The Department of Never Mind

A collection of six inventions that prompt a single question: What the…?

A Sea Dart takes off from San Diego Bay on a single ski, a design tested later in the program; earlier models used twin skis. (NASM (SI Neg. #SI 91-1833))
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Does This Make Me Look Fast?

 In September 2008, airline pilot and skydiver Yves Rossy exited a Pilatus Porter at around 9,000 feet, unfolded an eight-foot composite wing strapped to his back, fired the wing’s four small turbines, and screamed 22 miles across the English Channel, reaching 186 mph. After 10 minutes, nearing the White Cliffs of Dover, Rossy deployed a parachute and fluttered down into a field near the South Foreland lighthouse, which Louis Blériot had targeted in his historic 1909 cross-channel flight in a wobbly monoplane.

Five years before Rossy’s flight, Austrian BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner, wearing a six-foot composite wing and an oxygen tank, exited an airplane at 30,000 feet and free-fell across the channel, reaching 220 mph.

Like father and son Knievel’s motorcycle jumps, these latest channel crossings have made great videos and, in the YouTube era, have entertained thousands. But now that the channel has been crossed by all conceivable modes of transport — thanks anyway, we’ll take the Chunnel.

—Patricia Trenner


In Case of Emergency…

 In his 2006 book Riding Rockets, NASA mission specialist and three-time space traveler Mike Mullane expresses unvarnished skepticism over the bailout system created for the orbiters after the Challenger tragedy. “We would jump out the side hatch just like B-17 crewmembers did in WWII,” Mullane writes. “Good freakin’ luck!”

Early escape concepts employed rocket-propelled lanyards to yank astronauts from the hatch, a technology affectionately called the Yankee Extraction System when it was used in Vietnam to uncork pilots from ejection seat-less A-1 Skyraiders. But having rockets sitting around on the shuttle was too dangerous, and the idea was scrapped in favor of a curved, telescoping pole fixed to the ceiling of the mid-deck that the crew would extend out of the hatch. Each astronaut would clip the harness on his suit to a ring on the pole and slide off the end, passing beneath the wing of the orbiter. A backpack parachute would then open automatically.

The system was realistic only for an orbiter in controlled, gliding flight at subsonic speeds and below 50,000 feet. It’s difficult to imagine failure scenarios in such a benign profile that would cause a crew to ditch a $2 billion orbiter.

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