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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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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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