Issue #2(4) 2015 Lounge

Astronauts having a laugh

Leon Rosenblum Space historian

Some funny stories have come to light from US Space exploration of the early 1970s. It was the time of lunar missions and flights to the orbiting space station, Skylab. A simple but amusing trick was played on Eugene Cernan, the Commander of the Apollo-17 Mission, who was to be the eleventh man to walk on the Moon.

Shortly before the mission left for the Moon, Cernan was due speak at a press conference about the forthcoming mission. This meant leaving early from a reception given in his honour by the head of the launch team.

Just before eight o’clock in the evening, Cernan made his excuses, jumped into his open-top Chevrolet and started it up. However the place where the car was parked was sandy, and it would not move. The astronaut revved and revved, the wheels spun furiously, but still the car refused to budge. Cernan tried reverse, but the same thing happened. He was stuck in the sand. He was worried, because he was supposed to be in the Kennedy Centre at eight o’clock. He made one last effort, but the car just would not move.

One of the launch team called out to him: “Hey, buddy! You think you can get to the Moon? You can’t even get your automobile out of the sand!”

Cernan shouted back, “Asshole! You guys can send me to the Moon but you can’t even pull me out of the sand?!”

Finally, someone else chipped in: “Hey, Gene! Why don’t you just get rid of the bricks?”

Cernan looked down and saw that his Chevy was standing on bricks…

While Cernan was at the reception, the Head of the Launch Team, Guenter Wendt, had jacked up his car and put it on the bricks.

Astronaut Owen Garriott, seen here during a spacewalk outside Skylab, persuaded NASA Mission Control that he’d smuggled his wife onboard the space station.

Hello Houston

“… You guys can send me to the Moon but you can’t even pull me out of the sand?!”

The prize for the best trick ever played in Space, though, goes to Owen Garriott, who was a member of the Skylab crew in 1973. This one’s gone down in the annals of space humour.

The Capsule Communicator, Bob Crippen, an astronaut himself and later a pilot of the space shuttle, made a routine call to Skylab.

“Skylab, this is Houston. Over.” He was shocked to hear a woman’s voice answer in sexy tones, “Well, hello, Houston, this is Skylab.”

After a stunned pause, Crippen asked, “Ah… this is Houston. Who’s that?”

“Hi, Bob”, answered the woman’s sultry tones. “This is Helen, Owen’s wife.”

Crippen struggled to get his head around what he was hearing. He finally asked, “Er… what are you doing there?”

The woman’s voice answered calmly, “The boys haven’t had a home-cooked meal in so long I thought I’d bring one up.” The voice went on to talk about forest fires seen from Space, and the beautiful sunrise. She then said, “Uh, oh. I have to cut off now. I think the boys are floating up here toward the command module and I’m not supposed to be talking to you.”

There was silence from the Houston end. After a minute or so, Houston cut the line without another word. It was only when they re-established contact after a pause that the truth was revealed: Garriott had had his wife say a few phrases during a private radio transmission the previous night, and had recorded them to play to Houston as if it were a conversation!

Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan managed to get to the Moon but not before he had trouble getting his car out of the ‘sand’.

The universal women

But Mrs Garriott also took part in a trick on her husband. As with all American spaceflights, Owen Garriott’s flight to Skylab had its own official badge, featuring Leonardo da Vinci’s classical figure of “the universal man” reaching out on the one side to the Earth, and on the other to the Sun. This reflected the main objective of the mission: to study the Earth and the Sun. Around the edge of the badge were the names of the crew: Bean, Garriott, Lousma.

Jacques Tiziou, a journalist living close to Cape Canaveral, came up with the idea of taking the official badge but swapping Leonardo’s figure of a man for the figure of a woman; and the names of the astronauts for the names of their wives: Sue (Bean); Helen-Mary (Garriott); and Gratia (Lousma).

He was shocked to hear a woman’s voice answer in sexy tones, “Well, hello, Houston, this is Skylab.”

Ardis Shanks, an artist who had given Alan Bean drawing lessons and knew the Garriotts, was asked to draw the figure of the “Universal Lady”. Ardis and Jacques planned the badge, and the three astronauts’ wives kept the secret.

It was only when the crew arrived at Skylab and opened the container with their personal equipment that they saw the “Wives’ Badge” stuck to the inside of the door. The men were delighted, seeing it as the perfect symbol of the motto of the mission: “Never lose your sense of humour”.

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