6 Insane Schemes Attempted at the Dawn of Space Travel
The Soviet Union pretty much defined crazy when it came to space exploration. But they were hardly the only ones: Many other proposed space projects around the globe were, to put it mildly, pants-chewing, horse-screwing, face-tattooing psychotic. Like ...
The Zambia Space Agency
In the 1960s, there were three main groups trying to win the space race. There was the Soviet Union, which was quick out of the gate with the first satellite and man in space, but faded in the stretch to land someone on the moon. There was the United States, which was more or less neck-and-neck with the USSR. And of course there was Zambia.
Zambia: fucking awesome since forever.
What? You don't remember Zambia's contributions to the next frontier?
That's understandable: Zambia's National Academy of Science, Space Research, and Philosophy didn't have little niceties like "financial backing" or "minimal safety conditions." But they did have Edward Nkoloso. Nkoloso was a schoolteacher who saw the space race and thought, "Looks like fun." So, practically on a lark, he grabbed a bunch of bored soldiers, a woman (dubbed "Spacegirl," no less), and two of the most ambitious felines he could find and began to train them with the best facilities their meager U.N. financial support could afford. Which, considering the U.N. never agreed to fund them, wasn't much.
Who needs money when you've got moxie?
For weightlessness training, they went into the "anti-gravity simulator," aka the aspiring astronauts stuffed themselves into an oil drum and rolled down a hill. And when that was out of commission, just cutting the ropes on the swing set right as they hit their apex would work, too. They relentlessly drilled handstands, because, possibly due to a translation error, Nkoloso thought that was the only way they could walk around up there. However, Nkoloso did manage to put together preliminary rocket designs that actually didn't look half bad. And "not half bad" is more than good enough to venture a risky space launch, apparently, so the agency planned one for Independence Day 1964.
So who forgot to tell you about the poor African country that established the first colony on Mars? Nobody: The academy occupied a strange limbo between serious ambition and wacky cult. Most sensible Zambians thought they were nutjobs, with only a select few influential government employees ever lending them much credence. Inevitably, with all of their fictional money falling through and his only female astronaut now pregnant and out of training (Spacegirl, no! You seemed so dedicated), Nkoloso's academy collapsed in 1964. Not dissuaded by his many massive, laughable failures and his shameful wasting of other people's money, Nkoloso went into politics not long after.
And something beautiful perished from the Earth.
The Huge Doughnut in Space
In 1975, Stanford designers proposed a doughnut-shaped space station to simulate artificial gravity. Not a bad idea, right? If it's good enough for 2001: A Space Odyssey and a doughy fried pastry, it's good enough for space. NASA approved the plan, and by the summer of 1975, the space station, code named Stanford Torus, was the frontrunner. So they turned their attention to the artificial gravity, sunlight, food, and water required to support the 10,000 people who would live there.
Apparently the guys from BioWare are plagiarists.
Uh, 10,000 people? We wanted to go from zero manned space stations to a friggin' celestial city in one step? Yep. And it was looking good, too -- if not from real-life testing, then at least from the bitchin' stoner's-dorm-room-caliber concept art.
Incredibly, this isn't an Air album.
Everything was going groovy ... that is, until somebody thought to ask about the ludicrous typo in the budget.
Even with the Soviet and European space programs working together with NASA, launching all 10 million tons of construction material would take decades, and that's with rockets being launched every week. Total cost: $200 billion! That's in 1975 dollars, too, which today would translate to approximately ... everything. All of the money that was ever printed or that would potentially be printed in the future, forever and ever, amen.
Worth it. Totally worth it.
It was an insane number, is what we're saying here.
With pressure building to develop the much cheaper Space Shuttle program, the city-size doughnut in space lost a bit of its luster.
Perhaps some glaze would bring it back.
The Soviet Union Tried to Bring Warfare into Space
There have been many space stations launched into orbit, and most of them had peaceful intentions and were used for important scientific inquiries, like "Dude, how hard is it to put socks on in zero gravity?"
Then you have Salyut 3.
The first Salyut was cooler, but whatever.
Lobbed into orbit by the Soviet Union in 1974, Salyut 3 was equipped with an army of cameras to take photos of U.S. military installations and other targets of value. But that's fairly standard Cold War antics, right? Well ...
The Soviets were paranoid enough to think someone might somehow attack the station, so they equipped it with an anti-aircraft gun to shoot down potential enemies and space invaders. That's right: This battle station was fully armed and operational.
Luke Skywalker probably could've taken it out with a golf club.
Fortunately, the gun was never used, save for the time they test-fired it and destroyed a satellite. Since then, no space station has again been armed, but your inner nerd can rest at ease knowing that, no matter how anticlimactic it may have been, there was at least one real-life space battle in our history.
If you still need consolation, perhaps this photo of a prototype starfighter will help:
One real space dogfight would've almost been worth the nuclear annihilation of all mankind.
