Terra, Landsat 7, and the commercial satellite Ikonos, we got a “camera dropped from space” view of the 2002 winter games in Salt Lake City, Utah. Our favorite is probably this drop to the summit of the Snow Basin Ski Area…which almost makes the skiers high-speed race down the mountain seem easy by comparison. (Alright, not really.)

And of course, astronauts freed of the bonds of gravity usually can’t resist staging some athletic competitions of their own. We’d be surprised if Williams, a marathon runner, doesn’t have something similar in mind for the London games.

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