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Texas Trails

published: December 10th 2021
by: Clay Coppedge

El Kabong goes to space
    For a while, El Kabong was more than the secret identity of Quick Draw McGraw on Saturday morning TV cartoons. El Kabong was the name of a project seriously trying to figure out a way to get people back to earth from space.
    Both the cartoon and the El Kabong space capsule are relics from the 1960s, which kicked off with President John F. Kennedy declaring that America would dedicate itself to landing a man on the moon and bringing him back to earth before the end of the decade as a matter of both national pride and defense. America’s Cold War enemy, Russia, beat the U.S. into space. America determined to win the race for the moon.
    The decision to send humans to the moon – and hopefully back – created a world of problems and obstacles for the country’s best and brightest scientific minds. Among those was how to bring a space capsule and its occupants back to earth and where on earth to bring them.
     In 1963, NASA scientists went to Fort Hood to conduct experiments with landing the spacecraft on land instead of splashing into the sea as was the custom. They used a scaled-down Gemini capsule that weighed about 400 pounds (the real thing weighed about 5,000 pounds). The mini experiments went well enough that they decided to try it out with a full-scale model.
    The would-be space capsule called El Kabong used a parasail-landing rocket system by which a parasail, or parachute, was steered by radio command to operate motors that controlled flap angles on the parachute to steer the capsule to its appointed landing spot. When altitude sensors on the bottom of the capsule touched the ground, two 6,000-pound thrust motors automatically ignited to reduce the speed of the falling capsule from 30 feet a second to less than 10.
    El Kabong was first dropped from an Air Force Reserve C-119 from an altitude of 11,500 feet at Fort Hood on April 21, 1965, but it landed on its side. NASA engineer Lee Nor-man remained optimistic about the concept.  “Some-thing broke several of the suspension lines to the main canopy,” he explained to reporters. A second attempt had to be stopped because the lines that were supposed to guide the capsule got damaged and the capsule couldn’t be steered.
    The third time was the charm. A successful drop and landing occurred 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. “As far as I can tell, everything worked 100 percent.” 
    In the end, NASA decided that bringing capsules back to sea was working fine, so why change it? El Kabong was relegated first to the Michigan Space and Science Center, where it suffered from 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 to its original shine and, under the guidance of the Smithsonian, put it on display to the public where it remains today.

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