15 Odd Things We've Sent to Space for Some Reason


Artifacts, personal and pop cultural totems, and even the dead have made the journey from our planet to the outer reaches of the heavens. We've covered some odd things that have gone to space before; here are a few more strange things that took a trip to the cosmos.


Thanks to Celestis, a company that specializes in booking “memorial spaceflights,” and an agreement with private rocket company SpaceX, the remains of several people who have passed away have been launched into the great beyond (for a couple of hours, at least). Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's remains were on the inaugural Celestis flight in 1997; his remains took flight again in 2012 with the remains of actor James Doohan, who played Scotty. Astronaut Gordon Cooper’s ashes were also on that flight.


Lots of strange things have been brought to space in the name of science—including salmonella. Two shuttle flights to the International Space Station (ISS) contained samples of salmonella to determine how the bacteria would react to low gravity, and the findings were kind of scary. When the salmonella returned to Earth after being in orbit for 12 days on the space shuttle Atlantis, the bacteria became even more virulent. In the first study to examine the effect of space flight on the virulence of a pathogen, the bacteria that had taken a space trip was three times as likely to kill the lab mice as the salmonella that was kept on Earth in as close to similar conditions as possible.


Tardigrades, a.k.a. water bears, became the first animals to survive exposure in outer space. The eight-legged creatures typically spend their days on a moist piece of moss or enjoy feasting on bacteria or plant life at the bottom of a lake, but they survived being frozen at -328 degrees Fahrenheit or heated to more than 300 degrees on their trip to space. The water bears, which typically don’t grow more than one millimeter in length, were dehydrated and exposed in space for 10 days by a group of European researchers. Back on Earth and rehydrated, 68 percent of the tardigrades that were shielded from the radiation survived. A handful with no radiation protection not only came back to life, but later produced viable offspring. Excitedly, an “amateur tardigrade enthusiast” theorized that the water bears must be extraterrestrial in origin if they can handle such conditions, but that claim has boringly been denied by the Swedish and German scientists, who made up for it by naming their experiment "Tardigrades in space," or TARDIS.


Without gravity, samples of animal sperm don’t work the way they should. Putting bull sperm in orbit resulted in the tiny cells moving faster than usual. Meanwhile, in sea urchin sperm that flew on NASA missions [PDF], the process of phosphorylation screeched to a halt when the enzyme known as protein phosphatase didn’t do its job. In 1979, two female rats that went to space became pregnant but didn't carry the fetuses to term, and the males’ testes shrank along with their sperm count. Fortunately (or unfortunately), one creature has been able to reproduce far from our planet: the cockroach.


Since the medaka’s organs are clearly visible thanks to its transparent skin, they were the obvious choice for astronauts and scientists to test the effects of microgravity on marine life—and to help determine why astronauts suffer from a decrease in bone density while in orbit. Bones naturally break down and rebuild, and osteoclasts help break down the bones while they're under construction, as it were. In space the process gets wonky, which is why astronauts take part in two-hour high-intensity exercise routines and take vitamin D supplements. With the medaka’s help, scientists discovered that pesky, time-consuming space exercise could be avoided, and by finding the mechanism in bone metabolism, it may lead to a development of a treatment for osteoporosis.


In 1985, small bits of bone and eggshell from the duck-billed dinosaur Maiasaura peeblesorum were brought along a mission on SpaceLab2 by astronaut Loren Acton. Thirteen years later, the skull of a meat-eating Coelophysis from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History was a passenger on a trip to the Mir space station.


In 1984, Coca Cola decided that they wanted to be the first carbonated beverage on a space shuttle. They spent $250,000 developing a can that would work without gravity that would also keep the drink fizzy and not spill all over the place, even changing some of their formula. NASA agreed, and Pepsi responded by saying it felt left out. NASA then announced that any soft drink could participate if they created a viable container. Only Pepsi responded to the challenge (poor RC Cola). In 1985, four cans of Pepsi and four cans of Coke were on board the Challenger; the day shifters drank Coke, and the night owls consumed the Pepsi. Neither of the sodas were to their liking. Sometimes nobody wins The Pepsi Challenge.


