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Sputnik One launch on Old Number Seven
1957 Novosti photo of
Sputnik One riding Old Number Seven

A missed anniversary

The idea had dawned on Soviet engineers in the 1950s that their new military ICBM rocket known affectionately as "Old Number Seven" not only could blast a nuclear warhead thousands of miles, but it also could carry a payload to such speed and altitude it would be above the atmosphere orbiting Earth. In other words, an artificial Earth satellite could be created. They completed building their first satellite in June 1957 with a plan to launch it to space on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Konstantin Tsiolkolvski, a man known as the father of cosmonautics. USSR Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave the okay to launch it toward space on August 27, which would have been just 24 days after the first successful 4,000-mi. ground-to-ground test of the ICBM. However, technical problems pushed the blast-off back to October 4 and the anniversary was missed. Even so, the beach-ball-sized Sputnik 1 rode Old Number Seven into history.

Junking up space

Over the years, the spacefaring nations on Earth have sent lots of stuff to space. Some of it has been useful and a lot of it has been junk. The grand total number of working payloads and useless pieces of debris sent to orbit during the entire Space Age since 1957 is 25,976. Of those, 8,733 are still in orbit and 17,243 have fallen from orbit.
[Note: With scores of satellites launched each year and payloads and debris falling regularly, the totals vary.]
    In orbit as this is written in the year 2000 are 2,742 payloads and 5,991 pieces of debris. The pieces of debris are anything from baseball-size on up that can be tracked from the ground by radar. Most of those chunks that have left orbit were burned up as they fell through the atmosphere.
Russia, including the former USSR, has done the most having placed a total of 3,937 payloads and pieces of debris in orbit as of this writing. Some 11,968 payloads and debris pieces already have fallen from orbit. That's a total of 15,905 payloads and debris pieces from Russia over the entire Space Age.
    The United States has a total of 3,794 payloads and debris pieces in orbit as of this writing. Some 4,341 payloads and debris pieces already have fallen from orbit. That's a total of 8,135 payloads and debris pieces placed in space by the United States over the entire Space Age.
Other nations and international organizations that have placed working payloads and debris in space include the European Space Agency, China, Japan, France, Great Britain, Germany and NATO.
    Flight controllers botched an attempt to move the fledgling International Space Station out of the way of a speeding piece of space junk in 1999, but the debris from a spent Russian rocket ended up passing by at a safe distance. If the space junk had collided with the station, it could have destroyed the empty outpost, which had been in orbit only seven months. U.S. satellite trackers had said the debris would pass within a mile of the station, but it came no closer than 40 miles. Meanwhile, computer commands to fire the station engines, transmitted by ground controllers, failed because of human error.
Some dead satellites can stay in orbit above Earth for centuries. Now, Scottish lace will be called on to save us from inactive satellites that threaten valuable satellites. So-called Terminator Tethers are wire ropes being knitted for NASA by Fleming Textiles, a former lace-making company in Kilmarnock, Scotland. The idea calls for the wire ropes to drag dead satellites down out of orbit and cause them to burn up in the atmosphere.
    Not all space junk burns up as it comes down from orbit. A large chunk of a French satellite known as Globus, with two cylinders and two parachutes, was found in 1989 on a farm 1,100 miles northwest of Brisbane in a remote section of northeastern Australia. A police helicopter from the nearby town of Conclurry retrieved the wreckage.
Still goin' round

Vanguard 1, the second U.S. satellite, remains in orbit from March 17, 1958, revolving around the globe about 2,400 miles above Earth. American's first satellite, Explorer 1, launched February 1, 1958, came down in 1970. The USSR's first and second Sputniks, launched in October and November 1957, came down in 1958.

The first woman to launch a satellite

Marjorie Townsend, the first woman to launch a spacecraft, sent the U.S. Explorer 42 satellite (SAS-1) to Earth orbit on Dec. 12, 1970, from Italy's San Marco Platform in the Indian Ocean off Kenya. Townsend named the small astronomy satellite Uhuru, a Swahili word for "freedom," in honor of Kenya's independence day Dec. 12. Uhuru is remembered for detecting a black hole in the constellation Cygnus in 1971 as it received X-rays and natural radio waves from the direction of a faint blue star which had a tiny, unseen, dark companion, more massive than a neutron star.

