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Tomorrowland, Dr. Clark, and the Mercury Program

Stephen Schmitt

December 10, 2012

Walt Disney’s series “Tomorrowland” (now on youTube) featuring Werner von Braun explaining how to build a space station and send explorers to the Moon and to Mars probably started my interest in the new frontier. His Mars vehicles were nuclear powered and electrically propelled. During the mercury program, a neighbor, Dr. Carl Clark, worked at the nearby Naval Air Development Center on solving the problem of protecting the mercury astronauts from the extreme g forces that they would experience from reentry deceleration. NADC had a human centrifuge on which some of the mercury astronauts were trained. Dr. Clark explained the equation for calculating the g-force that a centrifuge produces. I developed an obsession for mathematics and science. At a family backyard barbecue, he demonstrated one concept by dropping a glass of water in which floated an egg, representing the astronaut, from a height of about 10 feet; the egg did not break. Another time, he had myself and one of his sons, Roger, jumping off of a chair and a kitchen counter while holding an accelerometer (it looked like an aircraft instrument) to see how many g’s we could tolerate. Dr. Clark also took us on trips to the Franklin Institute’s Fels planetarium. Then I bought an Edmund scientific 3-inch reflector telescope with saved allowance money on a trip to Barrington, NJ. It was fascinating to see craters on the moon, phases of Venus, Galilean satellites of Jupiter, Mars, and other sites from my back yard. Possibly, there are many indirect national benefits from the space program. The early exposure to science and mathematics helped me get into an engineering program and Navy ROTC at a very good college. The Navy was looking for people with academic backgrounds like mine to serve in its nuclear propulsion program for submarines. There were others like me influenced by the space program. I volunteered and participated in several deployments. One was to the Barents Sea on a mission similar to that of the fictional ship USS Dallas in “Hunt for Red October.” A book titled “Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage” describes more accurately this mission.


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