NASA recently won gold medals in long jump, shot put and being awesome forever by landing the Mars Scientific Laboratory. We've dispatched a laser-armed nuclear robot to another planet, because modern scientists grew up watching sci-fi movies and are determined to shoot first. Or they grew up watching sci-fi movies and have decided to surrender other planets to the robots in advance.
Dammit, Bob, did you program them to surround us again?
Landing on alien worlds is already the most impressive thing the species has ever done. Which makes these six blatant action-movies-that-actually-happened even cooler.
#6. The Armageddon Probe
The NEAR Shoemaker (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous/very cool scientist) was launched in 1996 but didn't enter orbit around asteroid 433 Eros until 2000. This meant it had time to watch Armageddon as an in-flight movie and become possessed by the spirit of Bruce Willis.
The lower scientist is reinforcing the probe's balls.
After a year of orbital study, the probe was at the end of its operational lifespan, and controllers decided it might as well go out with a bang. Of science! They used the last of the propellant to start a slow dive toward the surface, to take as many pictures as possible on the way down and to teach these Near Earth asteroids that they're not the only ones in the solar system that can go around slamming into things. As an orbiter, NEAR Shoemaker had less landing gear than a fish and was even less likely to survive. They'd only slowed it down so they'd know exactly when to high five and aim middle fingers at the sky.
This is for the dinosaurs, asshole!
So when NEAR Shoemaker sent signals asking "OK, I'm down, what's next?" they had to think of something very quickly, to make sure the unkillable spacebot didn't work out that they'd just tried to murder it. NASA begged extra time from the Deep Space Network communications array, otherwise the probe would have come back to find out why they stopped returning its calls. A gamma ray spectrometer designed to work at a range of kilometers was reprogrammed for the slightly more in-your-face 10 centimeters. NEAR Shoemaker continued to send unprecedented data for another 16 days, and spent the whole time wondering when they'd let it deploy the drills and nuclear warheads.
It worked so well that NASA designed another probe to ram a comet on purpose. And just to take the piss out of movies that weren't as cool as what they do, they called it Deep Impact.
#5. Project Blow Up the Moon
The LCROSS investigated the possibility of water on the moon the same way Arnold Schwarzenegger investigates the location of his missing daughter. The Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite "sensed" by slinging a Centaur rocket booster into the moon at 6,200 miles an hour. That's why rocket scientists hand you an adamantium pelvic girdle when telling you they're a sensitive lover. No matter which genders you both are.
Getty (but really NASA when you think about it)
"Out of this world" joke goes here.
The impact threw up a plume of material 10 miles high, and because the mission was apparently directed by Hollywood, LCROSS then dove through the exploding cloud, to scan it, before ramming the moon as well, to be awesome. This second explosion was observed by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which unaccountably failed to explode in sheer harmonic awesomeness. This suicide science found that the shadowed crater walls contained 5 percent water, as well as hydrocarbons, sulfur compounds, mercury, ammonia, hydrogen and various other substances more chemically exciting than an entire rave because they're on the moon.
Rocket science is even more awesome in reverse.
This wasn't the first time science double outperformed Michael Bay (bigger explosions and physically possible). The Apollo 13 mission threw their empty Stage IVB booster on the moon to perform seismic measurements, and to make sure the moon didn't think it was getting away that easily. The impact was used to calibrate the lunar seismic sensors installed by Apollos 11 and 12, and was so cool that the next four Apollos did the same. Astronauts are so awesome, they can even turn throwing their empties out of a moving vehicle into science. This network recorded more than 13,000 seismic events to help map the interior of the moon. That's over a thousand events per IQ point of all the people who don't think we landed there. Put together.
The next time someone says science is boring, feel free to slap them.
#4. Real-Life Lunar Lander
Lunar landing was hard enough in 1979, and that was when you weren't playing from inside a machine that made dying literal. (You can legally play it online for free, because Atari is still awesome.)
We made these graphics a decade after doing it for real.
In 1969, Neil Armstrong beat every Lunar Lander player and everyone else who has ever held the controls to anything ever. Apollo 11 was on its way to becoming history when that almost became an action movie line instead of a dramatic one. First the lunar module computer started flashing up "executive overflow" errors, saying that it had too much to do and would get back to some of these calculations later. Since these were the "NOT crashing into the moon" calculations, it was a bit of a concern. Ground controllers saved the mission by heroically working out that this was literally a non-fatal error, while Aldrin and Armstrong saved the mission by stoically soaring toward the moon's surface anyway until they did that.
Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin. No, no jokes; just look at some of the coolest people ever for a bit.
That's when Armstrong noticed that the jittery computer was about to pull a younger-sister Mario by relentlessly steering them to death. The programmed landing site had looked fine under telescope observation, but was full of lander-destroying boulders under "inside that lander" observation. With a few hundred thousand miles on the clock and less than a minute of fuel remaining, Neil was damned if he was turning the car around and going home. So as well as being the first person on the moon, he got to be the first person to save space by pulling manual override and steering the ship himself. With a life expectancy measured in seconds, he and Buzz calmly surveyed the surface of the moon and found the most important parking space in history.