Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories

Aimee Heidelberg - August 31, 2023

MThe dream of flying into outer space is as long as human history. But getting there required the greatest scientific minds, and someone willing to be strapped to a rocket and shot into the stars. The story of the United States space program reflects scientific and geopolitical achievement. The “Space Race” NASA was the product of the Cold War; the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit in 1958. The United States was not going to fall behind in the Space Race, and started exploring how to put a man into space. By the time NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, became NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, plans were underway to beat the Soviets into space. These behind-the-scenes stories, the ones that don’t always make the history books, are as intriguing as the historic achievements of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Sputnik replica. NASA, Public domain.

The Space Race: International One-Upmanship

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into space. Sputnik was the first man-made orbital satellite, Sputnik, and the additional satellites launched after it, orbited Eartth every ninety minutes. It was an impressive feat of science and engineering. It also shook the United States, who had hoped to achieve space dominance first. The launch of Sputnik prompted the United States government to pour money into the “Space Race,” to avoid losing out to the Soviets again. The United States launched its first satellite, Explorer, on January 31, 1958, going deeper into space than Sputnik. The Soviets launched another in response. The Space Race was on. Project Mercury elevated the race. NASA wanted the Mercury program to put the first human beings into space before the Soviet Union snatched that ‘first’ away from the United States. Seven military men with aviation backgrounds, the Mercury Seven, bravely accepted the challenge.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Daring circus people at Circus Mikkenie. Public domain.

Project Mercury Astronauts Could Have Been Circus People

It wasn’t always a given that astronauts would come from the ranks of military pilots. NASA couldn’t decide who would be the best type of person to strap to a rocket and shoot into space. They had to be risk-takers, they had to be able to make snap decisions and quickly react to emergencies. Astronaut Michael Collins (Apollo 11) described the discussion of what type of person would be the first astronaut, “Wait. It’s dangerous…We ought to get someone who’s accustomed to perils. We’ll get a bullfighter.” NASA debated sending circus people or stunt performers, or athletes in high-speed and endurance sports like swimming or auto racing. But President Eisenhower felt military pilots would have the stamina and skills to perform under extreme and unknown circumstances of space flight. They had to be college educated, and graduates of an accredited test pilot school.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Chuck Yeager and the sound-barrier breaking X-1. Public domain.

NASA Passed Over the Best Pilot

In 1947, amidst the Cold War between the United States and Russia, Edwards Air Force Base was the place to be for daring pilots with the “Right Stuff.” These pilots had the bravery and daring to test pilot some of the fastest and most technologically advanced planes the United State produced. In this dry desert climate with concrete block buildings and Pancho Barnes’ Happy Bottom Riding Club for entertainment, 24 year old Air Force captain Chuck Yeager was the first to break the sound barrier in a bright orange, bullet-shaped X-1 rocket plane. Yeager certainly had the “right stuff,” military accolades, record-breaking piloting skills, and respect from his peers. The Smithsonian Institute has named him among the top five pilots of all time. But he didn’t qualify for the astronaut program. Yeager didn’t have a bachelor’s degree. This automatically disqualified him from the Mercury program and astronaut training class.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Yeager inside the X-1 aircraft. Public domain.

Yeager’s Disqualification Didn’t Bother Him

In 2019 Forbes magazine reporter Jim Clash asked Yeager if he had any regrets about not being selected for the NASA astronaut program. Yeager, contemplating the position of the Mercury crew in the early years, responded with the honesty of a pilot who broke records – and the sound barrier. “The [Mercury] guys didn’t have a hell of a lot of control, and that to me isn’t flying. I wasn’t interested.” Yeager was known for being unsentimental and stoic. When Frank Borman, training at Edwards Air Force Base in the early 1960s, told his commander Yeager that he received word of being selected for NASA’s astronaut corps, the stoic Yeager was silent for a moment, then quipped, “Well, Borman, you can kiss your Air Force career goodbye.”

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
SPAM display (2006). freezelight, CC 2.0.

