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A Brief and Incomplete History of Launching Animals Into Space

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Pretty much ever since humans discovered flight, we’ve been strapping animals into our new devices just to see what would happen.

Over the last 330 years or so, we’ve launched dogs, cats, chimps, monkeys, roosters, ducks, spiders, fruit flies, silk worms, ants, bees, moss, turtles, rabbits, jellyfish, amoebae, fish, hamsters, guinea pigs, goldfish, and one Enlightenment-era sheep—into the air, into orbit, and into space. While it was difficult to choose which of these brave, history-making animals were our favorites, here’s a list of just some of those that made us smile.

The Montgolfier Three

On a sunny September afternoon in 1783, two French brothers loaded a duck, a rooster and a sheep into a hot-air balloon, and launched them into the sky, making that unassuming barnyard triumvirate the first living beings ever to soar above the earth by human-designed power. While the duck, rooster and sheep returned to earth and, presumably, rank and file farm life, the brothers Montgolfier—Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne—were elevated to nobility by King Louis XVI, just a few years before the French Revolution made that title oh-so-gauche.

Albina and the Gypsy Girl

Perhaps taking a page out of the Montgolfier brothers’ book, the folks at the Soviet Space Program were big on strapping dogs (now affectionately known as “Space Dogs”) into their rockets and space shuttles, just to see what would happen. While a number of these brave young ladies—all of the dogs who went to space were female, on account of the space suit design—died in the course of the Space Race, we’re singling out Albina and Tsyganka, which means “Gypsy girl” in Russian, for special recognition because, well, because they were ejected out of a capsule 53 miles above the earth’s surface in specially-outfitted doggy spacesuits, and somehow survived.

The most famous of the Soviet Space Dogs is probably Laika, who the American press dubbed “Muttnik,” and who was the first Earthling ever to go into orbit, although she died a few hours into the trip due to stress and overheating. (The Russians, silenced by the formidable Cold War-era propaganda machine, didn’t come clean about that unfortunate snafu until 2002.)

Belka and Strelka

These famous Space Dogs were the first animals to go into orbit and make it back alive, along with their fellow passengers: a grey rabbit, forty-two mice, two rats and a pack of flies. The success of Belka and Strelka’s journey was no small thing in 1960, the height of the Space Race, and it paved the way for their human colleague, Yuri Gagarin, who became, eight months later, the first person to do what they had done. Strelka, for her part, was a born star. When she returned to earth, she got together with another male Space Dog and had puppies, one of which, Fluffy, was given to John F. Kennedy’s daughter Caroline as a diplomatic gift from Nikita Khruschchev. Fluffy went on to shack-up with one of the Kennedys' dogs, Charlie, and have four more puppies of her own (“pupniks,” as JFK called them). Belka and Strelka’s legacy lives on, both in puppies and in a Russian animated movie, “Belka and Strelka: Star Dogs,” which came out in 2010.

Baker and Able

In May 1959, a tiny squirrel monkey named Baker and a rhesus monkey named Able became the first two animals to fly into space in the nose cone of a ballistic missile, and return alive. During their journey, these two simian ladies reached a height of about 360 miles above the earth and were weightless for nine minutes. When they splashed back down to earth, they were collected by a U.S. Navy ship, taken to an air-conditioned officers' room, and flown to Washington, D.C. under military escort, where they immediately became national heroes. Their hairy little faces were splashed all over U.S. newspapers and on the cover of LIFE.

Unfortunately, Able died shortly thereafter during a medical procedure, and was later stuffed and displayed at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. As for Baker, she lived another quarter century, mostly at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. According to NPR, Baker received 100 to 150 letters a day from school kids all across the country up until her death in 1984, when 300 people attended her funeral. To this day, well-wishers still leave flowers and bananas at her grave.

Ham the Chimp

In January 1961, NASA launched a three-year-old chimpanzee named Ham into space. Over the course of Ham’s harrowing journey, the air pressure regulator got messed up, the rocket over-accelerated, the trajectory was overshot by 42 miles, and Ham was weightless for 1.7 minutes longer than his trainers had expected. When Ham’s spacecraft finally crashed back down to earth, it was 60 miles away from the nearest rescue ship, and it took them nearly 3 hours to get to him. Everyone feared the worst, but Ham, the intrepid chimp astronaut that he was, wasn’t fazed. Not only was it later determined that he continued to pull levers throughout the launch, weightlessness and reentry, as he had been trained to do—which demonstrated that humans could perform tasks in space, too; Ham emerged from the capsule totally unscathed and hungry. According NASA records, he proceeded to eat an apple and half an orange.

Ham’s incredible victory marked a major sea change for NASA: if they could get a chimp into space, they reckoned, they could get a human into space, too. And they did. Three months later, the United States sent Alan Shepard into space.

Space water bears

Image credit: Goldstein Lab

Yeah, you read that right. Space Dogs was so last season. It’s Space water bears now. In 2007, the European Space Agency sent a group of tiny tardigrades, known as “water bears” because of their shape, into space and discovered that these tough little guys are able to survive 10 days of exposure to open space with only their natural protection. No space suits, no oxygen tanks, no pressure capsules, just themselves. These incredibly sturdy little creatures are known to be able to survive in temperatures below -459 Fahrenheit and above 304 degrees Fahrenheit, and withstand 1,000 times more radiation than other animals. They are, in other words, nature’s natural animal astronaut.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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