Author: Alan Bellows

Alan Bellows is the founder/designer/head writer/managing editor of Damn Interesting.

Echoes of NASA

Echo 1
Echo 1

On 13 May 1960, a NASA Thor-Delta rocket carried the agency’s new Echo 1 satellite into a 1,000 mile orbit around the Earth. It was a 156.995 pound metalized sphere 100 feet in diameter, essentially an enormous, shiny balloon made of the same mylar as party balloons of today. It required forty thousand pounds of air to fully inflate the sphere at sea level, but in the rarefied atmosphere in orbit it only required a few pounds of gas.

Echo 1 was a passive satellite, used to reflect transcontinental and intercontinental telephone, radio, and television signals. It was so large and so reflective that it was easily visible to the naked eye for much of the Earth. It was expected to remain in orbit until sometime in 1964, but it survived much longer, and did not burn up in the atmosphere until 24 May 1968, eight years after its launch.

Its sister “satelloon” Echo 2 was even larger at 135 feet in diameter, therefore it was even more conspicuous while it was in orbit from 1964-1969. Both balloons were sufficiently large and lightweight that they experienced detectable pressure from the solar wind, providing support for the concept of a solar sail. They also secretly served as an early rudimentary GPS system, using the balloons’ positions and instruments to calculate the exact location of Moscow for America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Water Proof

In 1936, Russian scientist Vladimir Lukyanov was confronted with the problem of devising a system to improve the quality of Russian concrete and the efficiency of its manufacture. When furnished with a few requirements for the concrete, Lukyanov was expected to calculate the resulting concrete’s other attributes, such as load capacity, curing time, temperature limits, etc. This involved a lot of tedious manual calculations with partial differential equations.

Lukyanov’s solution was to build one of the world’s first programmable computers. Like all early computers, Lukyanov’s invention was a massive analog calculator, but one design element set it apart: it used water to perform its calculations. Lukyanov outfitted a room-sized array of glass tubes with a series of valves and plugs, and these constituted the data inputs. An operator would turn knobs and move plugs to correspond to the input values, then engage the pumps to slosh water through the intricate plumbing until the water settled into various tanks. The ultimate water level in each tank indicated the results of the calculations, and thus indicated the various properties of the resulting cement.

Lukyanov’s water computer was the first machine in the world capable of solving partial differential equations.

Strange Brew

According to a 1957 US government study entitled The Effect of Nuclear Explosions on Commercially Packaged Beverages, canned and bottled sodas and beers “could be used as potable water sources for immediate emergency purposes as soon as the storage area is safe to enter after a nuclear explosion.”

This information was provided by the Atomic Energy Commission, which placed caches of consumer beverages around the Nevada Proving Grounds then exploded one 20 kiloton and one 30 kiloton device there. The surviving beverages within a quarter mile of the blast were slightly radioactive, but “well within the permissible limits for emergency use.” As for the flavor, taste testers described the beers and sodas as “still of commercial quality, although there was evidence of a slight flavor change in some of the products exposed at 1,270 feet from Ground Zero.”

Armed Conflict

Götz von Berlichingen (1480-1562) was a German knight and warrior for hire in the first half of the 16th century. In 1504, at age 24, he lost the lower portion of his right arm to cannon fire during the siege of Landshut. Upon his recovery, rather than retiring or taking up a less violent profession, Berlichingen commissioned an Austrian blacksmith to construct an iron prosthetic hand.

The result was no mere hook; rather it was a sophisticated apparatus with articulated fingers that could be clamped tightly upon a sword or delicately upon a feather quill. With this prosthesis he continued to fight in wars and feuds for another 20 years or so, and ultimately participated in at least 15 armed conflicts. He lived to 82 years old, an unusually long lifespan for the period, and he wrote an autobiography in has later years.

Berlichingen’s story has been embellished by legend, and he is often portrayed as a brave hero in later retellings. In reality, he was an unscrupulous mercenary who fought for the highest bidder and engaged in kidnapping and sea piracy to make ends meet when no convenient wars were afoot. The modern vulgarity “he can lick/kiss my arse” is also thought to have been coined by Berlichingen; it was attributed to him in a 1773 play based on his life.

Today, Berlichingen’s prosthetic arm is housed in the Götzenburg castle museum in the German town of Jagsthausen.

Aluminum Illuminated

The apex of the Washington Monument
The apex of the Washington Monument

Shortly after aluminum was first discovered in the early 19th century it was counted among the most precious metals on Earth owing how difficult it was to obtain the pure metal. At $1,200 per kilogram, it was worth more by weight than gold or platinum.