Spam in a Can

Yeager’s quip about not having a lot of control hit on a sore spot with the Mercury astronauts. Despite the competitive selection process, extensive piloting experience, and intense training, NASA had no plans to actually let them fly anything. The whole flight was supposed to be fully automated from Mission Control. According to author Thomas Wolfe in The Right Stuff, his chronicle of the Mercury program, “The commanding officer at Edwards [Air Force Base] passed the word around that he wanted his top boys, the test pilots in Fighter Ops, to avoid Project Mercury because it would be a ridiculous waste of talent.” Yeager, deploying his quick and ferocious wit, dubbed the Mercury astronauts “Spam in a can.” The Mercury pilots were simply payload, with no active role in controlling the capsule. NASA would shoot them into space, where they would hang around like tourists while NASA controlled the flight.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Mercury capsule design. NASA, c. 1964. Public domain.

Human Cargo

Since the pilots weren’t expected to actually fly anything, the MR-3 capsule designed for the first suborbital space flight lacked amenities. One particularly irked the Mercury Seven, as their lives as test pilots had revolved around seeing the world from a new perspective. There were no windows on the capsule. The Mercury 7 pressed engineers to install a window, more of a porthole, on the capsule so they could serve as more than just human cargo. Engineers redesigned the capsule to have two 6-inch portholes. By Gus Grissom’s flight, the second of the program, NASA recognized the necessity and validity of an astronaut’s scientific observation. And they acknowledged that humans simply like to look out windows when on a unique adventure. Grissom’s capsule was fit with trapezoidal 19 inch by 11 inch (48 cm by 28 cm) windows.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
NASA’s computer corps at work. NASA, public domain.

Computers Were Vital to NASA

NASA used computers from its earlies years. But these weren’t the room-sized processors with blinking lights and punch cards of the 1960s; their computers had names. And human bodies. These ‘computers,’ usually women, had been involved in experimental flight and aviation since Barbara Canright joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1939, calculating the number of rockets necessary to propel spacecraft and calculating weight-to-thrust ratio. While NASA was using mechanized computers by the 1950s, they didn’t fully trust them. They still relied on calculations done by humans, and hired computers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to conduct accurate and complex calculations for NASA. One of the earliest human computers, Sue Finley, was still working at NASA in 2016, the “longest-serving female employee.” She was hired in 1958 to conduct trajectory calculations for rocket launches, and was most recently working on a Jupiter-bound mission.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
NASA Computer Corps and Pressure Tunnel employees, c. 1950s. Mary Jackson is on the far right. first row. NASA, public Domain.

Early Computers Broke so Many Barriers

Working for a new scientific community, NACA (later NASA), in the 1950s was a challenge. Add the challenge of being a woman, African American, and living in the south in the pre-Civil Rights era. And having to prove your scientific and mathematic skills. But Dorothy Vaughan kicked down all these barriers when she joined the agency at NASA’s Langley Research Center in 1943. She started in the “colored” computing center, and moved into a managerial role in 1951, a first for African Americans at the agency. Mary Jackson joined NASA that year, who would work on supersonic pressure tunnels and data testing. Two years later, Katherine Johnson broke more barriers, serving as physicist, scientist, and mathematician. Her calculations were vital for the success and safety of the Mercury program. Their story is honored in books and movies, acknowledging how vital these women were to the NASA community.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
HAM prepares for his flight, 1961. NASA, public domain.

Astronauts beaten by a chimp

In January 1961, Mercury astronauts were eager to make the first space flight. NASA became increasingly cautious about the Redstone rocket they planned to use for the first mission. In January of 1961, NASA sent Ham, a three-year-old chimpanzee, on a suborbital flight to determine how space flight would impact motor skills. Ham was the closest approximation of human physiology and dexterity they could test without risking an actual astronaut’s life. This would also give NASA a chance to make final adjustments to the Redstone rocket before the first human flight. Ham’s flight deeply insulted the Mercury astronauts. They were being asked, essentially, to perform the same tasks as a chimp. The Mercury astronauts already felt NASA snatched away much of their autonomy. They had nothing personal against Ham, but the idea of a chimp getting the first flight was too much to bear.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Yuri Gagarin, Soviet cosmonaut (1961). Public domain.

America loses the Space Race

Despite Ham’s successful flight, it wasn’t a human being launched into space. Ham’s launch in January of 1961 revealed some flaws in the Redstone rocket. Ham’s flight was a success by NASA measures, but they wanted to enhance the reliability of the rocket before launching an astronaut. The United States, slowed by caution about failed rocket tests and the possibility of losing an astronaut, wouldn’t launch the first American man into space until May of 1961. Ham’s flight was a hit, but on April 12, 1961, the United States was dealt a hard blow- the Soviet Union announced that cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin not only made it into space, but for 108 minutes had orbited the planet. He was a Soviet national hero but infuriated the NASA astronauts. Alan Shepard, furious at having the Soviets, snapped, “We had ‘em by the short-hairs, and we gave it away!”

