From left: Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, Christopher Craft of the Mercury Operations Division, Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, and Alan Shepard.
From left: Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, Christopher Craft of the Mercury Operations Division, Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, and Alan Shepard.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Were You Meant to Be an Astronaut? Try Passing NASA's Project Mercury Intelligence Test

From left: Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, Christopher Craft of the Mercury Operations Division, Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, and Alan Shepard.
From left: Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, Christopher Craft of the Mercury Operations Division, Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, and Alan Shepard.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1958, NASA launched Project Mercury, its first manned space program. To have a manned space program, of course, it had to have astronauts. The men who would take part in the six Mercury flights were the first of their kind—in fact, the project even introduced the word "astronaut" as the term for American space explorers.

How did NASA choose the men for the team? Through a rigorous battery of tests, according to Popular Science, that measured their physical, psychological, and intellectual fitness for the job. The magazine recently recreated a small subset of those tests that you can take to see just how fit you might have been for the project.

The five tests Popular Science excerpts are only a fraction of what finalists had to endure. Out of 508 military pilots initially screened for inclusion, NASA hoped to find six astronauts who were the healthiest, smartest, most committed, and most psychologically stable men they could locate. After months of testing, they had such a hard time narrowing it down that they ended up choosing seven instead. Here’s how NASA describes just a small sliver of the process:

In addition to pressure suit tests, acceleration tests, vibration tests, heat tests, and loud noise tests, each candidate had to prove his physical endurance on treadmills, tilt tables, with his feet in ice water, and by blowing up balloons until exhausted. Continuous psychiatric interviews, the necessity of living with two psychologists throughout the week, and extensive self-examination through a battery of 13 psychological tests for personality and motivation, and another dozen different tests on intellectual functions and special aptitudes—these were all part of the week of truth.

In the end, seven were left: Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Wally Schirra, and Deke Slayton. Could you have been one of them? Well, you may not be able to test out your endurance in a pressure suit, but you can take a few of the psychological tests, including ones on spatial visualization, mechanical comprehension, hidden figures, progressive matrices, and analogies.

To test your skills, head over to our pals at Popular Science.

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From left: Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, Christopher Craft of the Mercury Operations Division, Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, and Alan Shepard.
Why Do Astronauts Use Space Pens Instead of Pencils?

by Alex Carter

It's often said that NASA spent millions of dollars developing a pen that could write in zero gravity, while the Russians just used pencils. It was a warning about looking for a high-tech solution to a mundane problem, of American excess vs. Russian sensibility.

It's also entirely false.

To understand why NASA was so keen on a workable space pen, you have to understand that the pencil is not suited for space travel. The problem is that they have a habit of breaking, shattering, and leaving graphite dust behind. The wood, too, can make it a serious fire risk in the pressurized, oxygen-rich capsule. All of these common issues become life-threatening hazards in space.

Still, there were attempts to bring pencils into space. In 1965, the agency famously ordered 34 specially designed mechanical pencils in hopes of finding the perfect writing tool for astronauts. But at $128 each, they weren't exactly cheap, and it only got worse when the public got wind of the price. Thankfully, an alternative was not too far behind.

Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
NASA

The Space Pen was invented by Paul Fisher, head of Fisher Pen Company. Unlike a typical pen, the Fisher Space Pen uses compressed nitrogen to force ink out of the nozzle, instead of using gravity to make it flow. This made it the ideal device for writing in space, while upside down, or submerged underwater. It wrote crisp and clean, without the safety concerns of a pencil.

Fisher contacted NASA to give his pens a try in 1965 and in 1967, after months of testing, they were impressed enough to bulk buy 400 of them for future missions. Contrary to those urban legends, NASA didn't commission the pen or contribute any funding to it. The Soviets soon ditched their grease pencils and were eventually buying the same Fisher pens as NASA, too. The price? After a 40 percent discount from Fisher, both space agencies were paying $2.39 a pen.

The Fisher Space Pens made their debut in 1968 on the Apollo 7 mission and have been involved in all manned missions since.

So, the short reason is that astronauts only used pencils when they were waiting for something better to come along. As soon as it did, they switched and never looked back. Even the Russians thought it was a good idea.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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From left: Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, Christopher Craft of the Mercury Operations Division, Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, and Alan Shepard.
iStock
New Study Says We Could Be Alone in the Universe
iStock
iStock

There's a good chance that humans are the only intelligent life in the galaxy, according to a new study submitted to the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A. As Quartz reports, researchers at Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute applied existing knowledge of biology, chemistry, and cosmology to the Drake equation (below). It was created by astronomer Frank Drake in 1961 as an attempt to calculate the number of intelligent civilizations that could be in our galaxy. He included factors like the average rate of star formation and the average lifespan of intelligent civilizations.

Image showing text of the Drake equation and explaining what each variable means
Equation: University of Rochester; Image: Hannah McDonald

They estimate there’s a 53 to 99.6 percent chance we’re alone in the galaxy, and a 39 to 85 percent chance we’re the only intelligent life to be found in the entire universe.

“Where are they?” the researchers ask, referring to the classic Fermi Paradox, which asserts that intelligent extraterrestrial beings exist and that they should have visited Earth by now. “Probably extremely far away, and quite possibly beyond the cosmological horizon and forever unreachable.”

Seth Shostak doesn’t buy it. Shostak is senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, a research organization that analyzes radio signals for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. Part of the challenge with mathematical modeling like this, Shostak says, is that the data are limited; scientists just haven’t looked at very many star systems.

“I could walk outside here in Mountain View, California and not see too many hippos strolling the streets,” he tells Mental Floss. “But it would be incorrect for me to say on that rather limited basis that there’s probably no hippos anywhere. It’s a big conclusion to make on the basis of a local observation.”

Moreover, they may not even know what to look for in the solar systems they have reviewed. The SETI Institute examines radio communications and light signals, but there’s always the possibility that an intelligent civilization has attempted to contact us using means we may not have developed or even considered yet.

The Fermi Paradox itself may be naïve in its understanding of the universe, Shostak says. “You could have said the same thing about Antarctica in the 1700s. A lot of people wondered, ‘Is there a continent down there?’ On the one hand, you could argue there was [a continent], and on the other hand, you could say, ‘Look, there’s an awful lot of water in the Pacific and the Atlantic, and there’s no continents there, so why should there be one at the bottom of the ocean?’”

In other words, any conclusions about the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence are likely to be presumptive, made before any solid data is released or discovered. The truth may be out there, Shostak says. We just haven’t found it yet.

[h/t Quartz]

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