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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Former mission specialist Tom Jones can think of a few. Over the course of four shuttle flights, he was sometimes the guy near the door who would have blown the hatch and gone out first, and at other times one of those upstairs who might have gone out last.
One scenario, he says, is that a critical navigation error has put the orbiter way off course, perhaps threatening a populated area and requiring the crew to point the craft toward a desert or an ocean, and get out. “If you make it through the reentry, though,” he admits, “it’s highly improbable that you’d somehow not make it to the runway.”

The most realistic event? Jones says that would be an abort high above the Atlantic, minutes into the climb, in which the orbiter sheds its spent boosters, drops its fuel tank, and tries to glide back to the Florida launch site but can’t quite make it. In the end, Jones says, “it just has to be what’s called ‘a good day.’ Our instructors and flight controllers didn’t sugar-coat our chances. But I think it’s worth the development and testing costs. It gives a few people the chance to get out. It gives you a straw to grasp at.”

Shuttle veteran Sid Gutierrez recalls using his expertise as an engineer and experienced skydiver to advise NASA on escape systems. Most failed to materialize not because they were harebrained, he says, but because they were too complex and expensive, requiring a redesign of the orbiters. One idea was to design ejection “pods,” like those for B-58 and XB-70 pilots, which would enclose and eject each astronaut, making egress at higher speeds and altitudes more survivable. Another would have separated the whole front end of the orbiter from the rest.

But the best idea, insists Gutierrez, was to put everyone, pilots included, in a large capsule in the payload bay during launch and reentry, and automate those phases of the flight. The capsule would be durable enough for reentry on its own, followed by an Apollo-style parachute deployment, and would therefore provide an escape for any phase of the mission. It would double as a roomy airlock prior to spacewalks, and generally furnish more elbowroom in orbit. “The elegance of sticking this thing in the payload bay was that there’s no redesign,” says Gutierrez. “It would have been survivable for both accidents we’ve had, which were worst-case scenarios.” But even this idea seemed too expensive to many of the higher-ups at NASA. Says Gutierrez, “I explained to a couple NASA administrators that nothing is more expensive than an accident.”

As for Mullane’s final judgment on what the astronaut corps ended up with? “Many of us placed the slide-pole bailout procedures in the same category as the pre-Challenger contingency-abort procedures — busywork while dying.”

—Michael Klesius


Another Flying Car? Meh.

 I hereby name Terrafugia’s Transition most awesome airplane of the year, and I want it to succeed in every way; I really do. But history is not on its side. That may be the reason that the Massachusetts-based company’s co-founder Carl Dietrich refers to the Transition as a “roadable aircraft” instead of as a “flying car.”

A flying car has been a goal of daydreaming engineers, professional and amateur, for at least 90 years. Between 1918 and 1993, 76 U.S. patents for flying cars were issued. Notable efforts include Robert Fulton’s 1946 Airphibian, Waldo Waterman’s 1937 Arrowbile, the 1950s Bryan Roadable, and Molt Taylor’s much-photographed 1950s Aerocar, one of which was still flying in the mid-1990s. In recent years, Paul Moller’s Skycar, in the works since 1965 and ultimately powered by eight Wankel-type rotary engines, has made headlines — largely for the millions Moller has poured into the project. In what he calls “an exercise in evaluation,” Moller placed an early prototype on eBay last October. “We wanted to see what it might fetch,” he says. He set the price he was willing to accept at $3.5 million, and withdrew after the highest bid reached close to $2 million. According to Moller, he has 67 orders, but not enough capital investors.

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