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories

A delayed first launch and an important lesson learned

On May 5, 1961, it was time to launch. Alan Shepard suited up, settled into the capsule, and prepared to be the first American in space. He waited for the countdown. And waited. NASA ground control, perhaps nervous about giving the “go,” or quadruple-checking every flight detail, delayed the launch for three hours. After a while, Shepard had to urinate. NASA hadn’t factored this into their plan since the flight was only supposed to be fifteen minutes. He notified fellow Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper, “Man, I gotta pee.” As his bladder situation became critical, Shepard asked to urinate in his space suit. NASA refused, concerned about the wires in his suit needed to monitor his health. He couldn’t make it any further; NASA’s first astronaut had no choice but to make the flight in a urine-soaked suit. Since that day, astronauts have used specialized condoms or diapers for space flights.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Marine helicopter attempts to save Grissom and the Liberty Bell 7. NASA, public domain.

Liberty Bell 7 sinks

Mercury astronaut Gus Grissom was the second of the Mercury astronauts to launch. His 15-minute suborbital flight in July 1961 went well. But the recovery wasn’t as easy. The plan was for the recovery team to hook a line and pull the capsule hatch above the water. Grissom would hit a button to open the hatch and climb out of the capsule. Things went awry when the recovery crews had to cut off some of the radio antennae to attach the hook. Recovery crews saw a flash when the cutter touched the antenna, and the hatch blew off. Recovery crews could not pull the hatch above the water line. Water poured into the capsule, making it too heavy for the recovery helicopter to lift it up. The capsule sank into the Atlantic Ocean. Grissom didn’t even have time to close his suit to prevent water intrusion and nearly drowned.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Gus Grissom preparing for the Liberty Bell 7 flight. NASA, public domain.

Grissom exonerated

The question of whether Grissom accidentally (or on purpose) hit the button that opened the hatch haunted him. Grissom was cleared by NASA of wrongdoing, and Apollo flight director Gene Kranz said, “If Gus says he didn’t do it, he didn’t do it.” NASA put Grissom in leadership roles for Gemini and Apollo flights, unlikely if they thought he blew the hatch. Even so, the press and public opinion wasn’t as kind. The evidence supported Grissom and Kranz. For one thing, there was no bruising on his hand that would have occurred if he pushed the emergency hatch detonator. Additionally, there was the recovery pilots claim of a flash. Modern analysis indicates the ‘flash’ was a static electric reaction, one that could have triggered the hatch. As a result of the Liberty Bell 7 incident, NASA designed future capsules to have a hatch only ground crews could open.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Mathematician Katherine Johnson at Langley Research Center (1960). NASA, Public domain.

John Glenn refused to fly without the work of Katherine Johnson

Barrier-breaking mathematician Katherine Johnson proved vital to NASA. She was promoted from the computing pool in 1958, joining the Space Task Force, working in an “all-male, all white flight research team.” She figured out the trajectories for Alan Shepard’s first flight and John Glenn’s flight. Glenn specifically requested Johnson’s assistance, despite his trajectory already having been calculated by mechanized computers. Glenn trusted her calculations to produce a safe flight, saying “If she says they’re good, then I am ready to go.” He wanted to make sure his trip would be safe, and trusted Johnson’s mathematical skills over the most powerful punch-card computers of the time.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
John and Annie Glenn, 1965, and Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964. Public domain.

John Glenn Stood up to a Vice President

When NASA had to abort John Glenn’s first flight in January 1962, Vice President Lyndon Johnson wanted to come inside the Glenn house and talk John’s wife, Annie. Annie Glenn was a private person. She managed the limelight of being an astronaut’s wife with grace, but she didn’t look for – or want – the press attention. She especially didn’t want her stutter, an 85% speech impediment, publicized. John Glenn was his wife’s biggest cheerleader, even taking grocery and repair lists to work and placing phone orders himself. Having Johnson in the house would also mean allowing strange photographers inside and ordering the one photographer, Life magazine’s Loudon Wainwright Jr., out. And, as she firmly noted, “I had a migraine.” Annie called John, who had been sitting in wait (and in vain) for five hours, telling him she didn’t want Johnson in their home. He backed her up, and Johnson stayed out.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Members of the First Lady Astronaut Trainee corps (“Mercury 13”) in 1995. NASA, Public domain.

