The Washington Post this week did a nice piece about how my late father helped beat the Russians in the space race:
There's a video, too, from one of the old 8 mm cameras he used to shoot our home movies with.
Here's the text from the article:
Our Android Astronaut
A Nearly Forgotten Test Dummy Helped the U.S. Put Men in Space
Thursday, June 26, 2008; Page C14
"It was lying around in one of the warehouses. Nobody knew what it was," says Paul Ceruzzi, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum. "Someone said to me, 'Find out what it is or we're going to get rid of it.' " The "it" in question looked like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz. Ceruzzi would later learn that this tin man played an important role in the design of spacesuits for U.S. astronauts.
In 1961, when President John F. Kennedy committed the nation to sending men to the moon before the end of the decade, the space agency, NASA, had to figure out how that would be done. One important task was to make spacesuits that could hold up in the brutal environment of space.
"Spacesuits were very new at the time, and no one knew how to make them," Ceruzzi says. "Some early designs were heavy and hard to move in."
Testing different models meant doing experiments that might be painful, tiring and possibly dangerous for a person. The space agency needed a stand-in.
One Big Step for an Android
NASA turned to a team of engineers led by Jozef Slowik at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They built an android for the job. (An android is a machine that looks like a person.)
"NASA builds robots all the time," Ceruzzi says, "but this is the only robot that NASA ever built that looks like a human being. In reality, they look like whatever they have to look like to do a job. This one, it had to replace a human being inside a spacesuit."
Slowik's android copied many of the joint motions of the human body. With each spacesuit design, the engineers put the android through its paces: bending, kneeling, swinging its limbs, grasping heavy tools.
The android had sensors that measured force, "so it gave you feedback to let you know how hard it [was] to do certain things: how much strength [was] needed to turn your head, for example," Ceruzzi says.
Many fabrics and materials were tried. "In the vacuum of space, you need air pressure," he says. "If you didn't design it right, the spacesuit inflated."
That's what happened to Soviet cosmonaut Alexi Leonov in 1965. Leonov was the first person to walk in space outside a spacecraft. But when he tried to reenter the craft after 12 minutes spent floating outside, he couldn't fit through the entrance because his spacesuit had inflated. He had to release some of the air first.
If It Only Had a Brain
NASA's test dummy was helpful, but not without its flaws.
The android was not a complex robot. It could not operate on its own. Instead, "it was remotely controlled by someone who twiddled a lot of knobs," Ceruzzi says.
In addition, it was bulky and needed lots of tubing. It used hydraulic fluid, the same substance that operates the brakes and other mechanical parts of a car. The android's fluid tended to leak; it was messy and even a little distressing to the engineers to see their creation "bleeding" after a particularly difficult test.
Slowik's widow, Clare, remembers her husband's intensity during the project. "I know that there were things they were concerned about," she says. "It had never been done before."
But she also remembers that "it was one of the best times of his working career. He was able to use his mechanical-engineering skills, but mostly, his imagination."
-- Brenna Maloney