Astronaut

New LEGO Set Honors NASA’s Female Pioneers

For all their exemplary qualities, the LEGOs of yesteryear did have one flaw: the minifigures were predominantly male. In recent years, however, there’s been a notable uptick in female-focused sets, thanks in large part to fan-created concepts promoted through LEGO Ideas. One such project is the Women of NASA, a LEGO set celebrating some of the space agency’s most notable female figures that was posted to the LEGO Ideas last summer and has just been approved by the brick toy company for mass-market release.

The “five notable NASA pioneers” honored in the set are: computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, who…

The Apollo Astronaut Who Was Allergic to the Moon

The inside of Apollo 17’s lunar module smelled of gunpowder. It was December 1972, the last of NASA’s manned moon missions, and astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt had just finished a successful survey of the Valley of Taurus-Littrow, a spot on the southeastern “coast” of the Moon’s Sea of Serenity. They had returned to the landing module with their spacesuits caked in moondust.

The men brushed themselves off and removed their helmets. Suddenly, Schmitt began having a sneezing fit. His eyes reddened. His throat itched. His sinuses clogged.

“I didn’t know I had lunar dust hay fever,” Schmitt said. Listening in, men stationed back on Earth began to bust Schmitt’s chops over the radio transmission. “It’s funny they don’t check for that,” said Joseph Allen at Mission Control. “Maybe that’s the trouble with the cheap noses, Jack.”

Schmitt, it turns out, was basically allergic to the Moon.

Of all the difficulties involved with putting a man on the Moon, “the major issue the Apollo astronauts pointed out was dust, dust, dust,” Larry Taylor, director of the Planetary Geosciences Institute, said in an interview with the Soil Science Society of America. The Apollo 11 astronauts griped that the “particles covered everything and a stain remained even after our best attempts to brush it off.” An Apollo 12 crew member moaned that the lunar module “had so much dust that when I took my helmet off, I was almost blinded.”

Moondust may look soft and pillowy, but it’s actually sharp and abrasive, largely the detritus of micrometeorite impacts. With no wind or moving water on the Moon’s surface, moondust never erodes. Effectively, no natural process exists on the lunar surface that can round its edges. When astronauts inhale what is essentially finely powdered glass, it becomes a huge health hazard [PDF]: The powder is so jagged that a deep breath could cause it to lodge in the lungs and pierce the alveolar sacs and ducts [PDF], resulting in a lunar version of “stone-grinder’s disease,” or silicosis, a deadly condition that commonly killed coal miners (and still kills 100 Americans a year). To complicate…

17 Super Facts About the Atlanta Falcons

For the second time in franchise history, the Atlanta Falcons are headed to the Super Bowl. Will they rise up and claim Atlanta’s first major pro sports championship since 1995? Super fan Samuel L. Jackson has definitely got his fingers crossed. From adventurous mascots to touchdown dance crazes, here’s a quick primer on everything you should know about the “Dirty Birds.”

1. ATLANTA’S TEAM WAS ALMOST THE CARDINALS.

Before the Falcons came along, the Arizona Cardinals (as we now know them) considered migrating to Atlanta. From 1960 to 1987, this storied football team played in St. Louis, where they were briefly holed up in an outdated stadium called Sportsman’s Park. Owners Bill and Charles Bidwill didn’t think much of this home field and the replacement was suffering constant delays, so between 1963 and 1964, they met with Atlanta mayor Ivan Allen Jr. to talk about the possibility of bringing their Cards to Georgia’s capital city. Faced with the threat of losing its NFL team, the city of St. Louis appeased the Bidwills by building Busch Memorial Stadium, a $24 million sports venue. It opened in 1966.

2. THEY WERE BORN IN 1965.

The Atlanta Falcons were born in 1965 as an NFL expansion team, which the league awarded to Atlanta-based insurance executive Rankin Smith for $8.5 million. At the time, this was the highest sum that had ever been paid for a professional sports franchise. (By comparison, in 2008 the Miami Dolphins were purchased for $1 billion. How times have changed.)

3. THE TEAM’S FIRST-EVER DRAFT PICK GOT SOME ADVICE FROM AN ASTRONAUT, AND IGNORED IT.

Linebacker Tommy “Mr. Falcon” Nobis has the distinction of being the franchise’s first-ever draft pick. He’s also one of the few athletes who’s ever gotten career advice from an astronaut. In college, Nobis averaged almost 20 tackles per game and led his Texas Longhorns to a national title in 1963. His skills caught the attention of two rival football leagues: the established National Football League and the upstart American Football League. (On June 8, 1966, the two leagues announced that they would merge and form the modern NFL.)

When he decided to turn pro, Nobis was drafted by both the Falcons—who were part of the old NFL—and the AFL’s Houston Oilers. News of this debacle reached the orbiting Gemini 7 spacecraft. In a transmission back to earth, astronaut Frank Borman said, “Tell Nobis to sign with Houston.” But the linebacker picked Atlanta instead. Nobis officially signed with the Falcons on December 14, 1965 and would play a major role in their inaugural season in 1966.

4. THEY’VE BASED THEIR TEAM COLORS ON POPULAR COLLEGE TEAMS.

Tim Warner/Getty Images

Why do the Falcons wear red and black? Their color scheme is an homage to the Georgia Bulldogs. Early in their history, the Falcons paid tribute to another beloved SEC team—the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets—with a pair of gold stripes that graced their helmets from 1966 to 1970.