Right Qualifications, “Wrong” Body

In 1963, the Soviet Union had another important space “first.” Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space on the Vostok 6 mission. It’s not that NASA hadn’t thought of the possibility of including women on the Mercury missions. As the Mercury 7 were training for their first flights, NASA was simultaneously putting thirteen qualified women through astronaut training. They, too, were skilled pilots. They took – and passed – the Mercury physical tests. But an action by the United States congress prevented them from participating in the early missions, sticking to the “men only” rule, and never flew the skilled women. Despite their reliance on women like Katherine Johnson and other great scientific minds on the ground, NASA wouldn’t put a woman in space until 1983, when astronaut Sally Ride flew on the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Scott Carpenter inspects his capsule, the Aurora 7. NASA, public domain.

Scott Carpenter went Rogue

After Glenn’s successful orbit, and the cancellation of Deke Slayton’s flight due to a medical condition, NASA gave Scott Carpenter the next Mercury mission, the Aurora 7. He was to conduct a series of scientific and engineering experiments to test the capabilities of the capsule. For the first time, the pilot would reach orbit, and manually turn the capsule around to backward flying attitude in preparation for its re-entry to Earth. A computer did this on prior missions, but NASA wanted Carpenter to try piloting this maneuver to save fuel, among other experiments. But during the flight, issues switching from ‘fly by wire’ and the manual control depleted fuel levels faster than expected. Flight director Chris Kraft continuously, with increasing frustration, instructed Carpenter to watch his fuel levels, but even when a warning light went off, Carpenter covered it with tape and continued with his photography and space investigation.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Scott Carpenter recovery (raft visible) after 1962 Aurora 7 flight. NASA, Public domain.

Carpenter Hung Out on his Floatie, Awaiting Rescue

Kraft was worried NASA would have its first space fatality because Carpenter wouldn’t follow directions. But unknown to Carpenter, his horizon scanner was off by twenty degrees. Aurora 7 wasn’t at 24 degrees and zero-degree yaw to meet the reentry window. He aligned it manually, but the craft tipped the 25-degree tip to the right and the reentry burn started three seconds late. Carpenter splashed down 250 miles from where he was supposed to land. Carpenter was content hanging out alone in the ocean knowing the recovery ship was coming, despite not knowing when. He crawled out of the craft and floated happily in the ocean on his life raft for three hours until the pickup vessel arrived. Kraft swore Carpenter would never fly in space again. He is the only Mercury astronaut to not find a position on another space flight.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Artist rendering of two-man Gemini capsule (1965). NASA, Public domain.

The “Next Nine,” Project Gemini, 1965 – 1966

Project Mercury proved people could survive space flight. NASA’s next phase, Project Gemini, would test human, engineering, and scientific capabilities in space, preparing them for future exploration. The Gemini missions would conduct experiments and address challenges, moving NASA closer to reaching the moon. Instead of a single pilot, two men sat side-by-side in the capsule to conduct experiments and even exit the craft during the flight. Three of Project Mercury’s original seven astronauts would fly Gemini missions. Additionally, many of the later Apollo astronauts started their space flights during Gemini missions, evaluating their training, endurance, and capabilities. As serious and important for NASA as these flights were, they, too, were full of mischief, conflict, and mayhem.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Commemorative medallion of GT-3, Gemini’s Molly Brown (1965). NASA, Heritage Auctions, CC 4.0.

Gemini 3 Was a Mission of Titanic Proportions

NASA had enough confidence in Grissom’s skills, despite losing his Mercury capsule, to have him lead the Gemini 3 mission. Grissom had a few ideas when it came to nicknaming his mission. During Project Mercury, each astronaut gave his flight an unofficial nickname; Freedom 7, Friendship 7, Liberty Bell 7, Aurora 7, and the like. Gemini astronauts intended to continue the tradition. Vowing to never again lose a capsule after Liberty Bell 7, Grissom named his Gemini flight the Molly Brown, This was a reference to the boisterous woman who took over a lifeboat during the 1912 sinking of the Titanic and the subject of a rip-roaring, popular Broadway musical at the time. NASA officials weren’t thrilled about the choice, feeling it lacked dignity. But they agreed it was better than his next choice, Titanic. After Grissom’s Gemini 3 mission, the agency prohibited giving the capsules names.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Ed White enjoying a space walk. NASA, Public domain.