That is not a movie prop: Some Western intelligence agencies are convinced that the Soviet Union was developing the world's first and, so far, only space fighter, because they feared the Space Shuttle (yes, THAT Space Shuttle, the friendly metal orca of the skies) would be used as an orbital bomber and they needed a way to shoot it down. It may have even had two successful test launches in 1987 (although the Soviets insist they were just testing their own shuttle) before it was sensibly canceled.
There goes stupid sensibility, getting in the way of awesome again.
Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, "It might have been."
Earth Had a Copper Ring in the '60s
By the early '60s, Plain Jane Earth was sick and tired of being shown up by that ringed astronomical hussy Saturn, and so the Department of Defense decided that Earth needed bling as well. Long story short, the DOD wanted to implement a makeshift global communications system by littering Earth's orbit with a half-billion tiny copper wires.
Most of which would be immediately stolen by space rednecks.
Project West Ford was launched in 1963 with the hope that millions of orbiting copper whiskers would collectively form the largest antenna we've ever seen, safeguarding our communications in case of a Russian EMP attack. We're not sure what's crazier: the fact that they tried something as crazy as giving the Earth an artificial ring, or the fact that it actually kind of worked ... for a second. Although the copper dipoles didn't form quite the reflective belt they'd planned, scientists were able to successfully transmit a message from California to Massachusetts, presumably to nobody's surprise more than their own. Let's face it: "What if we fired garbage into space to make a planet-wide orbital radio?" is the kind of idea that sounds way better the night before, with a bag of Funyuns firmly in hand.
With mounting pressure from the international community to "stop trashing space" and the rise of the modern communications satellite, the project was ultimately scrapped. Most of the copper pieces have since fallen back to Earth, but a few are still out there, just waiting to relay some dire alien message to our wayward planet. Or to totally screw up your cellphone signal in Malibu. Probably the latter.
It's fine, we'll just shoot some garbage men up there next.
Catching a Spacecraft ... While Using Hollywood Stuntmen
In 2001, NASA launched Genesis on a dangerous mission toward the sun.
Really, the word "dangerous" wasn't necessary in that sentence.
Genesis' goal to collect solar wind particles in a canister and bring them back to Earth? Sort of like catching farts in a bottle, only slightly more majestic. Amazingly, the first part went off without a hitch, but on the trip home there was a small problem: The parachute for the canister was too small and would act more like a flapping distress signal than anything else. NASA needed help. And that's when an unexpected hero came into the fold: Hollywood.
NASA hired dozens of Hollywood stuntmen to fly helicopters armed with pool hooks near the proposed landing site, where they would try to catch a plummeting satellite before it crashed into Earth.
The Benny Hill theme would play on a loop all the while.
It had to be perfectly executed. You know the scene: "We'll only get one shot at this, people. Luckily, we've hired the best. It's said Brick Manhowitzer here once leaned out of a Blackhawk and snatched his own wedding ring out of a pigeon's mouth using only dental floss and chewing gum. Let's hope he can do it again, or ... God have mercy on us all."
But that's where the movie similarities ended, because this is real life, and real life is always way worse than it initially seems. All of the helicopters were in place, the pilots' years of training ready to pay off, when Genesis decided not to open its chute at all, thus careening past the stuntmen way too quickly to catch and plummeting straight into the Utah desert with a giant thud, bursting open on impact.
Like an old pumpkin filled with science.
Brick Manhowitzer could not take the shame and tragically drank himself to death not long after.
The Original NASA Apollo Program
Stage one of the Apollo program was to send someone to orbit the moon -- check. Stage two was to land on the moon -- six checks, with a seventh one scribbled out. And stage three? Chill out.
On the moon.
With all of your friends.
Time for moon blunts and moon rocks (of crack).
We're talking a full-on lunar colony. After Apollo 17, more Apollos were supposed to land and stay there, eventually culminating in a 180-day mission with six people living on the moon long enough to qualify for lunar citizenship. Moon rovers would be sent up for getting around, while giant orbiting space stations were also planned as sort of a layover lounge. If that's not pie-in-the-sky overeager enough, Apollo also extended to Venus, where a manned craft was supposed to orbit the planet with a live crew housed in the empty fuel tanks. These monumental plans were approved by committee after committee in Congress before a vote was taken. Somehow, congressional representatives actually bothered to look at the multibillion-dollar price tag and chopped Apollo off piece by piece until only Apollos 11 through 17 were left.
Apollo 18 would've brought a volleyball court and an above-ground pool.
God damn it. Is there some sort of fairy or talking cricket or angry ghost we can hire to teach Congress that money isn't everything? Sometimes awesome is more important.
Evan V. Symon is a moderator in the Cracked Workshop. When he isn't trying to find a comet that will doom us all, he can be found on Facebook, and be sure to bookshelf and vote for his new book, The End of the Line.
Related Reading: Russia's space agency made such a habit of batshit craziness, we devoted a whole article to covering it. In Soviet Russia, astronauts were pretty damn expendable. For some idiotic space plans that might have worked, we refer you to this article and the Space Cannon. Still need more astro-entertainment? Click here and learn why you should be mourning the space shuttle.