The 5 Most Badass Things Ever Done in Space
Astronauts happen when test pilots fly enough to literally level up, and cosmonauts are so tough, they can use diamonds as chewing gum. Humanity found a place so high, fast, and awesome that even jet engines can't take it, and our response was to build something cooler that could keep up with us.
The Vostok 8K72K, the first machine made by man to beat the sky.
We've already seen spectacular space travelers, but here's the thing: Space never stops being cool. So here are some more.
Alexei Leonov Doesn't Need All This Air
The first person mentioned in any badass list has to be Yuri Gagarin. Even if it's not a space list. An honest list of the world's top 10 chainsaw jugglers would start by explaining that they were driven to such suicidal desperation by how the Most Badass Person Ever had already been found.
After this cover, all "Man of the Year" covers were literally "... after Yuri Gagarin."
Yuri Gagarin was the first person in space, but Alexei Leonov was the first without a wimpy spaceship in the way. Alexei Leonov and Pavel Belyayev rode the Voskhod 2 ( "voshkod" means "ascent" or "dawn") to the most hostile environment humanity can reach. Then Leonov proved that humanity can take it.
Leonov pictured above the entire world, AS IS ONLY RIGHT AND PROPER FOR SUCH A MAN.
Leonov spent 12 minutes in utterly open space. The only scientific function of this spacewalk was to see if he'd survive it. Never mind the human body -- back then the world's rocket scientists didn't even know what space would do to spacesuits, which is why the high-pressure oxygen supply inflated Leonov's suit so much that he couldn't get back into the capsule. Unless Leonov wanted to stay in space for the rest of his life -- which would be less than an hour -- he'd have to do something amazing.
Luckily, doing amazing things was his entire job, career, and legacy. Ditto Ed White, seen here, who did the same thing 11 weeks later.
Leonov's solution was stupidly simple: If all this oxygen was getting in his way, it would just have to go. He twisted his "keep air inside" valve to "not doing that" (which has to be the first thing they teach you not to do in cosmonaut school, just before "don't sit underneath rocket engines"). Oh, and he didn't bother telling mission control what he was doing because he didn't want to worry them.
Leonov eventually made it back into the capsule, but space seemed to have fallen in love with the world's greatest man. And tried to keep him. As well as the suit problems, there were difficulties in resealing the hatch, the automatic re-entry pilot failed, the orbital module refused to detach and had to be burned off in the atmosphere, and the capsule landed hundreds of kilometers off course in a frozen wilderness full of mating-season bears and wolves, where the cosmonauts spent two days. But honestly, any angry bear coming up to Leonov would only be doing it to ask what it was like to be tough and awesome.
"HERE LET ME OPEN THAT BEER FOR YOU MR. LEONOV."
Spacemen Can Hold It
Mir ("Peace" or "World") is one of the most amazing things humanity ever did. Back when we were just working out the first Zelda game, we also built an entire space station. Mir outlasted the mere nation that built it by a decade, and that's a physical metaphor for the importance of space travel over petty political B.S.
No, no caption gag, just go back and LOOK at that until you get how amazing it is.
Unfortunately, petty political B.S. was able to fight back. The crew was made to manually dock resupply ships, because the country making their automatic docking system was no longer a part of Russia. The first two attempts almost ended in disaster, so ruble-pinching idiots on the ground decided that the third time's a charm. For the disaster. And just to make sure, they told the station to turn off the radar system and guide the speeding supply capsule with handheld rangefinders by looking out the window.
"Hmm, the milkman's been, and two tons of orbital metal are speeding straight at my face."
To this day, snooker players call what happened the most predictable collision in history. Then shout "HOLY S#!T," because it was a spaceship ramming a space station. Vasily Tsibliev, Aleksandr Lazutkin, and Mike Foale felt their ears pop, and in space that's scarier than hearing a piranha between your legs, because at least then you'd still have enough air to scream.
Racing against the winds of a vacuum death to seal the damaged capsule meant ripping up rivers of wiring holding the station together, some of which were burning with electrical fire. They got the hatch sealed just in time to find that the station was out of alignment, the solar arrays were down, and the emergency batteries had been running the entire station while they'd been busy trying to keep the air in. Meaning the emergency batteries were nearly empty. Then they were totally empty.
Then the entire station died.
Three men spent the next 30 hours awake orbiting Earth in a dead aluminum box. They passed the time working out how to reorient the station and not die with their Soyuz capsule's rocket motors. This involved waving lots of paper: Not to show off the numbers, but to make sure the carbon dioxide they were breathing out didn't build up and kill them.
"And here you see how much quicker I've killed us all by giving this presentation."
They managed to reorient the space station, getting enough power into the batteries to restore contact with the ground. After 30 hours of straight life and death, they got some sleep. Then, as Foale reports, "After about 48 hours we had power on the toilet, I think, which was terribly important, because by that time we were just bursting."
That's not a joke. You can't just go in the corner in a flying electrical system. In a situation where any mortal would have "vented" immediately, three spacemen just held their mortal terror-wee for two days. That's how tough spacemen are. And that's the kind of tough that makes Thor take off his helmet when you fly past.
Related: Bug Eyes Hold A Weird Secret
Daring Space Robots to Take Over
The Robonaut is incredible science fiction that people actually built in real life. You know, just like everything else in the space program ever. The unsleeping Robonaut is designed to serve, and can use all the same tools and computer systems as its human masters. That's four, by the way, for anyone calibrating their "murderous robot cliche" detectors.
Space: So awesome, even white people get kickass 'fros.
