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Enterprise: The First Space Shuttle

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The very last launch of NASA's space shuttle program is scheduled for Friday, when Atlantis will begin mission STS-135. The 135th mission will end the shuttle program after 35 years.

The U.S. space program would have never progressed as fast as it did without the race against the Soviets to the moon. As soon as Apollo 11 delivered astronauts to the lunar surface, NASA was asked to develop a new space program that would be more immediately useful and (most importantly) more cost-efficient. The Apollo program continued through mission 17 in 1972, but meanwhile engineers were developing a reusable spacecraft. It was a totally new concept, a vehicle tough enough to go into space, complete mission after mission, and land on earth with such little damage that it could be sent up again. Many companies worked on the various technologies necessary for such a craft. We didn't see the first space shuttle until 1976.

There were a total of six space shuttles. Atlantis, the last to fly, will be retired to a museum as will the recently-flown shuttles Endeavour and Discovery. Two shuttles, Challenger and Columbia, were destroyed along with their crews in space tragedies. And the sixth space shuttle? That was the Enterprise.

NASA planned to name the first space shuttle Constitution, to commemorate the nation's bicentennial in 1976. But that changed between the announcement of the program in 1972 and the unveiling of the craft in 1976.

Photo by Alan Light.

Star Trek fan Bjo Trimble already had experience in mobilizing trekkers; she had spearheaded a fan campaign to save the original Star Trek series from cancellation in 1967. That effort stretched the show's run into a third year. Trimble organized Star Trek fans in a new campaign to name the first space shuttle Enterprise instead of Constitution. The White House received somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 letters urging the name change (although some estimates go as high as 200,000). I wrote one of those letters myself. President Gerald Ford spoke with NASA chief James Fletcher and said, "You know, I'm a little partial to the name Enterprise." Ford did not mention the letter-writing campaign, but instead referred to the fact that he served on a Navy ship that serviced the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. Fletcher resisted the name change, but was overruled by the president. The shuttle would be named Enterprise.

In the "Star Trek" series, all ships were named after famous space shuttles of the past. So, in a paradoxical way, by naming a real-life shuttle after the Star Trek ship, NASA validated its plot line by providing an explanation for where the Enterprise name came from. If that makes perfect sense to you, congratulations, you're a true Star Trek fan.

"That is a fine looking wessel"

The names of the shuttles are used mainly outside of NASA. The first such vehicle was referred to as OV-101 (orbiter vehicle 101) by the space agency. However, the naming of the first shuttle was a coup for Star Trek fans and a public relations boon for the Star Trek franchise. At the official unveiling of the shuttle on September 17, 1976 at Rockwell's facility in Palmdale, California, most of the cast from the original Star Trek television series, as well as creator Gene Roddenberry, were honored guests.

The shuttle Enterprise made 13 flights in 1976 and 1977, none of them in orbit. There were eight captive flights with the shuttle on the back of a 747 (three with a crew aboard), and five test flights. Pictured is Commander (and Apollo 13 astronaut) Fred W. Haise Jr. and pilot C. Gordon Fullerton after an approach and landing test.

The original idea was to eventually retrofit the prototype for space flight and send it into orbit after the shuttle Columbia. However, design changes over the years made this idea more expensive than building a new shuttle from scratch. I recall vividly how disappointed I was when I found out the Enterprise would not go into space, and I imagined that everyone who fought to name the vehicle felt the same way. In 1978 and 1979, Enterprise was subjected to ground vibration tests. In the fall of 1979, parts of the Enterprise were removed to be reused on other shuttles. The rest became an exhibit. The vehicle toured Europe in 1983 and the U.S. in 1984. It was showcased at the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans.

In either a stretch of the imagination or an exercise in wishful thinking, the shuttle Enterprise was featured in the 1979 film Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In the movie, Commander Will Decker shows Lieutenant Ilia a display on the history of ships named Enterprise, which includes the space shuttle. In the TV series Deep Space 9, the shuttle appears as a model docked to the International Space Station in Caption Sisko's office.

If you haven't seen the Enterprise at the World's Fair, on tour, or in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum collection, you will be able to visit the Enterprise starting next year at New York City's Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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