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Every Living Thing to Leave Planet Earth

Astronauts,Supercluster App,Human Spaceflight
The Supercluster Team
October 27, 202010:00 AM

Reality seems to be catching up to the spacefaring future we’ve dreamed about since the days of Apollo.

Humans are preparing to venture back to the moon and forward onto Mars while continuing to have a permanent presence aboard the International Space Station.

Expanding the human footprint throughout the solar system is a job undertaken by our best and brightest. Our advancements in human spaceflight and the knowledge gained from the Apollo missions to Crew Dragon didn't come easy. 580 brave space adventurers risked their lives on this new frontier. 30 of them gave their lives. Who were they?

The Astronaut Database (ADB) is our answer to this question. It’s a library of every human, animal, and robot that has ever flown to space. But it’s more than just a collection of data — it’s an ongoing effort to better tell the stories of all who’ve left Planet Earth.

Easier Said Than Done

We’re building the ADB because it seems like it should exist. Often, when you set out to build something that “should exist,” you quickly realize why it doesn’t.

Collecting astronaut data was a surprisingly uphill battle. What data did exist was strewn across the internet in disorganized, conflicting tables. The sources you would think to rely on — Wikipedia, NASA, Roscosmos — we sometimes found unreliable. Spelling mistakes and data omissions are common. Some data disagrees with itself from page to page on Wikipedia. Many “complete” astronaut lists, published by various news and independent entities, are incomplete or full of errors.

Even where information was mostly useful it didn’t exist in a form you could dive into, pick apart, and easily search for new patterns.

The only way to be confident in the ADB was to construct the database ourselves. So we dove into publicly available sources and searched for inconsistencies. When errors were found they were flagged and carefully corrected. Where multiple sources agreed, the data was considered trustworthy.

Some of the simplest questions forced debates among the team. To begin with, what even is an astronaut? The USA disagrees with the rest of the world about where space begins. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale defines the Karman Line as 100km above Earth’s mean Sea Level. The U.S. says 80km. Was Felix Baumgartner an astronaut when he jumped from 40km? That certainly looked like space. 

Now that you’ve chosen your astronauts, how do you spell their name? This also seems straight forward, but what transliteration do you use for names that aren’t in the English alphabet? Alexander or Aleksandr? How should we list surnames versus given names across cultures?

Astronauts who died before their flight reached space are still considered astronauts by NASA, and we share this POV. But how do we list them within the ADB? What about Gemini astronauts that died in training? What is the best way to honor their memory, while normalizing data like time in space? The deeper we got, often the more difficult the decisions became.

For the most part, our guiding principle was to favor completeness and inclusivity. We’ve annotated unique cases, but typically we chose the more liberal definitions in pursuit of a complete chronological record of human spaceflight.

Extraplanetary Life Forms

At the top of the ADB is a menu marked “Life Forms.” The original goal was a database for all human spaceflight. But once you learn about Laika — the Moscow stray dog who became the first animal to orbit Earth — leaving her off your list of astronauts seems criminal. 

Soon we found ourselves adding mice and eventually sea creatures, and at some point, we committed to chronicling all life to leave Earth, period. 

Animals introduce entirely new challenges for the ADB. Records for these intrepid travelers are even less reliable, some are buried in research papers, or noted in passing as part of some broader program. Others we could only find mentioned as part of projects for kids. Many of them went to space and never came back.

Some of them have names, but many do not. Some had names that no one now remembers, or the records are long lost or hidden. 

And quickly you get to “lower” animals, like a few hundred fruit flies. Going to be tricky to find detailed information on those guys. And what about animals born in space? Are they astronauts — or are they aliens?

Signals in the Noise

Creating the database has allowed Supercluster to clean, standardize, and compile the record of human spaceflight into a living utility. Now you can query a single source of information to find patterns and quirks in our history of space travel.

Here’s a few we found:

The Soviet Union and Russia have only sent 4 women to outer space. The Soviet Union sent the first woman to outer space in 1963, then again in 1982. After the fall of the USSR, a woman flew in 1994, then the fourth in 2014. The first Russian female astronaut beat the first American by nearly twenty years.

There's a dog that matches the human record for total flights to space. Her name is Otvazhnaya — “brave one” — and she flew 7 missions.

Whoever flies to space next, for the first time, without a military background, will be the 200th civilian in space.

26 countries have sent only one person to outer space.

USA is the only country that has sent more than 100 of its citizens to outer space.

80% of all crewed flights to space were on a Space Shuttle or a Soyuz.

