6 Badass Spacecraft Landings Humanity Totally Nailed
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.