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  Texas : Features : Columns : "Letters from Central Texas"

THE TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS OF EL KABONG

by Clay Coppedge

If a few well-intentioned experiments had worked out a little bit better than they did, Fort Hood might have a place in the history of space exploration to go along with its long-standing military reputation.

Not only that, but the term "El Kabong" might have survived in popular culture as something of a scientific term instead of the signature line of a 1960s TV cartoon series.

In 1960, President John F. Kennedy declared that the country should dedicate itself to landing a man on the moon and bringing him back safely to earth by the end of the decade.

That pronouncement, made in the midst of the Cold War, sent the best and brightest scientific minds of the country scrambling to accommodate the President and country's goal.

The Russians had sent a cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin into space in 1957 but Kennedy was determined to beat the Russians to the moon as a matter of pride and military advantage.

Such a lofty goal required a certain amount of trial and error. A portion of that trial and error took place at Fort Hood, beginning in 1963 when NASA scientists arrived at the base to experiment with bringing a spacecraft and its astronauts back to earth instead of sea, as was the accepted practice.

Scientists used a scaled-down Gemini capsule during the first two years of testing. The dummy capsule weighed about 400 pounds, or 4,600 pounds less than the real things. Tests with the miniature model went well enough to encourage NASA to test a full-scale model.

The theory of bringing the capsule back to earth instead of sea centered on the use of a parasail-landing rocket system, which might sound simple but is anything but.

The parasail, or parachute, was steered by radio command to operate motors on the capsule. The motors controlled flap angles on the parachute used to steer the direction of the drift.

Altitude sensors suspended below the spacecraft were designed to touch the earth before the spacecraft did, which then ignited two 6,000-pound thrust motors that reduced the speed of the falling capsule from 30 feet a second to less than 10. The capsule landed on a tricycle landing gear and everybody aboard the spacecraft was to live happily ever after, or at the very least they were to live.

The capsule, dubbed El Kabong for reasons that are open to speculation, was dropped from an Air Force Reserve C-119 from an altitude of 11,500 feet at Fort Hood on April 21, 1965. The initial test did not have a happy ending; the capsule landed on its side.

Lee Norman with NASA said he wasn't happy about the test but added that the less-than-successful test was not a failure of concept.

"Something broke several of the suspension lines to the main canopy," he explained.

A trip back to the drawing board resulted in an improved turn motor but the second drop, made while Gemini 4 was circling the earth, did not go well either. Damage to the lines that guide the capsule on its way to earth forced Norman to stop the sequence because he could not guide the chute.

The third time was the charm. A successful drop and landing was made on July 31, 1965 when the capsule landed within 40 feet of its target on Fort Hood's Antelope Mound tank range.

"We've got a winner!" an ebullient Norman cried when the capsule landed upright on its tricycle landing gear.

"This is the first successful landing (of a spacecraft) in this country!" he told reporters. "As far as I can tell, everything worked 100 percent."

That might have been the last hurrah for El Kabong. The tests continued, not always successfully, but in the end NASA opted to continue bringing its space capsules back to sea instead of earth.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum acquired El Kabong. In 1977 it was loaned to the Michigan Space and Science Center, where it was left none the better for wear for its exposure to the elements. The Michigan center eventually put it into storage, for its own good.

In 2003, the National Air and Space Museum loaned El Kabong to the Air Zoo in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Air Zoo volunteers and staff restored El Kabong and, under the guidance of the Smithsonian, put it on display to the public.

In those heady days of the mid-60s, it was hard to imagine that El Kabong would end its days in a zoo.


Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
October 5 , 2007 Column

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