HeLa cells are named for Henrietta Lacks, a 1950s cancer patient from whom they were sampled. Lacks later succumbed to the cervical cancer that had spread throughout her body, but the descendants of the hardy cells that were removed from her body are still alive today. In the 1960s, they were rocketed into space with the second Russian satellite ever put into orbit. HeLa cells also were sent with the first humans to go into space, where scientists discovered HeLa cells divided even more quickly in zero gravity. Today, HeLa cells are at the heart of much scientific research. They've been instrumental to researchers developing vaccines and HIV tests, studying disease processes and mapping genetic code [source: NPR].
Henrietta Lack's cells are popular among researchers because, unlike normal human tissue, they divide indefinitely in a laboratory setting and are stable enough to survive shipping. Although controversy has surrounded HeLa cells (Lacks never consented to their removal, nor did her family know of her scientific legacy for several years), Lacks' line of cells did something few people ever do, alive or dead: Orbit the Earth and, arguably, impact medicine around the world [source: Zielinski].