Science and Industry

THE successful recovery of unharmed animals from both American and Russian space vehicles in recent months will stand as a milestone in the history of mankind. Inevitably, man himself will be the passenger. The Russians, who have a three-year head start on the Americans, will soon try to put an astronaut into space. As for our own program, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration confidently predicts that we will have a manned vehicle aloft before the end of 1961.

NASA’s manned-space-flight program, Project Mercury, is winding up its first phase and is about to enter a second, more spectacular series of operations. Until now attention has been concentrated on designing and testing the various elements, with results which can be summarized as follows:

The Mercury capsule, a man-carrying vehicle weighing little more than a ton, has been built and exhaustively tested but not yet flown into space. Some idea of its complexity can be gained from the fact that it carries seven miles of wiring in a cabin just big enough to hold one man.

A nonoperational capsule the same shape and weight as the Mercury capsule but made of boiler plate and lacking most of the complex operational devices has been carried 100 miles into space and almost to orbital speed in a test known as “Big Joe.”Big Joe also tested the enormous rocket that will slam the capsule out into space. The pad — the launching platform — has been checked out.

The complex escape rocket mechanism has proved itself in a series of tests known as “Little Joe.”The escape system consists of a small rocket mounted on a tower on the tip of the capsule nose. If anything goes wrong with the booster rocket on the pad or in the early stages of flight, creating danger of an explosion, the Mercury capsule is separated and hauled safely out of the danger area by the escape rocket (a parachute then lets the capsule down gently).

Ability of animals to survive the heat, noise, and stress of exit and re-entry has been demonstrated by tests in which two monkeys named Sam and Miss Sam, trained for the flight by University of Texas psychologists, were shot into space and recovered unharmed. Sam’s recovery also showed the effectiveness of the vitally important tracking and recovery system that must locate the Mercury vehicle on its return and recover its occupant and instruments immediately.

The ability of the pilot, supported by a formfitting couch, to withstand the enormous pressures of gravity on take-off and re-entry has been tested successfully in Navy laboratories.

The space pilots have been chosen — seven highly skilled test pilots on loan to NASA from the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force — and are now undergoing rigorous training.

Manned flights into space

The next phase, putting all the devices together into an operational system and starting actual flights, is scheduled to begin during the final months of 1960, when a Redstone booster rocket will take a Mercury vehicle some 125 miles above the earth. Reaching a top speed of 4000 mph, the vehicle will have to withstand forces of 6 G during take-off and as much as 12 G during the return to earth. The whole flight will require sixteen and a half minutes.

The first of these test flights will carry only instruments. Later a chimpanzee will take the ride. The final flights will carry a pilot, who will be weightless for five and a half minutes during midflight, more than five times the period of weightlessness heretofore possible.

Up to this point, all will be ballistic flights in which the path of the vehicle is determined entirely by the initial push of the booster rocket. These expeditions will give invaluable information on the reactions of man and materials, serving as a preliminary to the next step, orbital flight. For this, the vehicle will be accelerated to a speed of 17,500 mph, at which centrifugal force will just balance the pull of gravity and the vehicle will go into orbit around the earth at a 120-mile altitude. The Atlas rocket, considerably more powerful than Redstone, will power this push.

The first orbital flights will carry instruments and animals. When piloted flights begin, the automatic controls will continue to function, but the astronaut will be responsible for switching to manual controls if the automatic devices fail. The pilot will have plenty to check. Sitting strapped to his couch, the pilot faces an elaborate instrument panel. In the center is a periscope through which he can see what is happening on the “bottom” side of the capsule. A window at head level gives him a “topside” view. At the top of his instrument panel are the flight instruments. At the right a series of lights will flash an alarm if any of the cabin systems — air, pressure, and so forth — fail. At his left, hand controls are ready if he needs them.

The booster rocket’s job is finished when the capsule has attained its orbit, and the vehicle is separated from the booster by firing small separation rockets. An automatic attitude-control system then realigns the capsule so that its blunt end, behind the pilot’s back, is forward, in order to increase atmospheric I resistance when the vehicle starts to return to earth, and to slow it down. Once in this position, the vehicle makes three ninety-minute orbits. Then reverse rockets cut the speed by 350 mph, allowing gravity to overcome centrifugal force and pull the vehicle back to earth. As the vehicle enters the atmosphere, air resistance slows it down. At about 700 mph, a parachute, released automatically, holds it back still more till it finally lands at only 20 mph.

To the moon and back

With the experience gained from ballistic and orbital flights, we will launch still more ambitious expeditions. Orbital flights around the moon will be the first goal, with instruments and animals again paving the way for man. Re-entry speed after a moon flight will be more than the Mercury capsule can endure, and a stronger vehicle, as well as more powerful rockets, will be designed. Eventually the huge Saturn rocket system, the first of whose three stages provides 1.5 million pounds thrust, will launch sixto twenty-ton satellites and send large payloads to the moon.