Gemini 4’s Space Walk

On June 3, 1965, Ed White became the first American to conduct a spacewalk (also called an EVA, for ‘extra vehicular activities) , lasting twenty-three minutes. The Russians had completed the first EVA in March, but the US caught up quickly. White was supplied with a “maneuvering gun” that would provide a puff of oxygen to help him move around, a tether, and an oxygen cord attached to the suit. He stepped out of the craft, and into open space. White pushed away from the spacecraft with the gun, then used the tether to pull himself back in. He did this repeatedly. He was having so much fun that NASA had to order him back to the spacecraft – an order he reluctantly followed, initially saying, “I’m not coming in…this is fun!” When he finally relented and returned to the ship, he said it was the “saddest moment of my life.”

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Armstrong and Scott hide their seasickness. NASA, Public domain.

Gemini 8 Was Stomach-Churning

Neil Armstrong is known as the stoic, quiet, humble man who first set foot on the moon. But he also averted a space disaster during Gemini. Armstrong and astronaut David Scott boarded the Gemini 8 mission to conduct the first rendezvous and docking with a pre-launched spacecraft while in orbit, and conduct an EVA (the spacewalk outside the capsule). The mission was starting quite successfully. But the docked Apollo and Agena vehicles started spinning uncontrollably. Apollo was violently tumbling about space like a broken carnival ride. Armstrong called to NASA, “We’re rolling up and we can’t turn anything off.” Gemini 8 was rolling at a rate of one revolution a second. Armstrong aborted the mission for their own safety. Gemini 8 safely returned to earth, but had to bounce around, fighting the vomit-inducing effects of seasickness (reportedly with only one sickness bag) in 20-foot (6 meter) sea swells.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories

Gemini 9 Wasn’t Much Better

The crew of Gemini 9, which was to try a new docking with the Agena vehicle and do an EVA to test new equipment, launched on June 3, 1966. It had already experienced tragedy; astronauts Elliott See and Charles Bassett, the Gemini 9 crew, were both killed in a plane crash on their way to inspect the at the McDonell Aircraft facility. Backup crew Thomas Stafford and Gene Cernan became primary crew. On launch day, the Agena blew up on its way to orbit and NASA delayed the mission. NASA crafted a new vehicle for Gemini 9 to dock with, and the flight finally launched. But problems with the alternative vehicle meant they could not safely dock. The astronauts and NASA decided to stop. Attention turned to the EVA, where Cernan would assess a hydrogen-peroxide fueled Astronaut Maneuvering Unit (AMU). Things would not get much better.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Gene Cernan’s difficult space suit. NASA, Public domain. Daderot, public domain.

Gemini 9 and the Sweaty AMU

NASA tasked Gene Cernan with testing the AMU out in space, connected to the spacecraft only by a tether. But the experiment went sour early in the mission. The pressure suit became hard in the vacuum of space. Cernan described the sensation as “all the flexibility of a suit of armor.” Cernan began to sweat. There was no real cooling in the suit, nor hand and footholds to let him rest. He was sweating so much his helmet visor began to fog. Using the tip of his nose, he cleared a small space to look out from, but he was essentially moving blind. Stafford ordered him to return to the craft. Cernan lost 13 pounds (5.9 kg) from this one EVA, and his heart reached 180 beats per minute. Further testing of the suit in a pool revealed that it was the suit, not Cernan’s performance, which was the problem.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders training for Apollo 8. NASA, Public domain.

The Apollo Era

President John F. Kennedy threw down a gauntlet for NASA; to land a man on the moon and get them back to Earth safely. The Apollo project carried out this mission. The first Apollo flight, Apollo 1 and astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee perished in a tragic fire. Despite this blow, the project persisted. The first Apollo flights continued the Gemini tests, learning the capabilities of astronauts and equipment, adjusting for a moon landing. Apollo 7, 8, 9 and 10 tested command modules, lunar modules, and the orbital pattern. In the next phase, Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17 landed on the moon, allowing astronauts to collect samples, run experiments, and explore the surface firsthand. The Apollo 13 mission was intended for a moon landing, but a systems malfunction required the mission to abort and return home (later dramatized in the 1995 film Apollo 13).

