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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
"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."
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.
$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.
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.
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.
The Hexagon satellites were proof that you can build the future early if you just throw enough money at it. The '60s U.S. government didn't give a shit about the future, but they did think it would involve killing Russians, so we had spy satellites that could image an entire country in 1971. That's four years before the invention of the digital camera.
Raising a giant brass dick to screw the Soviets.
They built a planetary surveillance system that worked on film. Film! That makes steampunk look like forgetting to update your iTunes. It physically fired parachute-buckets full of film over the Pacific, where they were snagged by C-130 Herculeses in midair. That's using a $70 million plane as a combination of hunting falcon and carrier pigeon.
Under no circumstances allow these to land on your arm.
What happens when you use all four canisters? If you're the USAF, you toss the most advanced space optical system ever constructed like a Big Mac wrapper and spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new one. Twenty times. The Hexagon was 20 meters of solid future, including 11 tons of the most advanced space optical gear ever constructed, and it was designed to pop off four film canisters and then self-destruct into remote regions of the ocean to make sure that humanity didn't even accidentally learn anything.
They took this image from space before The Empire Strikes Back came out.
They were able to resolve images down to the level of troop movements and swimming pools. The CIA had mapped the entire Earth before the A-Team existed. In 1971, one film canister's parachute failed and it fell straight from the top of the atmosphere to the bottom of the ocean. The CIA engineered a deep sea rescue operation, using the Navy's most advanced submarine, the DSV-1, mounting three expeditions that took it to almost twice its previous maximum depth. Rocket launches, surveillance spaceships, midair rescues, and revolutionary submarines -- when it came to spying on Russians, suddenly the U.S. was able to build every single Thunderbird just five years after the series finished.
So remember: Any time the government claims something is too expensive or complicated, they're full of shit.
If you ever feel bad, look up to the skies and remember that Disco Balls of Science are speeding above your head. Six million meters above your head, orbiting at 6,000 meters every second, and looking fabulous for every single one of them.
Disco in Space!
The LAGEOS satellites are 400 kilos of solid brass space coolness (4 degrees Kelvin), with a shiny aluminum coating studded with 426 cubic retroreflectors. They're the Earth's jewelry, shining gems showing everything else in space just how great we are. Screw 2001, we BUILT something full of stars and put it up there ourselves.
We made the Matrix of Leadership for real.
Bouncing laser pulses off the reflectors makes them the most accurate positional system known, locating not only the satellite, but also the point the beam was launched from on the surface. They've been used to determine the precise motion of the Earth's continents, variations in the Earth's gravitational field, even the precise length of the day. We built something smarter than the sun and used it instead. They're so accurate that they've been used to measure the Lense-Thirring effect, a relativistic twist due to rotating masses. Chunks of brass and glass mapping the torsion of space-time: NASA won at steampunk decades before that was a thing.
One technician also used it to marry three dozen soccer teams simultaneously.
They're masters of space science, and they have no moving, beeping, buzzing, or powered parts. At all. Shining shot puts of solid science, hurled into the sky by sheer smartness. The first was launched in 1976, 36 years ago, and did so well that we deployed a double in 1992 to cover another orbital track. They're both still up there. As far as you're concerned, they will always be up there. Unpowered and unguided, and we shoved them so smartly that if nothing gets in the way, they'll stay in the heavens for 8 million years. Zeus only managed a few centuries.
Undoing every college movie by making nerds infinitely better than jocks at throwing things.
It's aimed so far into the future that they hired Carl Sagan to design a plaque it could carry. That's the species equivalent of getting a grown-up to answer the phone -- we got our best human to represent us to the far future. The plaque is genius: binary images of the planet's continents millions of years ago, at the time of launch, and what we think they'll be like when LAGEOS comes back down to meet them, which should enable any giant-headed super-evolved ant-dolphin hybrids to work out that we said hello.
"Hi! Sorry about all the landfills!"
We're playing "catch" with the entire future. And this is one of the very few things we're doing that would make them proud of their parents.
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For more space awesomeness, check out 6 Badass Spacecraft Landings Humanity Totally Nailed and 5 Astronauts More Badass Than Any Action Movie Hero.