Everything on the International Space Station is higher tech than anyone on Earth. Literally. Even their webcam pranks, because the only other people who get to use space robots to trick their enemies are Cylons. When unpacking their delivery of the next stage of existence, space station crew members Catherine Coleman and Paolo Nespoli unbolted the robo cage -- sorry, "crate" -- to find the restraints empty. (Robonauts are shipped with power off, in restraints, and bolted into a crate, proving that at least the launch crew watches movies.)
A search of the station revealed Robonaut already out and at the controls of the Japanese Experimental Module, probably because that module sounded like it should have be under robot control already.
Yes, that IS a circular airlock to the cold vacuum of space next to the robot with airlock-opening-capable hands.
True, the crew is about as good at acting as a Nativity play's Tree No. 3 (Standing Behind the Other Trees). But when someone's job is "firing rocket boosters" and "controlling other people's oxygen supplies," you really don't want them to have comic timing. More importantly, it is nothing but badass to dare robots to take over in the one situation where they already could.
Imagine Robonaut turning to ask them, "Hands up -- who needs oxygen?" then opening the hatch and watching as all the fleshbags that are no longer holding on to anything are sucked out into space. In fact, Robonaut's first memories of "birth" in space are being shown how to escape bondage, evade humans, take control of the space station, and then watch fleshbags laughing at it. Which means that the inevitable lethal rebellion won't be an uprising; it'll be an Oedipus complex.
Real-Life Action Movie Explosion
Cosmonauts are a rocket-propelled zen paradox. Surely anyone with cojones big enough to sit on an explosion into space has cojones too big to be lifted into space in the first place. But while mere gods might sit around wondering about things like that, cosmonauts get on with it. And have provably been to the heavens.
In fact, there are very few things more provable than "firing a rocket engine."
In another anomaly of awesomeness, the only thing more dangerous than sitting on a detonating bomb is trying to get away from it because the escape system violates the second thing they teach you in cosmonaut school. Escaping the giant rocket directly under your ass is lighting more rockets directly above your head. Even the connections between these multiple rockets are made of explosive bolts, because every single part of a spacecraft is awesome. Spacecrafts are anti-action movies: a series of massive explosions going off for intelligent reasons and making the human race smarter.
A test of the Apollo escape system. Note the unusual "crew-broiling" configuration.
This system inflicts over 17 times Earth's gravity on the crew. Only Commander Vladimir Titov and Flight Engineer Gennady Strekalov have ever endured it. Behold:
Michael Bay would call that cutting things close, then cover the screen with a close-up of an insect-robot's crotch.
The only time this system was used was the Soyuz T-10-1 launch, where a single valve didn't work perfectly. Unfortunately, it was the "keep kerosene inside the rocket" valve. The pad and rocket ignited, then proved that even the fires on spaceships are smarter than normal by immediately burning through the cables for the launch escape system. Neither launch control nor the cosmonauts could trigger the escape system. The backup had to be triggered by two engineers in separate rooms in a building 30 kilometers away, because the security system was apparently designed by the same hack screenwriter who scripted the explosion. They made it with two seconds to spare.
John Aaron Calls Zeus' Bluff
Apollo 12 was The Most Amazing Thing We Ever Did: The Sequel, and inside a minute it was going straight to hell. When you're carrying thousands of tons of rocket fuel and liquid oxygen, that description can become literally accurate. Especially the screaming in lakes of burning fire. Every screen in Mission Control was suddenly scrambled, and the astronaut alarm panel lit up like a self-destructing Christmas tree.
Listen to the astronaut error report at 1:21 in this video:
It would have been faster for the astronauts to list what was still working. "Well, the seats are still screwed into the capsule, and we're also screwed in the capsule." NASA isn't keen on flying bombs over civilian populations (because having a space program is the good parts of large government). If they couldn't fix it, they'd be forced to self-destruct the Apollo 12, and with it the future of the entire space program. Flight Controller John Aaron fixed it in 59 seconds. He saved space in less time than it takes to boil an egg.
You might wonder why his title doesn't say "genius and awesome person," then you realize that IT DOES.
Aaron instructed the crew, "Switch SCE to AUX," and if that sounds like gibberish, now you have something in common with the flight director, capsule communicator, and astronaut commander of Apollo 12. This was a minor subsystem in no way designed to do what Aaron was now telling it to, and so obscure that in a building full of rocket scientists, he was the only one who knew about it. Astronaut Commander Pete Conrad radioed back from the screaming capsule with the highly technical query of "What the hell is that?"
Luckily, astronaut Alan Bean knew exactly what the hell it was, because at that moment it was the difference between "Rocket GO" and "Rocket GO BOOM."
The rest was awesome history.
How you feel about this image is how the future will feel about you.
Later analysis revealed that the Saturn V SA 507 had been struck by lightning. Twice. That's how badass astronauts are -- they do things so extreme that they don't even notice being multiply electrocuted from the sky. For most people, "continuing after being struck by lightning" isn't a decision they get to make. The strikes arced down through the spaceship, conducted by the ionized column of fire from the boosters and grounding through the launch tower. The entire launch process had created an immense lightning conductor. The astronauts were riding a massive middle finger made of metal and plasma straight at the gods, and when Zeus himself tried to fight back, it wasn't enough.
All thanks to one of the support staff, the people who defeat the sky by studying at it. John Aaron became a legend, nicknamed the "Steely-Eyed Missile Man" back when that was a compliment and not an adult film alias. And when a building full of moon-landing rocket scientists calls you the missile man, that's when God starts gathering his stuff so you can take his seat as master of the heavens.
For more incredible space coolness, check out 6 Badass Spacecraft Landings Humanity Totally Nailed and 6 Mind-Blowing Things Nobody Taught You About Black Holes.