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.
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,"
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.
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."
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
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"
5 , 2007 Column
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