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A Brief and Incomplete History of Launching Animals Into Space

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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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

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Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
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TAKWest, Youtube

Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]

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