#3. Venusian Death Dive
Venera 5 slammed into the Venusian surface as a dead ball of crushed science, and the mission was a complete success. This wasn't Soviet propaganda spinning a space disaster: The probe really had been designed to die as awesomely as possible, and succeeded even more awesomely than that.
"You're going to be a one-hit wonder, but that hit will be ANOTHER PLANET!"
We could say that "Venera" is Russian for "Venus," but it's more accurate to say that "Venus" is Loser for "Venera." The Soviets landed 10 times as many functioning probes on our sister planet as the U.S., and the only reason it wasn't more is because they were too busy building others to act as interplanetary fireworks. The surface of this alien world is littered with Soviet robot corpses, which we think is every sci-fi parallel universe plot in one sentence, for real. Venera 3 was the first man-made object to impact another planet.
Venera 3: Our ambassador to other worlds (shot one of them).
The Venusian atmosphere is a fairly good approximation of hell, at over 400 degrees Celsius, with over 90 times Earth's pressure and sporting clouds of sulfuric acid. Venera 4 parachuted through it, permanently establishing a Soviet who was cooler than James Bond. It was crushed by atmospheric pressure before hitting the surface, so how did they prepare Venera 5? They made its parachutes smaller.
Venera 4: Try not to think of those clawed hands gripping your skull while the center bit drills. And how we gave it reason to do that.
You see, Venera 4 had accidentally lived a full and happy life, running out of power while still in the Venusian atmosphere. But ground control wanted to see the ending of the humanity vs. Venus fight. Venera 5 was designed to fall faster, so that it would still be alive to tell us what being crushed to death on another world felt like. Venera 5 is also the origin story for every space robot that wants to kill us.
And looks the part.
Then Venera 6 slammed into the ground beside it. Then 7 soft-landed and reported on the surface. So did 8. And 9. And 10. Then the United States noticed that there was another planet up there and sent the Venus Multiprobe to blast a shotgun of science at the entire world. It fired four pellets of pure space technology at the planet, and we're not saying they weren't expected to survive, but three of them didn't even have parachutes. And in true American action movie style, one of those expendable grunts was the only one to survive. The "Day probe" survived for almost an hour on the alien surface, while the elite "Large probe," with its fancy parachute and extra equipment, was never heard from again. Probably captured by the Venera probes and later rescued by Space-Rambo.
Then Venera 12 landed. Then 11 (space trajectory math is harder than counting). Then 13, and 14, and the Vega 2 lander. If we ever do make it to Venus, we're going to need heat shields, atmospheric defenses and some stunningly good arguments in favor of capitalism.
#2. Martian Airbags
Contrary to what you might think, Martian airbags aren't special effect props from Total Recall.
The male version of this character was much less popular, 150 percent fertile and had a hard time buying boxer shorts.
Landing on another planet is extremely dangerous, and with about 10 minutes of light-speed delay between Mars and Earth, ground control decided to just assume that the Pathfinder was going to crash anyway and planned for that instead. What follows is the proof between madness and insanity: If your plan for landing on an alien world is "multiple bouncing," you're either still thinking of Total Recall or capable of building it.
NASA official simultaneously checking and not believing this shit.
The Pathfinder landing system reads like the plot of a Bond movie: crashing through the atmosphere at 17,000 miles per hour, blowing off a heat shield, rappelling down a zip line to get out of range of the rocket motors, then firing three more solid rocket motors to inflate the airbags. Rocket motor-powered airbags. Just to prove that there's nothing NASA can't make cool.
"Man, even crashing a motorbike into an office feels boring compared to rocket science."
Then they dropped a quarter of a billion dollars of science from five stories straight up, because you can do that when:
a) you're on another planet with less than half Earth's gravity and
b) you're capable of doing a quarter of a billion dollars of science and therefore know what you're doing.
It hit the ground at around 30 miles per hour, pulled an 18-G impact (47 Mars-G), bounced back up four stories, bounced more than 14 more times, then landed exactly on its desired base (even though it didn't need to) and presumably went "Ta-da!"
The Sojourner looks like a polished skateboard, and by our calculations it just scored 5 million points in the gymnastics event. Also: Coolest Hot Wheels base of ALL TIME.
The landing platform alone was so much solid science that it was renamed the Carl Sagan Memorial Station. So the next time you're impressed by a medal, just remember the real priorities: Sagan has an exoplanetary station, a flower of pure science and technology that unfurled its petals to let us drive on another world.
Our single science-rose wasn't red because Mars already has plenty of that.
The system worked so well, they used it again for Spirit and Opportunity in 2004. But when you want to drop a nuclear-powered tank on alien soil, you need something even cooler.
If the previous rovers were Bond movies, Curiosity is the pre-credits awesome bits of Bond movies. The rover deploys a parachute when two vehicles are linked together, fires a jet pack and then rappels down an extending wire to touch down before driving off. That's the intro scenes to License to Kill, Thunderball, GoldenEye AND The World Is Not Enough simultaneously, all in Seven Minutes of Terror. The last one isn't actually a movie, it's what NASA calls the period of landing a robotic laboratory on another planet, so it really should be both. Also, Disneyland: time to make a new ride. It's such an awesome way of getting down that James Brown has been demoted.
Lander descent original by NASA
That descent system makes transforming Omega Supreme look simple and sensible.
Notice how this pansy has to bring his own track to drive on.
No shell, case, landing platform or interplanetary bubble wrap: Curiosity landed wheels-down, ready to tear off at 150 yards per hour. If that doesn't sound fast, it's because you aren't counting the million times multiplication factor for doing it on another planet. In fact, if anything about this sounds less than spectacular, it's because you don't understand cool.
"Talk to the hand, because it CONTAINS MORE SCIENCE THAN YOU'LL EVER COMPREHEND!"
Luke spent much longer staring at Mars to explain how Total Recall is far better than Inception, and relaxes with 5 beers you simply must try. He also has a website and tumbles, and responds to every single tweet.
See more of Luke's Cracked goodness in The 6 Most Badass Stunts Ever Pulled in the Name of Science and 5 Books That Can Actually Make You Stupider.