Home | The First Unmanned Egg Space Flight

The First Unmanned Egg Space Flight

story teller: 
Ed Zagorski
Date Collected: 

On February 201962, John Glenn, Jr., makes a three-orbit flight and becomes the first American in orbit. My entire class of sophomores enrolled in Basic Design is listening with rapt attention to the radio, broadcasting the exchanges being made by John Glenn and the NASA control room during his four-hour, momentous achievement. We also manage to hear the radio announce his successful re-entry into the atmosphere, the “splashdown,” and the retrieval from the ocean.

A subdued classroom expressed their disappointment afterward in not being able to participate in designing for future space exploration and wondered what they could possibly contribute when they graduated with a degree in industrial design. Little did anyone know that in 1968, Raymond Loewy and his design staff would participate actively with NASA working on Skylab and the earth-orbiter shuttle’s early conceptual design, and Loewy gets credit for insisting that Skylab have a window to look out of to reassure the astronauts that they were indeed in space.

The “seed” for a student exercise in space exploration had been set in my mind from the John Glenn broadcast and the students’ disappointment in not being able to participate in space problems. And so in the following year, and at the beginning of the spring semester, I announced to the class that we were going to design a space capsule but instead of using an astronaut for our precious cargo, we would use an uncooked chicken egg.

Knowing that students were the best source for formulating unique and original design problems or exercises, I proposed that we analyze the problems NASA faced in launching a human being in space. The entire class participated in this discussion and three problems emerged: 1 overcoming the initial shock forces as the capsule was catapulted from earth; 2 protection from the intense heat upon re-entry; and 3 protection from water after it landed in the ocean.

The first thing the students enthusiastically designed was the capsule launcher or catapult. We realized that a catapult would not produce a gradual increase of pressure as the space rockets did, and in fact it proved a more severe test of survival because the maximum force would be felt at the moment of lift-off—an unlikely choice for NASA’s consideration.  The catapult became a design problem in itself. We did have one student, Craig Vetter, who jumped in with both feet and became the catalyst for designing this modern update of a medieval weapon. Craig seemed to know what materials were needed and where to get them and took charge of the early experimental work.

Using two truck springs bolted together, it was quickly discovered that the force generated in cocking this catapult was great enough to shear ordinary bolts and would bend a triangular-built base made out of angel iron. Substituting aviation bolts and re-enforcing the base, as well as using gusset plates to prevent the catapult from digging into the ground upon release, they finally came up with the “monster” catapult.

They had welded an upright rod to the base end of the triangular platform with a hook that would hold the cocked, bent truck levers until the moment of release. There was so much concentrated force ready to be released that it took two men, one on each side of the triangular base, to hold it down with their feet. To make the bending of the truck levers easier and safer, they had bolted an extension made out of square aluminum tubing with the launching platform attached. It also took two men to bend the truck levers into the hook release. A fifth man was used to pull and release the trigger. Five men were needed for every launch. My role was to pray fervently that all would go well.

The catapult was capable of launching a capsule 200 feet into the air. The Art Museum’s reflecting pool [on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign], some fifteen inches in depth, became the landing area or “ocean.” One student, who owned a complete wet suit, including cap and goggles, became the retriever of the capsules after splash-down.

A separate fire test simulating re-entry was administered before launching. This consisted of a welding torch held six inches from the capsule for thirty seconds. This test insured that the material used for the capsule was fireproof.

The Space Capsules

We tried some experiments with the launcher. A raw egg placed on the platform and launched into space dissolved laterally and instantly, spraying everyone within five feet of the launcher. A heavy watermelon was lifted nine feet into the air before falling to the ground. Meanwhile, the students were busy designing their own individual capsules.

Because the catapult was cocked and held down until the proper count-down release moment, some students resorted to timed fuses that were set to explode a firecracker a the capsule’s apogee, releasing a parachute that would gently lower the protected egg into the pool. Using such cushioning devices as a wooden sphere filled with grease and a cocktail shaker lined with foam rubber and carpet padding, many landed their eggs in the water unbroken.

One student used two halves of a coconut shell with sheet rubber stretched across the openings of the two empty halves. The egg was securely sandwiched between the two rubber faces and the two pieces were clamped together securely. The device was compared favorably to that of a placenta’s function in human birth. Timed fuses were also used to explode and release flotation devices—for example, a ring of ping pong balls that would keep the capsule buoyant in the water. Others used timed fuses to release fins or wings to slow the descent into the water.

The champion of the day was a student who surpassed the requirements—with showmanship. His missile blew itself apart in midair with a timed firecracker, releasing a handful of tiny, silk American flags, and a parachute that gently lowered into the pool a capsule containing the egg packed in gelatin and peat moss. When the capsule touched the water, the moisture melted an aspirin tablet holding apart two electrical contacts, and a tiny electric motor powered the craft to the edge of the reflecting pool.

Since all our experiments and final launchings took place in front of the Krannert Art Museum, the Museum Director notified Life magazine of what was taking place and they sent photographer Art Shea to cover the space experiment. Three pages of our launchings appeared in the April 12, 1963 issue of Life Magazine. Since those forty-seven years ago, almost every engineering school in the country has given their students the Classic Egg Drop as a problem in protective packaging or as a way of making the teaching of physics dramatic as well as educational.