Re-entry from a moon flight poses navigation as well as stress problems. If the vehicle re-enters the earth’s atmosphere at too sharp an angle, it will slow down too quickly and destroy the passenger. If it comes in at too slight an angle, it will be at an altitude so high that there will not be enough atmosphere to slow the vehicle, which will keep going and never land. The difficulty is tremendous. A space vehicle that cannot maneuver would have to hit a corridor only seven miles wide. A much more complicated craft that can change direction would still have only a sixty-mile corridor. As a NASA scientist has expressed it: “The skin on an apple is a little less than one per cent of the apple’s diameter. So this guidance problem of hitting the entry corridor is just about the same guidance problem that William Tell would have had if he had had to shoot the skin off the apple instead of just hitting the apple. Now, that sounds like a rather severe guidance requirement, and it is difficult, but not impossible.”

There is an additional complication: space probes and satellites have revealed that two radiation belts clutch the earth at altitudes of 500 to 50,000 miles, with gaps above the poles. Although we still do not know how great a hazard these will be, it is believed that the radiation could be harmful or fatal to human beings. Ballistic and orbital flights can keep below the radiation level, but vehicles going to the moon or beyond will have to either carry very heavy shielding or try to find ways to depart and re-enter through the polar gaps.

Other special dangers will face the space pilot. Cosmic rays will be a threat to the sensitive portions of his body, such as the retina of the eye. Meteors may puncture the skin of the space vehicle or wear away its surface; a big one could even destroy it. Still another hazard is the outbursts of high-energy protons shot into the earth’s upper atmosphere during periods of solar activity.

NASA has mapped out a schedule of operations that envisages flights to the vicinity of Mars and Venus. Before these can be planned in detail, much information must be gathered, bigger booster rockets built and tested, larger capsules designed. NASA is already holding preliminary discussions with contractors about the construction of an Apollo capsule that will carry a crew of three instead of one lonely astronaut. The space program as a whole is expected to cost $1.5 billion a year during the next decade. Only a portion of this, of course, is devoted to manned flight; Project Mercury will spend slightly more than $100 million during the current fiscal year.

Why are we doing all this? Project Mercury itself is described officially as a means of determiningman’s capabilities in a space environment. Beyond this are the three objectives of the American space program: “to understand the nature of the control exerted by the sun over events on the earth; to learn the nature and origin of the universe, including the solar system; and to search for the origin of life and its presence outside the earth.”

These are awesome goals. But the average man will perhaps be more intimately concerned with the suggestion of one scientist that space exploration may take the place of war in our society. It is too early to say whether man’s movement into space will be William James’s sought-for moral equivalent of war; but certainly the world hopes desperately that Russia and the United States will continue to launch their giant rockets spaceward instead of at each other.

Sheet leather

A new and drastic treatment for leather — in effect, tearing it apart and putting it together again as a continuous sheet — provides a product as uniform and easy to manufacture as a synthetic, but retaining all the advantages of permeability, elasticity, and pliability that distinguish the natural product. Developed jointly by Armour Leather and United Shoe Machinery, the new product is made by converting the collagen in the hide to a solution which is combined with the hide fibers and pressed into a continuous sheet. Collagen is the material of the connective tissue of the skin.

The material will have definite advantages over tanned leather: it will utilize the entire hide, eliminating the present wasteful necessity of trimming; it will not be subject to the irregularities of size and thickness that occur naturally in hides. The material can also be embossed with a grain or dyed any color, and possibly molded into precast shapes.


Anyone who has slept on a park bench knows that newspapers keep out the cold. Now a Nevada corporation has put the insulating qualities of newsprint to work in a big way. United States Insulation Corporation mixes disintegrated newspapers with boric acid to produce pellets, called Thermo-K, which it asserts have a much lower heat-loss factor than more conventional materials. The manufacturers say Thermo-K is also three times lighter than competing insulation (a fourinch layer covering 1200 feet would weigh 600 pounds, while the same amount of rock wool or glass wool would weigh 1800 pounds) and contains many more air voids. It also resists moisture absorption, repels all kinds of insects and vermin, and will take a 4000° F. blast from a blowtorch without burning.

The material is already available as fill, batts, or boards, and U.S. Insulation plans to make shingles, building blocks, and industrial insulation. It is also ready to build and equip a Thermo-K plant for someone else to operate.


Travelers and campers can always be sure of clean, pure water by taking their own water-filter system with them. Pocket-size — it weighs less than a pound — the Purifilter consists of a rubber bulb with which you can force water through a filter composed of particles of asbestos. Eight squeezes of the bulb will fill an ordinary drinking glass. The asbestos particles carry either negative or positive charges, which attract bacteria and the larger viruses and hold them in the filter system, where they are destroyed by insoluble bacteria-killing chemicals.

This charged-particle system, an adaptation ol a method used by airlines to filter drinking water, makes it possible to use a filter coarse enough for the water to go through easily. The filter removes any suspended matter — chlorine, fluorine, sulphur, organic tastes and odors, mud, and sand. It does not work with ocean water because the heavy concentration of salt immediately clogs the filter. The cartridge will continue to produce clean water until it is clogged. It may last as long as three months in daily use with relatively clear water. The device, with one replacement cartridge, costs $12.95.