Not All Launches Are Smooth

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Yet; some are worse than others, and we have to keep things in perspective. I would submit that the January 17, 1997, launch of the Delta II rocket carrying a GPS satellite was one of the worst launches ever.


As the rocket rose 1,500 feet above the ground, things went bad.

The Air Force announcer gets the Understatement of the Year Award for declaring this gigantic fireball “an anomaly,” and later stating that “a major problem has occurred.”

Over 20 cars were melted, tons of flaming debris rained down from the sky, and poison gas clouds covered the launch area. The clouds of gas shown after the explosion were hydrochloric acid, and residents in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and other towns miles away were ordered to stay inside, close all doors and windows and turn off all air conditioners. The concussion from the blast set off car alarms 20 miles away.

Amazingly, no one was killed or seriously injured in this incident. Now THAT was a bad launch!

What Walks Down Stairs, Alone Or In Pairs, And Makes A Slinkity Sound?

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No, the answer is not Steely Dan, but the steely Slinky toy! Invented by an Naval engineer (by accident) at a Philly shipyard in 1943, it has become an icon over the years. Originally sold for a buck, it now goes for $5.95 or so on Amazon.com. The inventor sold 100 million of the things in the first two years after he finally got toy stores to carry them. Here’s a Popular Science article from 1945:

A Slinky consists of 98 coils of high-grade Swedish spring steel and is 2-1/2 inches high. In Viet Nam, the Army used them as emergency antennas for their short-wave radios. They are the official state toy of Pennsylvania, and they are alluded to in a lot of books and movies. My favorite reference, of course, is this one from the second Ghostbusters movie, where Egon describes his strange childhood:

Dr. Ray Stantz: “You mean you never even had a Slinky?
Dr. Egon Spengler: “We had part of a Slinky. But I straightened it.”

NASA has had fun fiddling with Slinkys in space, where they have strange properties unknown to us on this planet. Because a high-frequency sound wave travels faster than a low-frequency one, a Slinky makes a cool swooshy/boingy sound if you hold it vertically and hit the bottom end with a drumstick; the sound is so unusual that avant-garde composer John Cage used it in a 1959 symphony called Sounds of Venice. And I’ve heard a foley artist used a Slinky to make that laser-blaster sound in Star Wars.

Here’s an ad for the Slinky from a 1953 Abbott and Costello comic book; it appears to have been drawn by the artist who did the Dubble-Bubble chewing-gum ads: