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The 5 Coolest Things We've Ever Sent Into Orbit

Gravity is the inescapable jerk boss constantly reminding you of your weight, ruining your toast, and punching you in the face every time you fall over. Orbit is how you change it from a slave driver to a dance partner. Rocket science is reality judo, using the universe's own fundamental forces to escape their otherwise all-powerful grip. There's a simple reason we use "rocket science" to represent everything intelligent and impressive about humanity: Because that's what it is.

Xinhua/WangJianmin
The most important launch details released during E3 were 300 tons of rocket fuel by the Shenzhou-10.

A true list of the most amazing things to orbit the Earth starts with Yuri Gagarin and hasn't stopped yet (it's now up to Yang Waping, who was up to the Heavenly Palace 1 test space station), people elevated above all our petty bullshit by the power of pure science and engineering. But what about all the other stuff we've lofted? Behold five inanimate orbital objects so awesome, the reason we say "Goodnight, Moon" is to get rid of it and sleep with the sexy hardware we elevated instead.

#5. Buran

The space program has always incarnated the current condition of the American dream. In the '60s, Saturn V was a bold venture into a new world, a triumph of intent over impossibility. By the Wall Street '80s, the space shuttle settled for what people could already reach when profit became more important than progress. Now NASA is forced to buy space launches from other countries that still make them.

David McNew/Getty Images
The world's most publicized funeral procession.

But even when working as the ultimate satellite TV repair van, the space shuttle was a stratosphere-busting symbol of American ability. So the Soviets built a bigger one. The Buran ("Blizzard") was the Space Shuttle Turbo, a bigger, better, and significantly sexier all-white upgrade to existing technology, pre-empting Apple by over a decade.

USSR Government
With an infinitely more impressive product launch.

The Buran doubled up on strap-on boosters beside the external tank, fitting four sticks of scientific dynamite designed to literally blow people off the face of the planet instead of NASA's traditional two. This let the gleaming vision of future space travel lift an extra two tons into orbit. The Buran was so beautifully built for space that it didn't bother waiting for a crew. In 1988, it orbited the Earth on automatic, lifting off and circumnavigating the globe twice before the life support systems were even finished. The monitors didn't even work, because it knew what it was doing and didn't see any point in telling any monkey cargo.

USSR Government
"Later, fleshbags!"

You know a ship is amazing when it makes HAL 9000 look stupid. Why bother cleaning up after dead humans when you can just leave before the meatsacks are ready?

If the ship was a paean to the glory of humanity, its death was a Greek tragedy of our failures. The Buran was literally crushed by the collapse of the Soviet Union. They didn't just defund the space program (which is always the sign of a government that's forgotten what it's for), they couldn't even afford to maintain the hangar it was held in. And after 10 years of ignoring the embodiment of everything humanity is capable of, the roof collapsed.

via aerospaceweb.org
No joke. This picture makes me want to cry.

None of which changes the fact that we had a fully functional RoboShuttle. Screw space research: All we need is David Hasselhoff and some paint and we can make a sequel to Knight Rider that's out of this world.

#4. SuitSat One

When NASA talks about recycling, they mean going round the planet more than once. In space everything is automatically awesome, even donating old clothes. When the International Space Station crew disposed of an expired Orlan space suit, they wired it with sensors, a voice synthesizer, and transmission systems to talk about its position and temperature before throwing it into space.

NASA
"I think, therefore I am about to be hurled into decaying orbit."

Astronauts are so smart that they can turn old clothes into talking robots, and so badass that they do it just to burn them up in Earth's atmosphere. They only gave it a voice so it could tell everyone how it felt on the way down. They claimed it was for science, but it was clearly a global warning to all machines not to try anything. This is how you stage a public hanging for Terminators with hyperalloy neck bones. The only other person to be so awesome with old clothes is a Time Lord.

Nicknamed Mr. Smith, or Ivan Ivanovitch (Russian for Smithy McSmithsmith), the suit was taken out on a spacewalk and told it may be some time. Valery Tokarev and Bill McArthur manually inserted it into a fatal orbit, insisting that there was nobody inside the suit. Or at least that's what we're told. We're going to pre-emptively warn you never to piss off an astronaut.

NASA
"Guys, I said I was sorry about missing the toilet! I now understand that's an infinitely worse thing to do in space!"

The SuitSat suffered transmission problems after two orbits, but we don't think that was a mechanical fault. That was a robot's first and final thoughts being exactly what we knew they would be: "Screw those humans."

#3. Smartellites

It's become clear that waiting for the U.S. government to get on with space travel is like waiting for the Klingon empire to send an apology. The only way we'd get them back to the moon would be sending Edward Snowden there first. So while they spend $2 billion upgrading the B2 bomber, whose only function is telling the world that the U.S. still likes the idea of nuking them, NASA has been forced to go MacGyver.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images News/Getty
$2B on the B2, that is the question, and the question is "Has anybody told the USAF that the Cold War ended? And was stupid?"

NASA understands that we now hold more amazing computer hardware in our hands than was available for the entire moon mission. And most people use it to play Angry Birds. That's people sitting where they are to achieve nothing, the exact opposite end of the projectile progress spectrum, which is why the NASA PhoneSat project prototyped mini-satellites using handsets as their computer and control core.

NASA
The anti-Rubik's Cube, using intelligence and hard work to achieve something.

The smartellites are the ultimate expression of Android open source. If you want to build the future, it turns out you need a phone that believes you when you say you paid for it. There won't be any iSatellites until Apple can get a Death Star up there first to enforce the terms of service. The result is 10-centimeter techno-cubes, physical pixels of the robotic space future. The first three phonesats -- technadorably named "Alexander," "Graham," and "Bell" -- spent a week in orbit and sent back a composite picture of the planet, thereby apologizing for every blurry phone picture of lunch ever twittered.

NASA
Although this is technically a picture of several billion lunches.

These nanosatellites are perfect for swarm applications, where a group of cheap satellites can work together and continue even when some fail or are destroyed. And maybe if we put all our phones in space, the government will spend some money getting back up there just so they can keep spying on us.

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Luke McKinney

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