Sam Stall

Novelist. Journalist. Repository of Odd Information.

Earth's Craziest Space Missions!


In case you hadn't heard, the aerospace company SpaceX is poised to launch a private resupply ship to the International Space Station. Their rocket is called the Falcon 9 (yes, after the Millennium Falcon) and the space capsule it carries is named Dragon. If all goes according to plan, Dragon will dock with the space station, drop off supplies, pick up some old equipment, then reenter the atmosphere and splash down in the Pacific Ocean. That's a pretty tall order, considering that only the United States, Russia and China have so far succeeded in launching a spacecraft into orbit and then bringing it back.

        Which makes this mission pretty cool. Not just because it's a Giant Leap for private enterprise, but because it gives me the perfect excuse to offer the following bizarro list.


Three Cancelled U.S. Space Missions That Sound About As Plausible As the Plot of Armageddon



        Both Hollywood and NASA love big-budget outer space spectacles. But when one of Tinseltown's laughably farfetched, poorly constructed star vehicles goes down in flames, the only thing it kills is careers. Which is definitely not the case for actual rocket launches. That's why we should all be happy (astronauts and test pilots particularly so) that the following all-too-real space mission concepts died on the drawing boards -- without taking anyone with them. 


1. Voyage to Venus Inside a Fuel Tank!


Possible Tagline:


In space no one can hear you die a slow, agonizing death from long-term radiation exposure. Hey, does it smell like diesel in here?


The Concept:


        After the Apollo program landed astronauts on the Moon, NASA looked for new uses for its snazzy lunar hardware. One of the wackier (and by "wackier" we mean "poorly thought-out") schemes was to send a three-person crew on a one-year Venus "fly-around." Fly-around means that the crew wouldn't land. They'd just look out the windows, shout "U-S-A!" a couple of times, then head home.



Sorry we can't hang around ...



   The Apollo command module lacked the knee room and luggage space for such a long trip, but planners developed a novel (and by "novel" we mean "poorly thought-out") workaround. Bear with us here. A gigantic Saturn V rocket would launch the mission on its way to Venus, but its upper stage would remain attached to the command module. Once this school bus-sized gas tank burned up all its fuel, the crew would move in. And live there. In the fuel tank. For a year. In the fuel tank.

        The inmates of this enormous spaceship/tomb would face the danger of lethal cosmic rays and solar radiation, all for the glory of going to Venus and then not landing. Which is like driving all the way to Disneyland, then turning around in the parking lot and going home. Only that would be a lot less dangerous, because you wouldn't have to go home inside the fuel tank.


What happened?


        After the Apollo program no one (particularly president Richard Nixon, who loathed the Kennedy-inspired moon shots) wanted to cut massive checks for more space adventures. Oh, and there was also the fuel tank thing-y. No one was wild about that.



2. Manned Orbital Laboratory


Possible Tagline:


That's no moon. It's a space station! An expensive, unnecessary space station!


The Concept:


        Back in the 1960s the U.S. Air Force worried that newfangled spy satellites couldn't be trusted to keep tabs on the Russians. What could? Maybe a couple of flyboys stuck on a cramped military space station for weeks on end, sucking their meals out of tubes, pooping in plastic bags and gazing down at the Soviet Union through telescopes. Thus was born the Manned Orbital Laboratory (or MOL) program. The name sounds badass, but the brass screwed it up by going with a bargain basement design. Instead of commissioning a spinning, roulette wheel-shaped masterpiece of mid-century kitsch, their orbital battle station would have been a cramped hovel consisting of a two-person Gemini spacecraft latched onto the specially outfitted upper stage of a missile. The crew would enter this trailer park in the sky through a hole in the Gemini's heat shield.



Not exactly 2001: A Space Odyssey.




What happened?


        Before the first MOL could be launched it had already become obvious that spy satellites worked great, and that the services of actual human spies weren't required. Also, someone probably pointed out that pretty much the last thing you want to do to a spacecraft's heat shield is cut a hole in it.



3. Launch the X-15 into Orbit


The Concept:


        The high-flying, pitch black, knife-shaped X-15 rocket plane was the most awesome experimental aircraft of all time: insanely powerful, futuristic-looking and capable of killing a careless pilot in dozens of highly creative ways.


X-15 in flight.jpg

Hottest. Ride. Ever.


        Incredibly, the Air Force decided this sleek widow maker wasn't hardcore enough, and considered building a souped-up X-15B that could actually reach orbit. But getting home would have been the real pisser. The pilot was supposed to guide his ship through a flaming reentry and then -- in a move that makes us wonder if the "B" in X-15B stood for "balls" -- eject and descend the rest of the way via parachute while his riderless ride crashed into the Gulf of Mexico. Which would have been AWESOME.


What happened?


Even the Air Force, never famous for its fiscal restraint, couldn't stomach the X-15B's projected $120 million-per-shot price tag. That's pretty steep for a program with few clear objectives, beyond making Evel Knievel look like a wuss.

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