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Can You Buy a Space Shuttle? (And 7 More Shuttle FAQs)

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Weather permitting, the space shuttle Discovery will take off from the Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday at 9:20 p.m. The 125th space shuttle flight will take its seven-member crew to the International Space Station for a 14-day mission. Before these brave astronauts take off, we thought we'd answer a few pressing questions about both this mission and the space shuttle program in general.

What is this mission doing in space?

sts-119-insignia.jpgThis mission, STS-119, is another trip to the International Space Station for upgrades. The station wants to expand its crew from three people to six this year, but doubling the population of the revolving lab will suck down added electricity. When the Discovery takes off, it will be carrying a pair of solar arrays that will help buttress the station's power needs.

Getting this cargo up to the space station doesn't sound like a huge task, but the arrays themselves are pretty gigantic. Each array is 240 feet long when they're totally assembled. When they're up and running, NASA says the arrays will generate up to 120 kilowatts of electricity, enough to meet the energy needs of 40 homes.

Is that the mission's only objective?

Transporting the arrays is a pretty tall order in itself. But the space station's crew might be even more excited to see the shuttle because it will also be carrying a Urine Processing Assembly. This device has more than just a catchy name. It converts astronauts' urine into potable water, a scarce commodity in space. Unfortunately, the system that's currently on the International Space Station doesn't work, so Discovery will have a replacement in her hold.

Also, Discovery will do a little experiment when it hits Mach 15 on reentry. One heat shield underneath one of the shuttle's wings has a quarter-inch raised bump on it. By taking readings on airflows around this tiny bump, NASA's engineers will be able to gain more insight on the turbulence that surrounds a craft on reentry.

Are all shuttle missions this specific?


According to NASA, the average cost for a mission is $450 million. Given this high sticker price, the astronauts need to have a pretty clear goal before they strap in for takeoff. The first shuttle mission, STS-1 in 1981 (crew pictured), had much less defined aims, though. It seems quaint by NASA's modern hyper-focused current mindset, but the objectives for that mission were simply to make a successful ascent into orbit, make sure everything on the shuttle worked, and come back safely.

What's the mileage on Discovery?

Discovery has been going into space for almost 25 years; its first flight lifted off on August 30, 1984, after five years of construction. It started spinning through its odometer pretty quickly, too. It's not uncommon for a shuttle mission to rack up over 5 million miles of travel, so during the course of its 35 missions, Discovery has put about 128 million miles under its belt. In short, if you buy a shuttle, an extended warranty might not be a rip-off.

Ha! I can't buy a shuttle"¦can I?

If you've got enough cash, you could build your own. Hope you've got deep pockets, though; NASA spent $1.7 billion constructing Endeavour from 1987 to 1992. If you're not totally bent on getting that new-shuttle smell in your ride, you might be in luck.

NASA is retiring the space shuttle program in 2010 and developing a new "crew exploration vehicle" as a replacement.

Once the shuttles aren't going up into space anymore, they're sort of gigantic, expensive paperweights for NASA. The organization is taking applications from museums, schools, and other educational institutions to display one of the retired shuttles.

NASA gave the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum dibs on Discovery, but Endeavour and Atlantis are still up for grabs. Even if you write a really cogent explanation of why your school needs its own retired shuttle, you'll still need some cash. According to NASA, exhibitors will get a bill in the neighborhood of $42 million just for getting the shuttle to their institution. This fee will include decontamination, transport of the 85-ton shuttle, and $8 million to get it ready for display.

What's the fuel bill look like?

It would make even the most hardened SUV owner weep. Once in orbit 190 miles above sea level, the shuttle must go at least 17,500 miles an hour to stay there. NASA says that the shuttle and its tank carry 835,958 gallons of hydrogen, oxygen, and other liquid propellants. The solid rocket boosters that help push the shuttle up each have over a million pounds of solid fuel in them.

Are there any average guys on this shuttle?

acaba-arnold.jpgThis mission isn't just staffed by cream-of-the-crop pilots and brilliant research scientists. Mission Specialists Joseph Acaba and Richard Arnold became space travelers through NASA's Educator Astronaut Program. The two men, both of whom are former middle and high school teachers, have all the duties of normal astronauts, but they also help with NASA's educational outreach programs. Acaba and Arnold will get to make two spacewalks apiece to make repairs and additions to the International Space Station.

Where does the shuttle land?


Normally, shuttle voyages are round trips; the shuttle takes off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and lands back there at the end of its mission (a Kennedy landing is pictured above). Sometimes, however, the conditions for a landing in Florida aren't optimal, so NASA has a whole slew of backup landing spots with nice long runways picked out. Edwards Air Force Base near Los Angeles is the prime backup, and the shuttle Endeavour just landed there in December.

Once the shuttle lands at one of these backup sites, there's a problem. The shuttle isn't a normal plane that can just take off again to get back to the Kennedy Space Center, and NASA can't exactly hitch it to the back of a tow truck. These guys are smart, though. NASA has specially modified Boeing 747s known as Shuttle Carrier Aircrafts. To get a shuttle back home to Florida, NASA picks it up off the ground and sticks it on top of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, which gives the shuttle a piggyback ride home. The cost of moving the shuttle is a bit more than a first class ticket from LA to Orlando; in the aforementioned shuttle-giveaway program, the bill for simply moving the shuttle is an estimated $5.8 million.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
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Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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