By 1884 the price had fallen a little, but it was still valuable enough that the US government commissioned a pyramid of the metal to use as the apex of the US Washington Monument. At 100 ounces it was the largest single piece of aluminum ever cast at that time. Before engineers affixed it to the top of the new tower in an elaborate ceremony, the pyramid spent two days in the window of Tiffany’s in New York City, gawked at by passers-by.

Later in the 1880s, however, researchers found a new method to extract aluminum from common bauxite. The price plummeted to $0.60 per kilogram by the early 1900s. Scientists now know that aluminum is the most abundant metal on Earth.

Although the element’s discoverer Humphry Davy originally named it “aluminum”, a name which follows the -um pattern established by similar elements (platinum, molybdenum, etc), the metal is known as aluminium in most places outside of the United States. This is due to an anonymous contributor to the British journal Quarterly Review in 1813 who felt “aluminum” was not sufficiently ostentatious, and insisted with inexplicable success that chemists insert the superfluous vowel.

When the Wright brothers needed a lightweight engine for their heavier-than-air flying machines, they used aluminum, but painted it black to throw their competitors off the scent. Still, aluminum proved too malleable to be a common aircraft building material until 1901, when German scientist Alfred Wilm accidentally discovered that an aluminum alloy with about 4% copper, heated to high temperatures and then left to slowly cool, was considerably stronger than aluminum alone, or any alloy cooled with the rapid “quench hardening” used for other metals. This slow-cooled alloy is an integral part of airplanes and architecture even today.

Although it is not the best conductor of electricity, aluminum is used almost exclusively in main overhead power lines due to its light weight. If a better conductor such as copper were used, many more poles and pylons would be necessary to keep the lines aloft.

Of Meteors and Men

In the early 1960s, General Electric proposed a system whereby an astronaut in a space emergency might abandon ship and return to the Earth. The system was originally proposed under the acronym M.O.O.S.E. (Man Out Of Space Easiest), but later replaced with the backronym Manned Orbital Operations Safety Equipment.

The compact design was roughly 200 pounds, and about the size of a suitcase. The endangered astronaut would don their space suit and exit the spacecraft with MOOSE in hand. Upon unpacking the MOOSE, the astronaut would strap a parachute to their chest, clamber into a polyester bag (while in a space suit, in microgravity), and activate a dispenser to inflate the bag with expanding polyurethane foam. Once fully entombed in hardened foam, the astronaut would use a hand-held retrorocket to orient the bowl-shaped escape pod, then engage a small rocket to propel themselves toward the Earth. An ablative heat shield would prevent the bag (and its occupant) from burning up on re-entry1, a radio would provide communication with ground-based stations, a manually-deployed parachute would ensure a survivable landing speed, and the foam underside would serve as a cushion for landing (or as a flotation device for a water-based landing). The polyurethane was formulated such that the astronaut could break their way our of the foamy cocoon upon landing, with easy access to a survival kit while awaiting rescue.

Despite the feasibility of this emergency escape pod, and an encouraging series of ground-based proving tests, neither the US Air Force nor NASA was interested. General Electric quietly shelved the project.

1 Contrary to common belief, when an object enters a planet’s atmosphere, the fiery heat that engulfs it is not due to friction with the air. At the supersonic speeds involved with atmospheric entry, much of the air cannot move aside fast enough, and the air trapped in front of the craft becomes extremely compressed. When a gas is compressed, its temperature increases proportionately, enough to cause combustion in the case of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. Friction is a factor, but not a significant one.

National Treasure

Inside America’s Mount Rushmore National Monument there is a “secret” chamber known as the Hidden Hall of Records. Therein, under a 1,200 pound granite capstone, which is atop a titanium vault, which encloses a teakwood box, lie sixteen porcelain enamel panels with the texts of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights etched upon them. It also houses a biography of Gutzon Borglum—the supervising sculptor of Mount Rushmore—and the story of the presidents. The builders’ intent was to preserve copies of these documents for the far future. Just outside the vault is an inscription reading:

“…let we place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and the rain alone shall wear them away.”

—Gutzon Borglum, Sculptor

The Hidden Hall of Records is tucked amidst the cliffs on the backside of the mountain, and is not accessible to the public.

Relatedly, the carved heads are 80 times larger than an average human head. Originally Thomas Jefferson’s face was carved on Washington’s right, but the sculptors decided the rock there was too weak, so they blasted the face away and started again on Washington’s left. The original design of Mt. Rushmore included torsos, but funds ran short and builders stopped while they were a head.

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