The Road to the Future… Is Paved With Good Inventions
We bring you 10 great ideas that made flying safer, easier, or just a whole lot more fun.
- Air & Space magazine, September 2009
NASM (SI 76-17595-P)
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Astronaut-wannabes take note: When dangling from the end of an umbilical cord 160 miles above Earth, you want to be anchored. For the unanchored, even flexing a pinkie will send you tumbling “ass-over-teakettle,” as veteran spacewalker Buzz Aldrin explained in his memoir Men From Earth.
While it’s now commonplace for astronauts to prepare for the weightlessness of space by training underwater, in the earliest days of Project Gemini, the norm was aircraft simulations: Trainees would be taken up in a KC-135 Strato-tanker, which would fly a ballistic trajectory, giving the passengers a brief period of freefall.
Of course, no one knew what to expect in real micro-G. When cosmonaut Alexei Leonov —armed with a suicide pill in case things went horribly wrong —first stepped into space from the Voskhod 2 spacecraft on March 18, 1965, he was sweating so profusely that his spacesuit sloshed when he moved.
The first American to perform an extravehicular activity (EVA) was Gemini 4’s Edward White, who on June 3, 1965, made a 36-minute excursion to evaluate the feasibility of spacewalking. Except for wrestling with a jammed spacecraft hatch, things went as planned. No one made another EVA until Gemini 9, when, on June 5, 1966, Gene Cernan exited the spacecraft, using handrails, Velcro pads, and foot restraints to help keep him in place. Even with these devices, Cernan was unable to control his movements, eventually running into an antenna and tearing the outer layers of his spacesuit.
During his second EVA on Gemini 10, Michael Collins let go of the handrail for an instant, causing his body to smack the spaceship’s side so hard that the attitude control system’s thrusters fired in compensation.
It was clear to NASA that EVA training needed to be modified.
The Gemini astronauts had a swimming pool at their disposal — courtesy of the McDonough School of Boys in Baltimore, Maryland — and even though underwater simulations weren’t mandatory, Aldrin made extensive use of the pool.
“I was an experienced scuba diver before beginning astronaut training,” he wrote in 1989, “and it seemed to me that practicing underwater was better preparation for an astronaut’s EVA than with the wire-and-pulley training gadgets that came and went in Houston, but never really worked.”
The underwater training paid off: during Gemini 12 in November 1966, Aldrin made three successful spacewalks. From then on, underwater training was mandatory. And it’s still used today, with astronauts spending hundreds of hours underwater before setting foot in space. “Your first underwater training includes a rite of passage,” says Greg-ory Harbaugh, a former NASA astronaut, veteran spacewalker, and now president and CEO of the Sigma Chi Foundation, which provides scholarships to fraternity members. “It’s called ‘doors and latches training,’ and people don’t do well the first time out. You’re holding a very heavy tool that wants to drop to the bottom of the pool. You’re upside down. It can be very humbling. And I think that’s the goal of EVA training. You can’t be arrogant; you have to know what your capabilities are and what the overall team’s capabilities are.”
Since 1996, astronauts have trained in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at Houston’s Johnson Space Center, which boasts a mammoth tank (202 feet long, 102 feet wide, and 40 feet deep) that took nearly a month to fill. “In the old tank you couldn’t do a whole heck of a lot,” says Harbaugh. “Now you can put an entire spacecraft in there. It’s a quantum leap forward.”
Stud, Spring, and Grommet
In the early 1930s, when aircraft manufacturers began to switch from wood to aluminum alloys, a 36-year-old Ukrainian immigrant working at Fairchild’s American Airplane and Engine Company on Long Island, New York, invented a simple fastener that would make Dzus if not a household name at least a hangar name.
William Dzus (pronounced “Zeus”) observed that when Army Air Corps fighters landed, the cowlings clattered, and he traced the racket to the practice of attaching the cowling panels to the engine rather than to the airframe. The various fasteners of the day were subject to an overload of engine vibration and failed regularly — and when they did, the cowling fell off. Although Common Sense twist-lock fasteners had been in use for 20 years, Dzus designed a quarter-turn fastener that was much more effective in minimizing vibration, and because its spring assembly fit neatly inside the panel it was fastening, it induced much less drag than its predecessors. It could even be counter-sunk to eliminate drag altogether. Dzus fasteners proved invaluable for securing inspection panels and other plates needing a quick release.
Fairchild demanded that Dzus sign over the patent to the fastener or leave. Dzus took off, setting up his own manufacturing facility. In 1932 he received his first order: 16 fasteners, at 25 cents each, from Amphibions Inc. Soon the Army Air Corps named the Dzus fastener the gold standard, and perhaps even used one to secure the 15 pages of “MIL-F-25173A(ASG) Military Specification: Fastener, Control Panel, Aircraft Equipment,” which defined the care and feeding of the Dzus fastener.
After the war, the fastener started showing up on motorcycles, hot rods, and all sorts of equipment that required fast access to its innards. Even the turbojet-powered land speed racers of the 1960s (see “The Bonneville Jet Wars,” Feb./Mar. 2009) relied on Dzus fasteners. Says Tony Moore, an airframe- and-powerplant mechanic in California, “After removing and replacing thousands of screws, I’d say that Dzus fasteners are a blessing to anyone who turns a wrench on an airframe.”
By the time William Dzus died, in 1964, some 6,000 variations on his simple, self-locking fastener had been developed. The company, now called DFCI Solutions, still maintains a plant on Long Island and states proudly on its Web site (www.dfcis.com): “For more than 60 years, [we] have designed a wide range of…devices suited to meet your fastening needs.”