The first creature to reproduce in outer space was a cockroach.

In early Spring a beta version of the ADB seemed ready for launch, and we sent test versions to friends and family. Over and over, we heard the same feedback — there was something obvious that seemed missing. Users wanted to move through the data by spacecraft and mission, not simply by astronaut. It immediately made sense. When we fantasize about a human future in space, it’s impossible not to imagine our shiny sci-fi space cruiser. The sense of adventure and romance we feel for human space travel is deeply linked to the giant rockets, the epic missions, and the crews that became family during their time in orbit.

Ultimately the team decided to push back a public launch — nearly a full 6 months — to build out full spacecraft and mission functionality. Now that it’s been built, it’s hard to imagine the ADB without it. Filtering by spacecraft and finding astronauts through shared missions are some of the most powerful tools within the database.

Make it Fun

“It should feel like you’re playing with a toy.” Jamie Carreiro, who lead the ADB project at Supercluster, would continually push for the ADB to be, above all, fun.

Sure, it’s a research tool. Relationships among astronauts weave through tens of thousands of data points. But the act of swimming through that data should be joyful. It was an approach that drove much of the design.

“I've dreamed of being an astronaut since I was a little kid. I still do,” says Jamie. “But until my lucky launch day, it's about following a story. I didn't want to just assemble a library of data and present it to the audience as a static blob.

"The goal was to create something that allows people to move through the data as an interconnected narrative, finding stories in each bit of information that leads to the next astronaut or mission or rocket. You see which people have flown together, and which animals were in the capsule with them. You see the firsts, and mosts, and only's in ways that makes the story more real. It's something that I've always wanted to exist in the world, and it has been tremendously fascinating to work on and continue working on.”

Tristan Dubin is a Supercluster designer who helped establish the ADB web interface. “Growing up, my friends all collected baseball cards, and we’d spread them out on the floor. We’d look them over and compare their stats to see how each was special. Our design brief for The Astronaut Database was to translate that experience of discovery to space, for a digital platform, and to build an interface that made it easy for anyone to use.”

Tristan worked with Joe Haddad on the early ADB user interface concepts, together they explored and expanded on the baseball card metaphor. "Through every iteration of the "baseball cards" as we call them, there was always a push to make things more fun,” says Joe. “Symbols and pictures instead of dry numbers, rolling over things to reveal more data. And of course, including all the animals and bugs who've also been to space."

Emilie Zeiss and Harry Isaac are the app design and development wizards at Supercluster. Throughout the project, they were critical in wrestling what began as a vast and unwieldy dataset, and conceptualizing ways to surface the stories beneath the data. “The ADB is the largest data set I’ve worked with, and it presented a lot of unique problems,” says Harry. “It was very important to us to be able to fluidly and quickly navigate the data, and it was a real technical challenge to build the user experience we wanted, in a way that was still fast and supported live sorting and querying.”

Emilie and Harry worked to build the Supercluster Launch Tracker before tackling the ADB. “We went back and forth a lot on the ADB filters to get them to feel approachable and engaging,” Says Emilie.” It started out as just drop-down lists, but we found they were very text-heavy. Over time it morphed it into the style we have now with flags, icons, and lists, which we found made it much more fun and interactive. We wanted to create a consistent design language between the launch tracker and the ADB. We designed a card system for related data to show the interconnected nature of it. It’s really fun to explore things like who flew with who on what missions.”

We Need Your Help

The goal is no less than a complete record of extra-terrestrial travels. Both humans and animals alike. We think we’re close. But there’s no way we can perfect the ADB on our own.

Some specific details we know are missing. There are Russian service records we weren’t able to track down, biographical data we plan to continually expand. And of course unknown unknowns throughout the ADB, despite our best efforts, that can only be fully corrected with help from space fans everywhere.

So our biggest hope is the ADB becomes a challenge we can take up with the whole of the space community. Where we know something is missing we’ve included a little icon and a roll-over, to prompt experts out there to share their knowledge. But in general, we’re looking for any feedback or suggestions that would strengthen the ADB, or improve the interface.

Jamie, for example, has quietly committed to tracking down every astro-dog portrait, however long it takes. “I know some of them are out there somewhere. Tucked away in a strange dusty drawer from the former Soviet Union. I’m going to find them.”

The ADB is free for iOS and Android, as part of the Supercluster App. You can also explore the ADB, as a web utility, here.

Download the Supercluster mobile app:

The Supercluster Team
October 27, 202010:00 AM