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Gene Kranz sports his white vest for the Apollo 17 flight (1972). NASA, Public domain.

Gene Kranz Got a New Vest for Every Flight

The film Apollo 13 features Flight Director Gene Kranz, played by Ed Harris, receiving a box from his wife. After a good-natured ribbing by colleagues, Kranz unfolds its contents and slips on a white vest emblazoned with an Apollo 13 mission patch. This movie moment captures an important symbol for Kranz, flight director of Gemini and Apollo missions in the “White Team” division, one of three rotating Mission Control teams. His wife Marta came up with the idea for Kranz to wear a “white team” vest as a symbol of each flight that the people of Mission Control could rally around. sewing each vest herself. He would get one to wear during the flight, and another, more wildly colored vest when the flight splashed down. But after the extraordinarily challenging Apollo 13 mission, Kranz kept on the white vest rather than changing into the ‘celebration’ version.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
(l to r) Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders have their breakfast on launch day. NASA, Public domain.

Frank Borman Turns Apollo 8 into the Original Vomit Comet

A few hours into the flight, Borman started experiencing nausea. He suffered bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. In Apollo 8, fellow astronaut Bill Anders remembers, “The stuff was floating around.” Anders used an oxygen mask to avoid the vomit smell. Things didn’t improve upon landing, either. Borman remembers the period after the spacecraft splashed down in the ocean. The astronauts had to wait for an hour and a half, upside down in the capsule, in undulating seas. Borman, already having added biomatter to the capsule, vomited again. As he says, “Of course, in consternation to Bill and Jim [Lovell, the third astronaut on the flight], I got good and seasick and threw up all over everything at that point.” The crew had adjusted to the smell from Borman’s earlier sickness. But hats off to the poor recovery crew who got a good whiff of the true ‘vomit comet.’

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. NASA, Public domain, and Cosmonauts Vladimir Komorov (l), Yuri Gugarin (r,1965). RIA Novosti Archive, Alexander Mokletsov, CC3.0

The Soviets Nearly Did it Again

When Apollo 11 landed on the moon, the Soviets shrugged. They said the United States was running a “one-country race” and they weren’t planning a lunar landing. But cosmonaut Vladimir Komorov revealed in 1966, “I can positively state that the Soviet Union will not be beaten by the United States in the race for a human being to go to the moon. The U.S. has a timetable of ‘1969 plus X, but our timetable is ‘1969 plus X minus one!” The Soviets had most ‘firsts,’ like Sputnik, first man and woman in space, and first probe moon landing, Luna 9. But the USA beat their ‘moon walk’ goals. The Soviet Union stuck to their “well, we weren’t even trying” position until 1989 and MIT aerospace engineers saw one of the abandoned lunar landers during a visit to Moscow. Soviets finally admitted they tried to win the Moon Race, too.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Michael Collins in Apollo simulation trainer. NASA, Public Domain.

Michael Collins Didn’t tell Neil Armstrong to Cut his Mic

A meme going around the Internet describes an exchange between Apollo 11 astronauts discussing what Neil Armstrong would say when he set foot on the moon. Michael Collins, who would man the Command Module says, “If you had any balls, you’d say ‘Oh my God, what is that thing?’ then scream and cut your mic.” While it would have been a great joke and induce panic at NASA, Collins didn’t actually say this. While Collins liked to joke around, as seen in Apollo 11 flight transcripts, the quote isn’t his. It originated in an HBO miniseries, From Earth to the Moon (1998), episode 6, “Mare Tranquilitatis.” A deep dive into Collins’ memoire, several books, including books by authors who interviewed the Apollo 11 astronauts confirms this. Graham Yost, who wrote the episode said, “I made it up out of whole cloth. I hope it made Collins laugh.”

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Playtex ad, 1949. Public domain.

Playtex, the Bra People, Made the Apollo Space Suits

Upon exiting the lunar module, Armstrong and Aldrin quickly adjusted to the different gravity, bouncing around and figuring out where their center of mass was on the lunar surface. But Playtex, the company known for the ‘cross your heart’ bra, watched this bounding around with growing tension. Playtex won the NASA contract in part due to their claim that they created durable, form-fitting, and flexible clothing. But for the suit creators like Sonny Reihm, who led Playtex’s Apollo division, and Eleanor Foraker, who supervised the sewing group, watched the astronauts frolicking, the ‘play’ was Playtex used 21 layers of fabric, but watching Aldrin bouncing around the moon made for some tense moments. One trip and fall on the wrong rock could tear the suit, with disastrous results for the astronauts. losing the astronauts due to a suit malfunction would be terrible not just for NASA, but for Playtex.