Pizza Hut wasn’t satisfied with simply being the first company to advertise on a rocket in the year 2000, so one year later they paid the Russian space agency about $1 million to become the first company to deliver a pizza to someone in space. The pizza delivered to cosmonaut Yuri Usachov included a crispy crust, pizza sauce, cheese, and salami (because pepperoni grows moldy over a certain period of time). Extra salt and spices were also added to compensate for the deadening of taste buds from space travel, and it was delivered in a vacuum seal. Usachov gave the pizza a thumbs up.


The private spaceflight company SpaceX placed a wheel of Le Brouere cheese on an unmanned spaceship to honor the classic Monty Python’s Flying Circus cheese shop sketch. To add to the pop culture celebration, SpaceX went a little more obscure but more American, sealing the cheese wheel in a metal cylinder with the image of the film poster from the 1984 Val Kilmer movie Top Secret!. It was claimed to the first cheese to travel to orbit on a commercial spacecraft.


Astronaut John Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich on board the Gemini 3 in 1965. The following exchange was recorded:

Gus Grissom: What is it?
Young: Corn beef sandwich
Grissom: Where did that come from?
Young: I brought it with me. Let’s see how it tastes. Smells, doesn’t it?

The entire incident lasted 30 seconds, with the sandwich only being consumed for 10 of those seconds, before being put back away inside Young’s flight suit.

While legend has it that Yuri Gagarin was accompanied by a homemade salami sandwich in 1961, the Russians had a specialized vacuum kit so they could clean up after eating to prevent any clogging of shuttle equipment. The Americans were just supposed to consume food from tubes, so Young was putting himself somewhat at risk for the five hour mission. The astronaut got a stern talking to; he later landed on the moon during the Apollo 16 mission.

11. GUNS

Unlike astronauts, Soviet cosmonauts went into space locked and loaded, carrying a triple barrel TP-82 capable of 40 gauge shotgun rounds. The heavy duty big boy weapon was deemed necessary after 1965, when cosmonauts landed on Earth stranded in the Ural Mountains and needed to keep wolves from making them dinner. In 2006, however, the TP-82s were replaced with your standard semi-automatic.


A Buzz Lightyear toy spent 467 days in space, orbiting the Earth on the ISS before having a ticker-tape parade in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom thrown in his honor. The toy’s namesake, Buzz Aldrin, was a special guest.


Amelia Earhart was the first president of an international organization of licensed women pilots called The Ninety-Nines. One member of that group is astronaut Shannon Walker, who was presented in October 2009 with a watch, owned by current group director Joan Kerwin, that Earhart wore during her two trans-Atlantic flights to bring onboard the ISS. Earhart, of course, was the first female trans-Atlantic passenger in 1928, and flew from Newfoundland to Northern Ireland solo on May 20, 1932. She gave her watch to H. Gordon Selfridge Jr., who passed it along to Ninety-Nines charter member Fay Gillis Wells. Kerwin acquired the watch at an auction.


Stephen Colbert, as he is wont to do, managed to crash an online contest, and with enough write-in votes technically won the right to name a room at the space station after himself. NASA reserved their right to ignore write-in votes, but compromised by naming their second-ever model of treadmills after him, dubbing it the Combined Operational Load-Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT. The manufacturer of the treadmill nickel-plated the parts, and unlike a standard treadmill, there are elastic straps that fit around the shoulders and waist to keep the runner from careening across the space station. The announcement was made by astronaut Sunita Williams on an episode of The Colbert Report; Williams ran a marathon on the previous treadmill while living at the space station in 2007, jogging in place with the concurrent Boston Marathon.


Some members of the backup crew of Apollo 12 included some Playboy spreads of DeDe Lind, Miss August 1967, on the crew’s checklists, which were attached to Pete Conrad and Alan L. Bean’s wrists as they explored the lunar landscape. Astronaut Richard Gordon, who stayed in orbit around the moon during the mission, also found a topless DeDe Lind calendar hidden in a locker, which was labeled “Map of a Heavenly Body.”

Kevin Gill, Flickr // CC BY-2.0
10 Facts About the Dwarf Planet Haumea
Kevin Gill, Flickr // CC BY-2.0
Kevin Gill, Flickr // CC BY-2.0

In terms of sheer weirdness, few objects in the solar system can compete with the dwarf planet Haumea. It has a strange shape, unusual brightness, two moons, and a wild rotation. Its unique features, however, can tell astronomers a lot about the formation of the solar system and the chaotic early years that characterized it. Here are a few things you need to know about Haumea, the tiny world beyond Neptune.


