Answer to Map #93

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Answer: This week’s map, which was created by David P., was a dot map showing the places where every manned space mission has returned to earth.

Most dots on this map are in extremely sparsely populated areas. One such area is the steppes of central Kazakhstan, which were the center of first the Soviet and then the Russian space programs. Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan is still a major launch site for Russian rockets. China’s much smaller space program also relies on sparsely populated areas for landing sites, especially the Gobi Desert.

By contrast, the American space program initially designed missions so that astronauts would “splashdown” in the open ocean. Several of the hints to this week’s map referred to the splashdown of John Glenn to the northeast of the Dominican Republic following his successful orbit of the earth in 1962. The main math problem underlying the film Hidden Figures was the need to calculate where Glenn’s space capsule would return to earth so that a ship from the U.S. Navy could go retrieve him.

Subsequently, after NASA developed the space shuttle program, most American spacecraft began landing on land. From 1981 to 1991, the main landing site was at Edwards Air Force Base in California; thereafter, the primary landing site was at Florida’s Cape Canaveral, near where the shuttles were launched. Both of these places have been the sites for many landings, but on a dot map they appear from far away as a single dot. The other dot in the United States is at the White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico, which is one of many backup landing locations that could be used in special circumstances. On March 30, 1982, Edwards Air Force Base was experiencing high cross winds and the Kennedy Space Center had too much cloud cover. As a result, the Space Shuttle Columbia landed in New Mexico—the only time the site was ever used for that purpose.

The dot in the western part of the Pacific Ocean that stands off by itself was the location of the emergency landing of the Gemini 8 mission in 1966. That mission was supposed to land in the Atlantic Ocean, but various technical problems forced the crew to change course. The spacecraft was piloted by Neil Armstrong, who successfully guided the capsule to a splashdown within range of American ships. Because the capsule re-entered earth’s atmosphere over China, NASA could not follow that process by radar.

The most common incorrect guess for this map was that it was a map of nuclear test sites. Presumably, people who made that guess were intrigued to see so many dots in Kazakhstan, which was indeed a major place for Soviet nuclear tests. We have, however, already made such a map—it was Map #52.

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