February 25, 1985
Mr. David Levy
Dear Mr. Levy:
Your recent letter to Mr. James Beggs ask whether the Apollo (and previous era spacecraft) "splashdown"
recovery technique owes anything to George Méliès film Le Voyage dans la lune
. Although the
similarities are striking, the recovery technique used for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules was
dictated more by the then-current engineering capabilities than any imaginative interplay between the
engineers and Monsieur Méliès.
The capabilities of using small, retro firing rockets fro "braking" a spacecraft descent were
very limited in the late 1950s through the mid-1970s when we used this technique to very good advantage
on the Viking spacecraft, which landed on Mars in 1976.
The reentry technique developed for the Mercury and subsequent generation "capsule" spacecraft
was predicated on using parachutes to slow the craft's velocity to a speed [that] would be tolerable for
a "soft" landing in a large "shock absorber" system such as the oceans or a lake. The seats used in
these capsules were designed to provide additional "shock" absorption for the occupant. Even still, the
reentry force of gravity (G) experienced by Mercury, Gemini and Apollo era astronauts was often in excess
of five Gs. One G is the equivalent of jumping off a a 12-foot-high fence or building and landing on the
ground. You can imagine the type of shock absorption systems [that] were required for our astronauts
during these flights.
But, this system was still easier, more reliable and safer (given the various shock absorption
systems used) than landing on a land surface. The Soviet space program has developed the necessary
capabilities to land on the hard surface of their eastern homeland. Additional consideration was given at
the time of the Mercury and Gemini programs to the vast expanses of ocean which were available for our
use as well as the extensive capabilities of the U.S. Navy in assisting the recovery of these spacecraft.
Our next generation design -the Space Shuttle- was conceived and planned from the start for a
"wheels down" approach to reentry and landing and as you know has performed admirably in this regard.
Your suggestion isn't as "all wet" as you might believe. The capabilities of the engineering at
the time of Méliès film had not been totally eclipsed half-a-century later when the Mercury and Gemini
systems were being designed and built. Another example of science being more interesting than science
Charles R. Redmond
Public Affairs Officer
Office of Space Flight