Conrad on the left (via NASA)
Conrad on the left (via NASA)

The Astronaut Whose First Words on the Moon Were a Joke

Conrad on the left (via NASA)
Conrad on the left (via NASA)

If Apollo 12's crew were nervous, they certainly didn't let it show. Commander Pete Conrad and Lunar Module Pilot Alan Bean spent a pretty good chunk of their seven and a half cumulative hours on the lunar surface cracking jokes and having a good time. Here's a typical excerpt from their mission transcript:

Conrad: Okay, very good. "(Photograph) contingency sample area" I got. "Deploy the color chart (on an undisturbed surface)" Ho ho. Take your time, Al. (Pause) Hey, I'm learning to do it. (Pause)

Bean: (Pete belches) Houston, how does the LM look? I'm getting ready to go out the front door.

Conrad: Dum dee dum dum. (Pause) Whoops. No way I'm gonna...I wonder if I can get in the bottom of this crater hole?
...
Conrad: Dee dum dee dum. I feel like Bugs Bunny. (Pause; Giggles) (Pause)

Perhaps this is because they knew they wouldn't sink into the moon's unknown, powdery surface like quicksand, which was a real concern raised by astrophysicist and NASA consultant Dr. Tommy Gold leading up to the Apollo 11 mission. He based this theory on radio observations of the moon and passed it along to anyone who would listen, including Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Gold was widely mocked, but this thought was no doubt lingering in the back of the astronauts' minds as their lunar module touched down. The craft didn't disappear into the moon's surface, of course, and Armstrong was able to take his famous first step and utter those immortal words, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." (Armstrong insists he included "a," although it was dropped from recordings in transmission.) This downright profound statement—which he says was not planned—put the entire enterprise into focus. It also worked as a setup for Pete Conrad's first words on the moon, which, naturally, were a joke.

Pete Conrad was a Princeton educated aeronautical engineer, Navy test pilot, and all-around character. Leading up to the mission, Oriana Fallaci, an Italian journalist, said she thought the government told the astronauts what to say while on the moon. To prove this wasn't the case, Conrad told her exactly what he was going to say—and bet her five hundred bucks to prove that he was going to say it.

So when Conrad stepped from the lunar module and onto the pad to become the third man ever to walk on the moon, he made good on his promise and said those first words: "Whoopie! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me."

Conrad was only 5'6", so his wager-winning statement also proved to be the first bit of extraterrestrial self-deprecation in human history. (A detailed account of the bet is featured in Andrew Chaikin's A Man on the Moon.)

According to Conrad, he never got paid that $500. Something tells us the story's worth far more than that.

Why Do Astronauts Use Space Pens Instead of Pencils?

by Alex Carter

It's often said that NASA spent millions of dollars developing a pen that could write in zero gravity, while the Russians just used pencils. It was a warning about looking for a high-tech solution to a mundane problem, of American excess vs. Russian sensibility.

It's also entirely false.

To understand why NASA was so keen on a workable space pen, you have to understand that the pencil is not suited for space travel. The problem is that they have a habit of breaking, shattering, and leaving graphite dust behind. The wood, too, can make it a serious fire risk in the pressurized, oxygen-rich capsule. All of these common issues become life-threatening hazards in space.

Still, there were attempts to bring pencils into space. In 1965, the agency famously ordered 34 specially designed mechanical pencils in hopes of finding the perfect writing tool for astronauts. But at $128 each, they weren't exactly cheap, and it only got worse when the public got wind of the price. Thankfully, an alternative was not too far behind.

Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
NASA

The Space Pen was invented by Paul Fisher, head of Fisher Pen Company. Unlike a typical pen, the Fisher Space Pen uses compressed nitrogen to force ink out of the nozzle, instead of using gravity to make it flow. This made it the ideal device for writing in space, while upside down, or submerged underwater. It wrote crisp and clean, without the safety concerns of a pencil.

Fisher contacted NASA to give his pens a try in 1965 and in 1967, after months of testing, they were impressed enough to bulk buy 400 of them for future missions. Contrary to those urban legends, NASA didn't commission the pen or contribute any funding to it. The Soviets soon ditched their grease pencils and were eventually buying the same Fisher pens as NASA, too. The price? After a 40 percent discount from Fisher, both space agencies were paying $2.39 a pen.

The Fisher Space Pens made their debut in 1968 on the Apollo 7 mission and have been involved in all manned missions since.

So, the short reason is that astronauts only used pencils when they were waiting for something better to come along. As soon as it did, they switched and never looked back. Even the Russians thought it was a good idea.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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NASA Has a Plan to Stop the Next Asteroid That Threatens Life on Earth
iStock
iStock

An asteroid colliding catastrophically with Earth within your lifetime is unlikely, but not out of the question. According to NASA, objects large enough to threaten civilization hit the planet once every few million years or so. Fortunately, NASA has a plan for dealing with the next big one when it does arrive, Forbes reports.

According to the National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan [PDF] released by the White House on June 21, there are a few ways to handle an asteroid. The first is using a gravity tractor to pull it from its collision course. It may sound like something out of science fiction, but a gravity tractor would simply be a large spacecraft flying beside the asteroid and using its gravitational pull to nudge it one way or the other.

Another option would be to fly the spacecraft straight into the asteroid: The impact would hopefully be enough to alter the object's speed and trajectory. And if the asteroid is too massive to be stopped by a spacecraft, the final option is to go nuclear. A vehicle carrying a nuclear device would be launched at the space rock with the goal of either sending it in a different direction or breaking it up into smaller pieces.

Around 2021, NASA will test its plan to deflect an asteroid using a spacecraft, but even the most foolproof defense strategy will be worthless if we don’t see the asteroid coming. For that reason, the U.S. government will also be working on improving Near-Earth Object (NEO) detection, the technology NASA uses to track asteroids. About 1500 NEOs are already detected each year, and thankfully, most of them go completely unnoticed by the public.

[h/t Forbes]

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