Training underwater for extravehicular activity (EVA)—popularly known as spacewalking—is now critical for preparing astronauts to work in weightlessness. But when cosmonauts and astronauts first ventured outside their spacecraft 50 years ago, in 1965 and 1966, they had no such training. Spacewalking did not appear difficult, nor did space program officials think that underwater work was needed. In the United States, it took Eugene Cernan’s June 1966 Gemini IX EVA to change attitudes. Fighting against his pressurized suit, while trying to do work without adequate handholds and footholds, Cernan quickly became exhausted and overheated. Only afterward did NASA Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston reach out to a tiny company outside Baltimore: Environmental Research Associates, Inc. (ERA). Funded by another agency center, it had been experimenting with EVA simulation in a rented school pool on nights, holidays, and weekends. That project became the foundation for Houston’s first underwater training facility.
On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space. However, three months earlier NASA had launched “Number 65” on a mission that helped pave the way for Shephard’s momentous flight. Number 65 was a male chimpanzee born in 1957 in the French Cameroons in West Africa.
On April 1, 2014, the National Air and Space Museum opened an exhibition featuring the pressurized Red Bull Stratos gondola that carried Felix Baumgartner to a record altitude of 39,045 meters (128,100 feet) over Roswell, New Mexico, and the pressure suit and parachute that protected him during the long fall back to Earth. Not long after, I had a visit from an old friend, balloonist Julian Nott, whose record-setting pressurized hot air balloon gondola was also coming into the Museum’s collection. One of the pioneers of modern ballooning, Julian has established 79 world ballooning records for altitude, distance, and time aloft during a long and extraordinary career.
How do you bring together two orbiting astronauts and more than 12,000 students scattered around the U.S. and Canada? It’s not rocket science, but it's close. First you have to find some very dedicated partners with a common purpose, like the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. Second you have to ensure an audience; which isn’t very difficult because who wouldn’t jump at the chance to talk to astronauts while in space? Third, and most challenging, you have to put together the technology capable of linking 24 sites scattered around North America and Hawaii with something moving at 28,163 kph (17,500 mph) 354 km (220 miles) above the Earth’s surface.
Nearly 50 years ago, John Glenn purchased a camera at a drug store that served as the first astronomical experiment performed by a human in space. That three-orbit voyage for Glenn included two cameras, one the Ansco he purchased and the other a Leica supplied by NASA. The flight not only kicked off decades of orbital experiences for U.S. astronauts, but also science experiments, observations, and thousands of rolls of film and digital files created through hand-held photography. The results of those experiments and the photos taken are what people left on Earth use even today to understand human spaceflight.
First of all there is a question of just what to call this device. Is it a “dummy”? That’s what its creators called it sometimes, but that sounds too pejorative and does not give credit to its complexity. Is it a “robot”? That’s what it looks like. Or is it an “android,” defined by the dictionary as “an automaton made to resemble a human being”?