5. A FORMER COACH USED SOME ODD PROPS TO MOTIVATE THE TEAM, INCLUDING A STICK OF DYNAMITE.

Interim head coach Jim Hanifan used some weird—and potentially dangerous—props in his motivational speeches. While the team was getting ready to take on the San Francisco 49ers in week 13 of the 1989 season, Hanifan walked into their locker room holding an unlit stick of dynamite. Imploring the players to “be explosive with every play,” he invited them to walk up and touch the strange visual aid. (It didn’t help; the Falcons lost 23-10.)

For the next game, when the club visited Minnesota, Hanifan brought in three hand grenades. After the Falcons were trounced 43-17, Hanifan upped the ante by leaving a disarmed bomb in the locker room. (Incidentally, he had the thing painted red and black. Nice touch.) One Falcon was reported as saying, “If we lose to Washington Sunday, [Hanifan’s] liable to show up for that last game with something nuclear.” The Falcons lost 31-30.

6. WHEN THEY DRAFTED BRETT FAVRE IN 1991, A LEAGUE EXECUTIVE MISPRONOUNCED HIS NAME AS “FAVOR.”

Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre famously spent his rookie season in Atlanta. When the Falcons nabbed him in the 1991 draft, the announcement was made by NFL executive Don Weiss, who mispronounced the last name of the future superstar. “Atlanta has selected Brett Favor, quarterback, Southern Mississippi,” Weiss said.

7. THEY WERE FANS OF M.C. HAMMER.

The 1991 Falcons chose M.C. Hammer’s “2 Legit 2 Quit” as their team anthem. That year, Hammer, who frequented Atlanta home games, gave wide receiver Andre Rison and cornerback Deion Sanders a cameo in the song’s official music video. Then-head coach Jerry Glanville made an…

So What Are Pillownauts

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Just because you’re not an astronaut, that doesn’t mean you can’t contribute to the space program. You don’t even have to get out of bed. Meet the “pillownauts.”

LOST IN SPACE

Today we take it for granted that astronauts can function in the weightlessness of spaceflight, but at the dawn of the space age in the early 1960s, scientists weren’t sure that was possible. Some experts feared that the shape of the human eye would become distorted in zero gravity, making it difficult for astronauts to see the gauges and controls they needed to operate their spacecraft. What about eating—would astronauts be able swallow their food without the assistance of gravity? And even if they could, would their bodies be able to digest it? If not, the length of a spaceflight might be limited to the amount of time an astronaut could go without eating.

These fears proved to be unfounded, but as the years passed and the duration of spaceflights increased from less than an hour to days, weeks, and eventually months, astronauts on longer missions began to experience physiological changes that were just as worrying to scientists. For each month they spent in weightlessness, astronauts lost as much as one percent of their bone density in the hips and other weight-bearing areas of their bodies, and as much as 3 percent of their muscle mass.

RISKY BUSINESS

Some of the first Soviet cosmonauts to spend more than 200 days in space in the early 1980s were unable to walk or even catch a ball after returning to Earth. They eventually recovered, but their experience raised the alarming possibility that if a mission was long enough, such as a three-year trip to Mars and back, an astronaut’s health might never recover. Computer models have predicted that astronauts on a mission to Mars could lose as much as half of their bone density, putting them at serious risk of bone fractures. They might land on Mars too fragile to function; if they broke a hip or some other bone on the red planet, they might die before they made it back home.

For this reason, NASA and other space agencies have been studying the effects of weightlessness on human health since the 1960s, both to better understand the changes that human bodies go through, and to test the efficacy of drugs, diet, exercise equipment, and other “counter-measures” in minimizing the deterioration. Much of this research has, of necessity, been conducted on Earth, where weightlessness is simulated in “bed rest” studies in which volunteers are confined to hospital beds 24 hours a day for as much as 120 days at a stretch. Many of the studies take place at NASA’s Flight Research Analog Unit (FARU) at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, about 50 miles from Mission Control in Houston.

DOUGH-NAUTS

Study volunteers, who’ve become known as “pillownauts,” are typically paid $10 an hour for every waking hour that they participate in a study. That may not sound like much, but it adds up: Since the pillownauts are awake 16 hours a day, they can earn more than $19,000 in a 120-day study that also provides free room and board.

And if you think getting paid $19,000 to lie around for months on end would appeal to a lot of people, you’re right: It’s not unheard of for a bed rest study to attract as many as 25,000 applicants. The pool is carefully screened to select the kinds of candidates that NASA wants to study, namely, people who, like the astronauts, are in excellent shape because they don’t spend a lot of time lying around. Pillownauts are required to be in top physical condition, and must pass some of the same physicals that the astronauts take. Applicants must be nonsmokers between the ages of 24 and 55. They cannot be taking prescription drugs for any chronic medical condition. These and other criteria, including background checks, psychological screening, and even credit checks, help to winnow the 25,000 applicants down to the final 30 or so who are accepted for each study.

…AND NOW THE FINE PRINT

Smoking bans and credit checks are just the beginning. Pillownauts aren’t allowed to consume alcohol or caffeine during the study, nor can they add salt to the bland hospital food that they will live on for the entire length of the study. And they must eat all of the hospital food they are served—no more and no less. That includes any and all condiments that are served with a meal. If a volunteer returns their salad with some of the dressing left in the plastic cup it came in, the cup will be returned to the volunteer so that they can slurp it down to the last drop. Unscheduled snacking isn’t allowed. Nor, for that matter, are conjugal visits or naps outside of scheduled sleeping times. Pillownauts are awakened every morning at 6:00 a.m. and must remain awake until lights out at 10:00 p.m.

THAT SINKING FEELING

The hospital beds used in bed rest studies aren’t level like ordinary beds. If the study is designed to simulate lunar gravity, which is about one-sixth that of Earth, the bed will be…