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Four Far-Out NASA Programs

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We all know what the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) does—or do we? Even though the agency’s primary objective is space exploration, it’s involved in many quirky programs here on Earth, too … like these four unlikely areas of research, from sleep to the iPhone.


1. Sleep for Money
Working too hard for too little money? Well, in May 2008, you could have gone to Houston, where NASA would have paid you $17,000 to stay in bed for ninety days straight as part of its bed rest experiment in Johnson Space Center’s Human Test Subject Facility.


The experiment’s goal was to study the effects of microgravity, or weightlessness, on the human body. Participants spent ninety days lying in bed with their bodies slightly tilted, heads down, feet up. Every day, they were awake for sixteen hours and asleep for eight, with no physical activity.


Aside from the boredom, lying in bed isn’t the best—or healthiest—way to make money; muscles atrophy and bones lose density from inactivity. But learning what long-term bed rest does to a healthy body, and how to offset its detrimental effects, will prove useful for astronauts who spend extended periods in space, and even sick people who lose mobility.


2. Puffins in Flight
When I was a kid, I thought having a jetpack would be really cool. I could get anywhere I needed to go in no time, just by lifting off the ground. Back then, my daydreams seemed too futuristic to become reality. But now, engineers at NASA have designed a zippy little vehicle called the Puffin, which they unveiled on Thursday, January 21, 2010, at the American Helicopter Society meeting in San Francisco, California.


The Puffin got its name because it looks very awkward, with wings too small to fly, according to Mark Moore, an aerospace engineer at NASA Langley Research Center. It’s designed to stand on its tail, which serves as the landing gear, and carries one person in the prone position. Its rotors are nearly 7.5 feet in diameter, and its wingspan is just over thirteen feet. Because the Puffin is built of carbon composite, it weighs no more than four hundred pounds, including its lithium phosphate batteries.


Once the Puffin transitions to horizontal flight, it can cruise at more than 140 miles per hour, with a boost speed of nearly 300 miles per hour. It’s electric, with a projected range of fifty miles on a charge. That limited distance makes it too impractical to use, for the moment, but give NASA some time to work out the kinks. I never even thought we’d have jetpacks, and the Puffin seems way cooler.


3. Space in Your Pocket
In October 2009, NASA jumped on the iPhone bandwagon and launched an app that allows users to search thumbnail grids of the agency’s photo collections. Conduct a “nebula” or “mass ejection” search, then email photos to friends or save them to your phone for nerdy-cool wallpaper images. You can also watch NASA TV videos, get mission updates via Twitter, watch live-countdown clocks, and pinpoint the International Space Station or space shuttle with Google Earth. Forget the world at your fingertips—we now have access to the entire universe.


4. Out-of-This-World Intercourse
Since the Lisa Marie Nowak case, much of the public’s focus on NASA has centered on astronauts’ sex lives. Nowak was the United States naval officer and former NASA astronaut who was arrested for the attempted kidnapping of another astronaut over a love triangle gone wrong. I always thought astronauts were so conservative and scientific—I mean, how do you even have sex with all that gear on?


Apparently, that’s the question many researchers are now trying to answer. Though spokesman Bill Jeffs states that NASA itself has no official policy about sex in space, other researchers and speculators are plenty interested in the topic.


Science journalist Laura Woodmansee, author of Sex in Space, writes that the key to successful intercourse in space is about managing a microgravity environment. She writes a Kama Sutra for the universe, coming up with new positions and ways to use props that take advantage of weightlessness.


Who cares about the moon? Let’s hope NASA gets the hint and applies all that engineering talent to our bedrooms.


Far Out, Yet Close to Home
I’ve always wondered what NASA astronauts do in their spare time. After all, smart men and women like that aren’t going to be watching Family Guy in their underwear. How do they occupy themselves when they’re not planning space missions? Perhaps now we know the answer: they’re coming up with wild and cool things for those of us here on Earth.

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