Space exploration once captured the world's imagination. In the 1960s and 1970s, children dreamed of satellites, lunar rovers, and walking on the moon. Today – decades after Sputnik, Neil Armstrong, and the Apollo missions – many children may not even know what a space capsule is.
Some of those children from the Space Race years, though, grew up to work at NASA. Public indifference be damned, those engineers are still dreaming of new ways of improving the wondrous technologies of yesteryear. If they have their way, one of the iconic symbols of that era – the space capsule – may have an upgrade on the horizon.
Rekindling an old idea
Researchers at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida are testing a rotor system that would let space capsules fly like helicopters. Originally proposed during the Apollo days, the idea had been abandoned in favor of easier (and cheaper) parachutes. The downside of parachutes, though, is that they require a water landing. So, today's NASA is reinvestigating.
A heli-capsule could land gently, and nearly anywhere. Imagine astronauts returning from a mission, guiding their capsule onto the roof of an office high-rise. Or perhaps they would softly land their vessel in a rural field. This level of control would provide a wider array of options for re-entry and landing.
The helicopter-like design wouldn't, however, be powered by an engine. The researchers are looking for ways to activate the capsule's blades without using any power. The idea is to use wind to activate the propellors – a concept that NASA says has been used in helicopters, but never in spacecrafts.
An engineer at Kennedy, Les Boatright, likens the project to modern mobile devices:
- "A hundred years ago, there were cameras and there were phones and there were wireless devices to send Morse code and they were all separate technologies on their own. Now you have a telephone that does all three of those things and it's a merger of technology. Well, this is taking the capsule entry technology and helicopter rotor technology and merging those in an innovative way to make something that didn’t exist before out of two things that did exist before."
The helicopter/capsule project is still in the early planning stages, so any real-world implementation could be years away. The next stage would be dropping one of the capsules from a high-altitude balloon (perhaps they could ask Felix Baumgartner). It may then be used for retrieving samples from the International Space Station before being added to bigger space missions.
A heli-capsule may not be enough to get a new generation of children dreaming about space, but it could make return landings a bit safer for some of those children of the 60s and 70s. You can read more on the project at the primary source below.