We recently told the story of how the Apollo moon landing was saved with a felt-tip pen. That kind of "We have to improvise something before the ship explodes!" story is one thing that real space travel has in common with Star Trek. Only in real life, you can't just make up some tech jargon and reconfigure the deflector shields. It involves a lot more effort to think through panic, fire and toxic fumes.
For instance ...
5Neil Armstrong Was Almost Killed Years Before He Went to the Moon
The early '60s were a bad time to be an American rocket scientist. The Soviets were boasting a track record that kicked U.S. ass on all fronts, from Laika the Space Dog to Yuri Gagarin. Now both space powers had set their sights on the ultimate goal -- the moon. And the message from upstairs was clear: NASA damn well better not screw up this one.
"OK, so what if we launched a giant cube into space?"
The biggest problem with the moon leg of the Space Race wasn't getting there -- that was, more or less, just a matter of thrust. The problem lay in how to get there and back again in one piece. NASA had managed to figure out the best way to accomplish this: the lander system, which involves a light, spiderlike mini ship that leaves the spacecraft to handle the delicate landing business while the craft itself hangs around in orbit. Then the lander docks back in, and voila! Everything is parades, promotions and propaganda victory.
That was the theory, anyway. It turned out that managing to connect two vessels traveling at thousands of miles an hour, in outer space, is far from easy. But the clock was ticking, so they got practicing.
In 1966, NASA sent astronauts David Scott and Neil Armstrong (yes, that Neil Armstrong) on a mission called Gemini 8. Their objective: complete the first ever space docking by joining with a previously launched unmanned craft called the Agena.
Delta 7 Studios
This is either a rendering of the docking sequence or space pornography.
The mission went swimmingly. Six hours after launch, Scott and Armstrong had successfully docked with Agena, and everything was going good.
That is, until the death roll started.
The Near Disaster:
After 27 minutes of post-docking relaxation, Scott happened to glance out of the window and noticed that everything was spinning. A software glitch had caused Agena's thruster rockets to malfunction, and they were firing away like a drunk cowboy. Unimpressed by this potentially life-threatening problem, Armstrong calmly balanced Gemini's own thrusters to stop the roll until he could turn off Agena's.
Armstrong, seen here smiling at his old friend Certain Fiery Death.
This fixed the problem ... for a few seconds. The roll quickly started again, more furiously than ever. Realizing that their spacecraft was in danger of breaking apart, Armstrong quickly undocked and moved away from the troublemaking Agena. Yet somehow, the spinning only increased.
Shit like this happens in space travel every once in a while, and it's usually fixed with a quick "Houston, we have a problem." However, Gemini 8 was temporarily out of radio contact at the time, which prevented the control center from telling them the plot twist: It was the Gemini's thruster that was malfunctioning all along.
"Our best estimate is that you are between 95 percent and completely fucked."
The barrel roll got faster and faster, to the point where they were going at one revolution per second. It was more than fast enough to cause Scott and Armstrong to get dizzy and lose track of the location of Earth. This is widely thought to be the worst thing you can lose track of as an astronaut.
At that point, Neil Armstrong decided he'd had enough of space's shit. His vision blurred and, at the brink of going unconscious, Armstrong somehow managed to shrug off the effects of the insanity carousel enough to figure out the real problem and fix it like a boss. He turned off the malfunctioning thrusters and initiated early reentry, which brought the aircraft back under control and allowed the astronauts to regain their bearings. One relatively uneventful emergency landing later, the battered and bruised spacemen were safe and sound -- and Command Pilot Neil A. Armstrong had added a good 10 inches to his Space Dong.
This didn't hurt him later in life.