Blessed as we are on the Science lite desk with memories that would frankly embarrass a cerebrally challenged goldfish* – anniversaries are not something which we ordinarily observe. As such we were very pleased to be prodded – in the politest sense of course – by the UK Space Agency recently regarding the 50th anniversary of the UK’s space based endeavors.
“In 1962,” espoused a bubbly press officer, “Britain became the third space-faring nation with the launch of Ariel-1, the first satellite to be developed and operated by the UK. Fifty years on, the UK space sector is a world leader in space science, innovative technology and applications development.”
And they were quite right – about the date of course, but more importantly about our continued successes in space. And so the ponderous, rusted cogs of our intellect began to turn and we thought we would honour this golden anniversary by taking a look at the space adventures with which the UK is currently engaged. At least, that was the plan.
However, a quick internet search combining the terms ‘Space’ and ‘UK’ threw up a little surprise. And that surprise came in the form of Sue Drage, a 62 year old knitting enthusiast from Rugby. Believe it or not, Sue represents the latest British contributor to the space program as she has been asked by NASA to knit a new protective suit for Camilla the rubber chicken.
(Now, we think it is only fair to let you have a few seconds to digest that information……Ok now? Right, on with this unlikely tale.)
The rubber chicken is the mascot of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory and is used as a way to educate young people about the space programme and science. Camilla has been launched – suited in her freshly knitted suit care of Mrs Drage – to capture the shadow on Earth caused by the annular eclipse, where the Moon moves in between Earth and the Sun.
It is unlikely that the UK Space Agency had in mind knitwear as the innovation that would best crown 50 years of UK involvement in space exploration – yet we can’t help but think it sums up a certain home-grown charm that is so often indicative of British endeavour.
With this in mind we started to wonder – what other unlikely things have been launched into the expansive wonderland of space? Amazingly, a rubber chicken is just the tip of a marvellously eccentric iceberg.
In May 2008 that consummate space hero Buzz Lightyear made a visit to the International Space Station. In a perfect example of life imitating art, Buzz spent a year in orbit before returning to a hero’s welcome at Edwards Air Force Base.
As science fiction stars go though – Buzz is small fry. Back in 1992 the Space Shuttle Columbia delivered a small canister into orbit. That canister contained the ashes of Gene Roddenbury – the creator of Star Trek. And before the Star Wars fans amongst you get a little jittery (we know how fervent you sci-fi fans can be…) we should mention that Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber prop flew on the space shuttle Discovery’s STS-120 mission.
But to our minds, perhaps the oddest example was when Apollo 15′s crew took 398 postage stamps to the Moon. Nothing outrageously bizarre about that you might think, but the astronauts involved took them with one purpose – to bring them back and flog them at an outrageous cost to a stamp dealer! NASA found out and the ensuing furor became known as ‘the stamp affair’ resulting in a stern disciplinary for the crew and strict new rules on all future missions.
Let us hope that Camilla the rubber chicken doesn’t suffer the same fate. We shall be watching Ebay very closely over the next few weeks…
(*Now, despite a terrible memory for dates we do however have a sixth sense when it comes to pseudo-scientific folklore and tedious received wisdom. A prime example being, of course, the oft-quoted memory performance of goldfish. In fact, as work at the University of Plymouth has suggested, they can have a memory span of at least three months)