23 July 2008
Here’s a riddle: What do dead bodies, awesome rockets, and GPS have in common?
First, I’ll get to the question that I know you’re asking: What the heck does NASA want with dead bodies? Well, they are in the process of testing the Crew Exploration Vehicle, and deciding how it should land. A major factor in the decision whether to land on water (like the Apollo capsules) or on land (like Soyuz) is safety, and sometimes crash-test dummies aren’t good enough. So NASA is apparently using cadavers that have been donated to science to get an ultra-realistic idea of what the human body would undergo during landing.
Second, the rockets. Yeah, I know you need rockets to get to the moon. But the rockets I’m talking about are part of the jettison system. The Crew Exploration Vehicle will sit on top of a stack of gigantic rockets that are designed to launch it from the Earth to the Moon. So what if something goes wrong, and those thousands of tons of fuel go off like a bomb instead of a rocket? It happened more frequently than most people like to admit in the early days of the space program. That’s why there is a smallish rocket at the very tip of the entire stack, attached to the CEV. If something goes wrong, it ignites, and lifts the capsule, and the astronauts, away to safety. The cool thing is that, since it is above the capsule, its exhaust has to be directed off to the side, rather than straight down. This makes for a wicked cool looking test-firing of the rockets, as shown in the picture above. This test firing is a good sign for the rest of the Orion program. Check the Universe today article for a video of the test-firing!
And finally, NASA is planning to set up a “GPS-like” system for astronauts on the moon. Driving around on a world with no distance cues where all of the landscape looks pretty similar gets to be very confusing, as the Apollo astronauts can vouch. So NASA is planning to put satellites in orbit around the moon so that future moonwalkers can pinpoint their location easily.