One science teacher attending a summer workshop at Richmond College arrived with his solution, his egg surrounded by raspberry Jell-O in a Styrofoam mold kept chilled by ice cubes. The challenge was to drop it on a concrete parking lot from 120 feet above ground. When his turn came, some two hours later, the Jell-O had turned to liquid and as the teacher’s broken egg had demonstrated, liquids transmit the shock of impact rather than reduce it.

I have received newspaper clippings from around the country, as well as from overseas, depicting the Egg Drop, including one story of the problem being given to a group of children in kindergarten! One of the more dramatic drops used by engineering student was the use of a hot air balloon to carry the capsules or packaging to an appropriate height and then throwing all of the solutions overboard.

No one has ever attempted to duplicate the “monster” catapult that we used, and almost all have simply dropped their egg packages from various heights, usually from rooftops or open windows in tall buildings.

It would have been interesting in the initial experiment to have used fertilized eggs and after the successful competition of the launch or drop, to put them back into the incubator to see whether the embryos survived. I wonder whether some of the chickens would look pretty goofy, having survived an unbroken shell with all hell breaking loose on the inside.

This brings up a point in automotive design. Will a seat belt and a dozen air bags prevent the human brain from coming loose from its moorings inside the skull during a terrific head-on collision?

Another Variation of the Egg Drop

Don Krumin, a former student from the 1969s, was working for Motorola down in Florida when our egg space flight project appeared in Life magazine. Don had just promoted to head up the design department that had been focusing heavily upon a walkie-talkie version of the telephone. They were already in use in the military and law enforcement organizations. The telephones were quite bulky, and they were concerned with the problems of shock and water resistance, as well as a shape that would be easy to handle. After seeing the article in Life magazine, Don wondered if I could suggest some sort of zany egg problem that he could assign his design team that would address the shock and water problem that his telephones were having. He would allow just a day for this off-the-wall experiment to get his colleagues loosened up by forgetting their mind-sets and their serious goals, and to just have a lot of fun coming up with some improvised solutions.

I sent Don the following letter:


Congrats on your promotion in Motorola—your responsibilities and authority keep increasing—how about your financial rewards?

The videotapes I promised are on their way—I know you will enjoy showing the film Gizmo to your colleagues as a warm up for improbable inventions. Please return the tapes as soon as you run through them.

Have your colleagues design a package for a raw egg that can be carried like you would a walkie-talkie. Have him live with it for a full day carrying it with him at all times. I’ll make some suggestions and let you put it together into a scenario. Your concern for shock and water resistance and reference to an “egg drop” suggests to me that a package could be built to protect the egg from both shock and water. Have your designers drop their packages into a bowl of water (BIG bowl!) from a good height and call it egg drop soup or wonton. If they manage to hit the bowl of water they must let it soak or float for at least 15 minutes before removing. Maybe all should drop their packaged egg, one after another in order to increase the hazard of hitting one another’s package, which might pose additional considerations in their design.

Your designers might want to consider flotation devices as well as waterproofing. What the hell! Put the bowl of soup on a burner and wait until it boils before dropping—another consideration—that of protection from heat. After all, aren’t some of your Motorola projects subject to heat as well as shock and water?

Then add the kicker. Use fertilized eggs. Return the eggs to the incubator (mark them) and see which ones survive. Treat all the participants to a dinner at Colonel Sanders or wonton soup, or bird’s nest soup, or egg drop soup. While they are at the Chinese restaurant have them buy two Chinese fortune cookies—have them eat one. Then have the men remove the fortune from the second one, re-insert their own original fortune (related to design) such as “Help stamp out sand castings.” Or “Designers do it with electric erasers,” and send them to me. I will judge them on whether they arrived in one piece (function) and the beauty of the package inside and out. The inside should also be part of a display device; in other words the cookie should look like and elegant trophy or symbol. They could have a relevant, imaginative time working out elegant folded devices that would permit this (aesthetics and function). We’ll also judge the fortune and record the amount of postage spent (economy)—keep the package as light and as small as possible.

Solar Energy

This problem may not be one that interests you, but since you’re in the sun-loving State of Florida, consider this one: Develop a simple solar collector using foil, hyperbolic shapes, and so on, to generate enough heat to boil water for three minutes—enough water and time to boil a three-minute egg. We’re back to eggs again. But it doesn’t end here. Once the designer sets his device in the sun, he cannot touch it again until the egg is done. A timing device has to be designed to lower the egg into the water as soon as it reaches the boiling point. Design another timing device that will remove the egg or stop the boiling after there minutes. And design a signal that will let the designer know it’s ready.

Simple? Rots-a-ruck. This is one for your engineers. We tried this one here in Champaign but limited our challenge to just changing a wiener into a HOT-dog. We managed to eat a few. When you’re dealing with water, as in the first solar problem described above, think of harnessing that steam as a functioning aspect of timing.

Hope this helps and let me know what happens

Ed Zagorski

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