What Does NASA Stand For?

Chances are that if you have lived on this planet for the past half-century, you’ve heard of NASA. As the agency that is in charge of America’s space program, they put a man on the Moon, launched the Hubble Telescope, helped establish the International Space Station, and sent dozens of probes and shuttles into space.

But do you know what the acronym NASA actually stands for? Well, NASA stands for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. As such, it oversees America’s spaceflight capabilities and conducts valuable research in space. NASA also has various programs on Earth dedicated to flight, hence why the term “Aeronautics” appears in the agency’s name.

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50 Years Ago Today: The Flight of Aurora 7

Fifty years ago today, May 24, 1962 astronaut Scott Carpenter launched in his Aurora 7 capsule. This was the fourth manned mission and the second orbital flight of the Mercury program. This video celebrates the Aurora 7 flight, which successfully made three Earth orbits. But a targeting mishap during reentry took the spacecraft about 400 km (250 miles) off course, delaying recovery of Carpenter and the capsule. Carpenter was picked up after nearly 3 hours in the water, and the Mercury capsule was not retrieved until about 6 hours later.

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Fast Cars and Hot Rod Astronauts

Corvettes were synonymous with the first US astronauts. Why? The story goes that a Florida car dealer named Jim Rathmann had a great marketing idea and negotiated a special lease arrangement with Chevrolet to provide the Mercury 7 astronauts with sports cars worthy of the performance required by a test pilot. The cars were fast and handled like a dream. Plus, the Corvettes back in the early 1960’s had what many would consider “space age” interiors. Six of the Mercury astronauts would take Rathmann up on his Corvette offer, but stalwart family man John Glenn instead decided he wanted a new station wagon. While there are stories of the Mercury astronauts racing each other in their Corvettes, reportedly Glenn’s wagon proved more useful. It was just the thing for those occasions when the seven astronauts needed to travel together.

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These sports cars would continue to be used by Apollo astronauts, and the association between the car and the space program continues even today. For example, the 1995 movie “Apollo 13” featured two era-authentic Corvettes, one of them used in a scene featuring Tom Hanks as astronaut Jim Lovell. The 2009 movie “Star Trek XI” opens in the year 2245, with a 12-year old James T. Kirk driving a 280-year old 1965 Corvette Sting Ray.

On May 7, 2011, approximately 30 of America’s surviving early astronauts gathered in Cocoa Beach, Florida to participate in a parade commemorating the 50th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s historic first flight for a US astronaut. Enjoy the video above where some of the astronauts are interviewed, briefly, and includes some vintage photographs of hot rod astronauts with their fast cars.

Source: GM

The Mystery of John Glenn’s Fireflies Returns

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What were the “fireflies” that John Glenn saw during the first orbital spaceflight for the US? Enjoy a new “you-were-there” look at the stories of early space exploration from the original NASA transcripts, but in a vastly improved format. A new website called Spacelog has put the transcripts in a searchable, linkable format. Spacelog is an open source venture making the transcripts more accessible to the public, and adding photos and timelines in with the text. Currently the Apollo 13 mission and Mercury Friendship 7 mission are available with more coming in the future. A linking feature allows users to Tweet and link to particular parts of the transcripts. As an open source project, Spacelog is also looking for help.

Below is the part of the Friendship 7 transcript where John Glenn describes small, mysteriously illuminated particles surrounding his capsule:

John Glenn

This is Friendship Seven. I’ll try to describe what I’m in here. I am in a big mass of some very small particles, that are brilliantly lit up like they’re luminescent. I never saw anything like it. They round a little; they’re coming by the capsule, and they look like little stars. A whole shower of them coming by.
00 01 15 57

John Glenn
They swirl around the capsule and go in front of the window and they’re all brilliantly lighted. They probably average maybe 7 or 8 feet apart, but I can see them all down below me, also.
00 01 16 06
CAPCOM
Roger, Friendship Seven. Can you hear any impact with the capsule? Over.
00 01 16 10
John Glenn
Negative, negative. They’re very slow; they’re not going away from me more than maybe 3 or 4 miles per hour. They’re going at the same speed I am approximately. They’re only very slightly under my speed. Over.
00 01 16 33
John Glenn
They do, they do have a different motion, though, from me because they swirl around the capsule and then depart back the way I am looking.
00 01 16 46
John Glenn
Are you receiving? Over.

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What were these fireflies? In the movie “The Right Stuff” the fireflies were given the illusion of being mystical or perhaps alien — or maybe part of Glenn’s imagination. People in mission control were worried the heat shield on his spacecraft could be falling apart.

The answer wasn’t confirmed until the next Mercury mission, Aurora 7, with astronaut Scott Carpenter on board in May 1962. Carpenter also saw the fireflies, or snowflakes, as he called them, and quickly could identify the source. They were tiny white pieces of frost from the side of the spacecraft. Condensation gathered on the outside of the spacecraft as the capsule passed from the cold orbital darkness and warm sunlight, and then froze again, creating a layer of frost. As the spacecraft again came into sunlight, the frost flakes would come off and float around the capsule. The sunlight also illuminated them, making them “luminescent.” When Carpenter banged on the side of the capsule, more flakes came off and were visible.

Read more at Spacelog.