Humans have been conducting space missions for so long, it seems like anything that could be launched has already made the trip. Dogs and monkeys are small potatoes; now even everyday people like you and me could one day orbit Earth, thanks to billionaire Richard Branson and his proposed civilian spaceship. (Well, everyday people who have hundreds of thousands of dollars for a ticket.)
Seems strange to send a bunch of rich tourists lacking aeronautical education or experience into space, but it turns out there’ve been far crazier things and people included in our space travel tales.
Recently, a hunk of cheddar was placed in a capsule, put into a weather balloon, and launched into the sky by West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers members. The “Cheddarnaut” was the first cheese sent on a mission; it crash landed intact just a few days later. No word yet on how the trip affected its deliciousness.
Star Trek Alumni
Some people want their ashes kept with their families or sprinkled in a familiar, beloved place. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, preferred to have his sent into space. In 1992, part of his ashes were taken onboard the space shuttle Columbia, and then more of him made a trip on Pegasus XL in 1997. The rest of his and his wife’s ashes are scheduled to make a final space trip in 2012. He may have inspired another Star Trek member to do the same. In 2007, James “Scotty” Doohan’s ashes were rocket-launched in New Mexico.
On the heels of the messy Lisa Nowak scandal (the diaper-clad astronaut who drove from Houston to Orlando hell-bent on kidnapping and murdering), a panel was set up to evaluate astronauts’ physical and mental wellbeing. The panel found that on at least two occasions, astronauts flew while intoxicated, even when doctors and peers said it was to a dangerous extent. Astronauts were also reported to drink copious amounts of alcohol before taking off. To be fair, if you were being launched into outer space, wouldn’t you need to calm your nerves?
Lots of creatures big and small have been in space, but only a few of them could spin ornate webs while in orbit. Anita and Arabella were the names of two garden spiders sent on a mission in 1973. Neither survived the trip, but they did prove that spiders can build webs without gravity.
In 2008, China sent Shenzhou VI into the air with sweet potato seeds on it. Once it got back from the mission, the seeds were planted on Southern Hainan Island and sprouted purple sweet potatoes, which were named Purple Orchid IIIs. This wasn’t the last time sweet potatoes made their way into the stars. In 2009, sweet potato cuttings were taken onboard and were able to produce potatoes, which showed that sweet potatoes can grow in microgravity.
This hasn’t happened yet, but it’s in the works. Currently, the Japan Origami Airplane Association is working with researchers from the University of Tokyo to create a paper airplane that can go from the International Space Station to Earth without being destroyed. One professor at the university has said he’d like a hopeful message written on the airplane, probably to make the day of whatever confused person stumbles upon a slightly charred, space dust-covered paper airplane.
Now that they’ve sent aged cheddar and Star Trek veterans into space, and they’re working on sending toys we made as children, what’s next on the list for space exploration? Time will only tell, but if they’re as strange as Scotty’s ashes or mutated, purple space potatoes, I can’t wait to hear about it.
* Cassandra Evanas (August 2009)