Toasted Sandwiches In Space

lift off: a Titan-Centaur rocket
Lift off: a Titan-Centaur rocket (NASA)

ON THE 20 AUGUST IN 1977 an ugly rocket drew a smoky curved line in the sky, starting as a noisy flash at the launchpad at Cape Canaveral into a blink somewhere out to sea, off and out into the solar system for Science. “Ugly” is a kind word for it; a Centaur-Titan combination looks, sadly, like nothing else than the kind of phallic symbol you see chiselled into toilet doors all over the world. Take one big liquid-fuelled rocket designed to lob bombs across the Arctic (the Titan stage), strap two generic solid-fuel boosters onto the sides to get it off the ground in the first place, then onto the top add another big rocket to speed a robot up to escape velocity (the Centaur stage). It’s the kind of rocket that you set off underneath the ugly tree, expecting it to hit every branch on the way up. If Moe Syzlak were a rocket engineer, this would have been the lets-strap-together-a-bunch-of-rockets-to-make-one-big-rocket rocket he’d have come up with.

So off it went, whoosh, into the beyond, loaded with instruments and cameras and such. It’s had a look at the planets, it’s taken some good pictures. Every year or two through my childhood it seemed to get onto the news as it flew by a planet. It was even in that cheesy space movie with the bloke with the fake ears and the bowl cut. Nowadays it’s in the gentle retirement of public service technology, coasting gently—well, blisteringly fast, but who’s counting actual velocities—into deep space, away from the solar system.

Some day it might even be picked up by extra-terrestrial intelligence, and when they get their alien tin openers and peel back the lid of the probe, what will they find? A golden record, Jimmy Carter’s Wonka-style golden ticket back to Earth. There’s quaint ethnic music, there are anatomical pictures, there are technical diagrams of the planets and the solar system. And there are, dear alien, pictures of Earth’s dominant intelligent lifeform demonstrating our consumption of food.

Three people demonstrating licking, eating and drinking. A woman licks an icecream, a man drinks out of a glass bottle and a man bites a toasted sandwich.
Demonstration of eating, licking and drinking. (NASA)

Should space-travellers ever encounter Voyager 2 they will be treated to pictures of a woman inconveniently positioned to the side of the frame suggestively licking an ice-cream, a man in an awesome long-sleeved shirt drinking out of a porrón and a balding man concentrating on a toasted cheese sandwich like a musician mid-concerto.

The Cold War of two blocs competing to design different ways to deliver bombs onto each others’ territory was wasteful. We all know that. It was a misallocation of economic resources and human effort so colossally and gigantically profligate that we got modern PCs, satellite technology, the Internet, WD40 and the twentieth-century space programme as cheap by-products that could be sent out to the rest of the human economy on the side. All of those things are pretty great, if you just don’t think about the monstrous economic opportunity cost. It’s a bit odd to think that the spray I use to unstick corroded bolts was originally bought to keep water away from a missile designed to turn western Russia into radioactive glass. There’s a core of massive stupidity to the whole history of rocket flight and space exploration.

But I think in the selection of the humble croque monsieur as a central human meal, the collators of the Golden Record got it right. A toasted sandwich is a pretty great dish. You take two pieces of bread, fill it with stuff, and heat it until it’s brown. From toasties to kebabs to tacos it’s almost infinitely variable in makeup. You probably haven’t offended any of the major religions’ dietary requirements in putting it together, you don’t need many more tools than a hot surface, and you can have an argument with other people about what constitutes the best set of ingredients.

For the record, it’s fancy cheddar, cherry tomatoes and mustard.



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Fyodor · 17 April 2012, 13:38 · #

Oh, I dunno.

Hard to go past Korolyov’s Semyorka for sheer brutish efficiency, a design so robust it’s still the basis for the R-7/Soyuz generations.

Watch for the distinctive “Korolyov Cross” at 2:16 in the below, as the four booster rockets separate from the core:

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This Is Ground Control · 17 April 2012, 14:49 · #

You’ve made my afternoon, Major Tom. What a video.

Although I would dispute the implication that the Soyuz series are ugly—they’re rather elegant, I think. Lots of little nozzles.

As for ugly rockets, alas, my nomination for ugliest rocket is home grown.


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