The Red Baron flies Out There

Snoopy, the cartoon dog created by the late Charles M. Schulz, is popular with space people, too.
    On May 22, 1969, Apollo 10 astronauts Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan flew their lunar excursion module named Snoopy down to within 8.4 miles of the lunar surface, skimmed across the Sea of Tranquility basin, dodged among mountain peaks, then back up to dock with their command module Charlie Brown. Finished exploring, Stafford and Cernan fired Snoopy away from the Moon into a nearly-endless orbit around the Sun.
NASA employees who do good work are rewarded with Silver Snoopy lapel pins depicting the comic-strip beagle in a spacesuit.

Attention Stamp Collectors

U.S. postal authorities are prohibited by law from commemorating living people on stamps. However, here are some of the important feats that have been commemorated on U.S. postage stamps since 1948:
Fort BlissEcho 1 satelliteProject Mercury
Robert H. GoddardAstronaut spacewalkGemini 4, Apollo
Apollo 8Moon landingAstronauts exploring the Moon
Astronauts lunar roverSkylab space stationPioneer at Jupiter
Mariner 10 at Venus and MercuryApollo-Soyuz linkupViking Mars missions
Shuttle Columbia boosterslaunch and landingShuttle deploying satellite
Pioneer 2 probing planetsHubble Space Telescope20th anniversary of the first Moon landing

A pair of spacewalking astronauts floated near a space station, a shuttle docked nearby, stars twinkled, and a moon and planet shimmered on America's first postage stamp with a 3-D hologram, imprinted on an envelope sold by the United States Postal Service in December 1989.

Minding our ecology

Kennedy Space Center is the safest haven in Florida for manatees, bald eagles and nesting turtles.
    Each time a space shuttle blasts off from Cape Canaveral, tons of toxic exhaust from the solid-fuel boosters, including 124,000 lbs. of aluminum oxide, blanket waterways, mangrove and cypress trees, and soil around the launch pads. The most dangerous compounds in shuttle exhaust are chlorine and hydrogen chloride. The acid pollutants seem to disappear three days after a launch and the waterways and soil around the launch pad gradually return to normal, but the acid kills up to 10,000 fish per launch.
The Wild Bird Society of Japan, trying to find out exactly where swans go when they migrate to the Arctic each summer, used the American-French environmental satellite named Argos to track signals from tiny 1.4-oz. radio transmitters attached to four of the 12-lb. birds.
How Satellites Track Wildlife

Space dummies

The USSR sent dummy human figures wearing tags printed with the name Ivan Ivanovich to space in Vostok capsule test flights before launching the first living man to orbit in 1961. The dummies were dressed in real space suits and the capsules carried tape-recorded messages to simulate two-way radio. The tape transmissions, overheard around the globe, led to rumors that a cosmonaut had called for help from an out-of-control spacecraft.
    A St. Paul, Minnesota, television station technician, spent hundreds of hours and $10,000 building a make-believe rocket and spacecraft for neighbor kids. The dummy rocket, dubbed S.S. America, had a 6-ft. diameter base, was 18 feet long, and weighed 2,500 lbs. Four riders could sit inside with their backs to the base which tilted back during a countdown and simulated blastoff. Lights flashed on control panels in the crew cabin. Voices from a mission control center told passengers where they were and what the ship was encountering. Space debris and globes raced across a video screen toward passengers while exciting Star Wars sound effects played in the background during the five-minute ride. At the end, the ship leveled off for a simulated return to Earth.
Killer Tomatoes from Outer Space

NASA mailed 12.5 million tomato seeds, retrieved after six years aboard a satellite in space, to schools for students to grow.

A really old bottle of wine

Comet Wine, a Portuguese wine bottled in 1811, was said to be of an extraordinarily good quality, which growers attributed to the passing Great Comet of 1811.

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