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Ten Fascinating Facts about Space Exploration

1. The name of the first space traveler to orbit Earth . . .

was not Yuri Gagarin. The Russian cosmonaut was the first human in orbit, but he followed a number of canine cosmonauts. The first one was called Laika. There is a monument to Laika in Moscow.

2. Cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov had the longest single stay in space. Any guess about how long it was? Eight months? Eleven months? Fourteen months?

Polyakov was aboard the space station Mir for 437.7 days (just over fourteen months). He was a specialist in space medicine and used himself as a test subject to provide data about the long term effects of microgravity. This kind of data of data is essential in planning for a Mars mission.

3. For all of human existence, only one side of the Moon was visible. The first sight of the other side was . . .

when Luna 3, the first probe to orbit the Moon, took a picture of the far side in 1959. However, the first humans to see the far side with their own eyes were Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, Jr. and William A. Anders, the crew of Apollo 8. They spent Christmas 1968 in lunar orbit.

4. The guidance systems of Apollo spacecraft needed adjusting from time to time, so the astronauts were trained in celestial navigation. The list of 37 stars included Dnoces, Navi and Regor. What was unusual about these three stars?

The three stars were in the list, but these names for them were added as a joke by Gus Grissom. They weren't well known stars and no one noticed, so they stayed on the list. But what did they mean? Grissom was training with Edward White II and Roger Chaffee to be the first Apollo crew. Read the star names backwards and you get Second (for White), Ivan (Grissom's middle name) and Roger. Tragically, the three astronauts died when fire broke out in the command module during a test on the launchpad in January 1967.

5. Snoopy (from Charles Schultz's cartoon Peanuts) has a job in the US space program.

Snoopy went to the Moon, "Snoopy" being the call sign for the Apollo 10 command module. But with the agreement of Charles Schultz, Snoopy has had the job of NASA's safety mascot for over forty years. There are also Silver Snoopy lapel pins that are flown in space and presented by astronauts to NASA workers who have made a contribution to manned spaceflight.

6. A number of space probes have been lost, but only one valuable artwork.

Beagle 2 was a British astrobiology lander that hitched a ride on the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission in 2003. It landed, but never communicated and has never been found. In order to make sense of the images sent to earth, a lander is fitted with a sort of test pattern called a calibration target. The scientists know what this looks like, so they can use it to adjust color etc. of incoming images. Beagle 2's target was a Damien Hirst spot painting. The artistic value of a spot painting is contentious, but they sometimes sell for high prices.

7. On July 13, 1979 17-year-old Australian Stan Thornton was rushing to San Francisco with a special delivery.

NASA's orbiting laboratory Skylab had made an uncontrolled descent and broken up over western Australia. A piece of it landed on one of the Thornton family's sheds. Stan discovered that the San Francisco Examiner was offering $10,000 - which would be worth three times that now - for the first piece of Skylab to be returned within 72 hours. He packed a few things and hopped on a plane. Satellites still drop out of the sky, but I'm not sure security would let you on the plane these days.

8. Three men went farther from Earth than any other person in history.

All of those who orbited the Moon traveled a similar distance. However James Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise, the crew of Apollo 13, didn't enter lunar orbit. They followed the path that would bring them home, and it took them farther beyond the Moon than the others had gone.

9. There is one spacecraft on the edge of the Solar System over 11 billion miles (18 billion km) from the Sun.

Voyager 1 is so near the final boundary of the Solar System that it could cross it at any time. It will then leave the solar wind behind and be in interstellar space. The solar wind is the stream of tiny particles that shoot out from the Sun. Voyager 1 left Earth in 1977 to study Jupiter and Saturn, but its mission was extended to send back data from the outer Solar System and beyond. It's now so far away that it takes seventeen hours for a radio signal to get there from Earth.

10. No one knows where the final resting place of the discoverer of Pluto will be.

The New Horizons spacecraft is carrying a small portion of the ashes of American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh (1906-1997). He discovered Pluto in 1930, and in 2015 New Horizons will make its closest approach to the dwarf planet. After studying Pluto and its moons, the probe will go on to study other Kuiper Belt objects. Some people still see the change in Pluto's status as a demotion, but I see Pluto as the first of an exciting new class of objects.

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