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Geek Trivia: All-stars in the sky

Who was the first professional athlete in space?

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Richard Branson, founder and head of the sprawling Virgin Group business empire, actually managed to increase his already formidable Q rating by appearing on a reality television show that described him (and itself) as the "The Rebel Billionaire." So it should come as little surprise that it's Branson's Virgin Galactic that's leading the marketing race to become the premier commercial space tourism outfit on planet Earth.

And, like all human ventures subjected to the whims of the open market, out-of-this-world publicity is sure to follow. After all, calling an operation that won't even send its passengers into orbit a Galactic spaceflight system is like calling your company a worldwide distributor when the furthest you've ever sent your product is the house at the end of the block. (Branson has licensed the technology of Scaled Composites, based on that company's suborbital SpaceShipOne that won the Ansari X Prize.)

Of course, the rich, the famous, and the publicity-desperate will likely be the first to shell out thousands of dollars to taste a few fleeting moments of space-borne microgravity. From the third group, we can expect a sizable number seeking to be the "first" of a certain category sent into space. In other words, they'll be looking for trivial distinction.

Unfortunately, NASA has quietly beaten many potential record-holders to the punch. They just haven't made a big deal about it.

For example, someone has already claimed the record of first member of a royal family sent into space. His Royal Highness Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abd al-Aziz Al-Saud, a member of the Saudi Arabian royal family and a former fighter pilot, flew as a payload specialist on a space shuttle Discovery mission in 1985.

And more than 10 years ago, a couple nabbed the record for first married couple to fly together into space. Husband and wife team Mark C. Lee and N. Jan Davis flew as payload commander and mission specialist, respectively, on a 1992 space shuttle Endeavor mission. In addition, that same mission included the first African-American woman to fly into space, Mae C. Jemison, who also served as a mission specialist.

Wanting a piece of the record action, highly paid professional athletes are trying to get in on the game—and making inaccurate headlines in the process. Claiming to be the first of their ilk to experience zero gravity, as part of a Super Bowl promotion, two NFL players (and others) joined a flight on a steep-dive aircraft, similar to NASA's microgravity-simulating "Vomit Comet." Too bad nobody told them about a highly accomplished pro-athlete-turned-astronaut who had already seen orbit.

WHO WAS THE FIRST PROFESSIONAL ATHLETE IN SPACE?

Who was the first professional athlete to go into space, an individual who was also a highly accomplished astronaut?

That honor belongs to the late Manley L. "Sonny" Carter, Jr., both a former professional soccer player and a space shuttle astronaut.

The list of professions that Dr. Carter held is dizzying, including surgeon, member of the U.S. Navy, test pilot, and fighter pilot (a TOPGUN graduate, no less). Before all that, however, he was a pro soccer player for the Atlanta Chiefs of the North American Soccer League, the same professional league that would welcome Pele to its ranks in 1975.

Carter and Pele would never face off on the field, however, as Carter left the Chiefs in 1973 to devote more time to medical school. Amazingly, Carter played pro soccer and attended college at the same time, despite the fact that he had never played soccer before enrolling at Emory University in 1965.

About a year after graduating from medical school, Carter enlisted in the military in 1974. Carter distinguished himself both as a pilot and doctor, and NASA selected him as a candidate in 1984. He became a full-fledged astronaut in 1985.

With this impressive resume—not to mention half a dozen medals and citations—it's little wonder that no one noted Carter's place in sports history when he became the first professional athlete in space on Nov. 22, 1989, journeying into orbit as a mission specialist aboard the shuttle Discovery.

Despite an assignment to additional shuttle flight, the 1989 mission would be his only venture into space. Carter died in a commercial airline crash in 1991 while traveling on NASA business.

In recognition of Carter's work toward developing zero-gravity and extravehicular activity (EVA) training systems, NASA's Johnson Space Center renamed its Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (a massive water tank used to train astronauts for weightlessness) to the Sonny Carter Training Facility in 1995.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the Feb. 2 edition of Geek Trivia, "Comic relief." My use of the term polystyrene confused TechRepublic member I_Like_Myself.

"It took me a second to figure out that polystyrene [equals] Styrofoam. So the article says polystyrene foam balls. Is there any other form of polystyrene, other than foam?"

Fellow member Hispeedlady.ch offered the answer, complete with references.

"For all you never really wanted to know about polystyrene: http://www.psrc.usm.edu/macrog/styrene.htm. I suppose one could quibble to the extent that Styrofoam is (by definition?) always foam—you would never have guessed, right? But [Styrofoam] is only one form of polystyrene, which needn't be foam."

For more, check out the Geek Trivia Archive.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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