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Astronaut Harrison Schmitt covered with lunar dust. NASA, Gene Cernan, Public domain.

The Moon Smells

Apollo astronauts on the moon landing missions encountered something surprising: The moon smells weird. After the moon walks, the astronauts tracked a great deal of dust into the lunar module. Upon removing their helmets, they inhaled the moon dust they picked up during their walks. The moon smells, according to Neil Armstrong, like “the scent of wet ashes.” Buzz Aldrin likened it to the “smell in the air after a firecracker goes off.” Jim Irwin, on the Apollo 15 mission, noticed that there was a “funny smell in here” after removing his helmet. Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt said moon dust “smells like someone’s been firing carbine in here.” Once the mission returned to earth, exposing the dust to air and moisture, the odor had dissipated. Apollo 12 astronaut Pete Conrad said, “Very distinctive smell. I’ll never forget. And I’ve never smelled it again since then.”

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
JoAnn Hardin Morgan sits among a sea of men to watch the Apollo 11 liftoff. NASA image.

JoAnn Hardin Morgan: The Only Woman in Apollo 11’s Control Room

A photo from the Apollo 11 launch in 1969 shows a room full of men pensively watching the liftoff sporting their crips, white shirts and ties. Amid the sea of crisp white shirts and ties sits one woman. She is Joanne Morgan, an engineer and mathematician brought into NASA as a Junior Engineer and was serving as Instrument Controller for Apollo 11. When NASA hired Morgan, her supervisor called everyone in for a meeting. White told his crew to treat her as an engineer. He also made it clear that she was not their “buddy,” and they were to refer to her as Ms. Hardin. White set the limits – the men were to treat her as one of their own. According to NASA, one of the engineers asked, “Well, can we ask her to make coffee?” White quickly, and definitively, said, “No. You don’t ask an engineer to make coffee.”

Space Missions That Have Crazy Backstories
Project Mercury technicians in White Room. NASA, Public domain.

Paving the Path for the Future

NASA’s Apollo 11 crew left a mission patch on the moon for the Apollo 1 crew, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee. They also left two medallions for cosmonauts; Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, who died testing a MiG-15 jet fighter in 1968 and Vladimir Komarov, who died during his mission in 1967, given to the astronauts by their widows. The moon landing has united people in awe of such an achievement. There will always be those who will not believe the moon landing happened during Apollo 11, despite the evidence and science behind the landing. There will be those who object to the money spent on these programs. But for the thousands of people who worked on Project Mercury, Project Gemini, and Apollo, the landing was both the achievement of President Kennedy’s goal, but also the pathway for greater space exploration to understand our universe.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Alan Shepard wet his spacesuit: The science and history of space urination. Ross Pomeroy, RealClearScience, 7 June 2013.

Apollo astronauts left trash, mementos, and experiments on the moon. Maria Temming,, 15 July 2019.

Chuck Yeager: Right Stuff character was right-on. Jim Clash,, 5 March 2019

Human Computers: The women of NASA. Brynn Holland,, 13 December 2016.

Moon diapers and pee condoms; The evolution of deep space evacuation. Amy Shira Teitel, Vice, 17 September 2001.

The gendered history of human computers. Clive Thompson, Smithsonian Magazine, June 2019.

The sinking of Liberty Bell 7: Gus Grissom’s near-fatal mission. Michael Neifeld, National Air and Space Museum, 21 July 2021.

The Soviet response to the moon landing? Denial there was a moon race at all. Becky Little,, 11 July 2019.

These ‘astronauts’ had the right stuff, but never made it to space. Doug Adler,, 9 December 2020.

‘We gave it away’: Remembering the unhappy flight of Ham the Chimp, 60 years on. Ben Evans, AmericaSpace, 2021.

What you didn’t know about the Apollo 11 mission. Charles Fishman, Smithsonian Magazine, June 2019.

Women of NASA. National Geographic Society, National Geographic: Education, 27 September 2022.