Haumea is a trans-Neptunian object; its orbit, in other words, is beyond that of the farthest ice giant in the solar system. Its discovery was reported to the International Astronomical Union in 2005, and its status as a dwarf planet—the fifth, after Ceres, Eris, Makemake, and Pluto—was made official three years later. Dwarf planets have the mass of a planet and have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium (i.e., they're round), but have not "cleared their neighborhoods" (meaning their gravity is not dominant in their orbit). Haumea is notable for the large amount of water ice on its surface, and for its size: Only Pluto and Eris are larger in the trans-Neptunian region, and Pluto only slightly, with a 1475-mile diameter versus Haumea's 1442-mile diameter. That means three Haumeas could fit sit by side in Earth—and yet it only has 1/1400th of the mass of our planet.


There is some disagreement over who discovered Haumea. A team of astronomers at the Sierra Nevada Observatory in Spain first reported its discovery to the Minor Planet Center of the International Astronomical Union on July 27, 2005. A team led by Mike Brown from the Palomar Observatory in California had discovered the object earlier, but had not reported their results, waiting to develop the science and present it at a conference. They later discovered that their files had been accessed by the Spanish team the night before the announcement was made. The Spanish team says that, yes, they did run across those files, having found them in a Google search before making their report to the Minor Planet Center, but that it was happenstance—the result of due diligence to make sure the object had never been reported. In the end, the IAU gave credit for the discovery to the Spanish team—but used the name proposed by the Caltech team.


In Hawaiian mythology, Haumea is the goddess of fertility and childbirth. The name was proposed by the astronomers at Caltech to honor the place where Haumea's moon was discovered: the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Its moons—Hi'iaka and Namaka—are named for two of Haumea's children.


Haumea is the farthest known object in the solar system to possess a ring system. This discovery was recently published in the journal Nature. But why does it have rings? And how? "It is not entirely clear to us yet," says lead author Jose-Luis Ortiz, a researcher at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia and leader of the Spanish team of astronomers who discovered Haumea.


In addition to being extremely fast, oddly shaped, and ringed, Haumea is very bright. This brightness is a result of the dwarf planet's composition. On the inside, it's rocky. On the outside, it is covered by a thin film of crystalline water ice [PDF]—the same kind of ice that's in your freezer. That gives Haumea a high albedo, or reflectiveness. It's about as bright as a snow-covered frozen lake on a sunny day.


If you lived to be a year old on Haumea, you would be 284 years old back on Earth. And if you think a Haumean year is unusual, that's nothing next to the length of a Haumean day. It takes 3.9 hours for Haumea to make a full rotation, which means it has by far the fastest spin, and thus shortest day, of any object in the solar system larger than 62 miles.


haumea rotation gif
Stephanie Hoover, Wikipedia // Public Domain

As a result of this tornadic rotation, Haumea has an odd shape; its speed compresses it so much that rather than taking a spherical, soccer ball shape, it is flattened and elongated into looking something like a rugby ball.


Ortiz says there are several mechanisms that can have led to rings around the dwarf planet: "One of our favorite scenarios has to do with collisions on Haumea, which can release material from the surface and send it to orbit." Part of the material that remains closer to Haumea can form a ring, and material further away can help form moons. "Because Haumea spins so quickly," Ortiz adds, "it is also possible that material is shed from the surface due to the centrifugal force, or maybe small collisions can trigger ejections of mass. This can also give rise to a ring and moons."


Ortiz says that while the rings haven't transformed scientists' understanding of Haumea, they have clarified the orbit of its largest moon, Hi'iaka—it is equatorial, meaning it circles around Haumea's equator. Hi'iaka is notable for the crystalline water ice on its surface, similar to that on its parent body.


It's not easy to study Haumea. The dwarf planet, and other objects at that distance from the Sun, are indiscernible to all but the largest telescopes. One technique used by astronomers to study such objects is called "stellar occultation," in which the object is observed as it crosses in front of a star, causing the star to temporarily dim. (This is how exoplanets—those planets orbiting other stars—are also often located and studied.) This technique doesn't always work for objects beyond the orbit of Neptune, however; astronomers must know the objects' orbits and the position of the would-be eclipsed stars to astounding levels of accuracy, which is not always the case. Moreover, Ortiz says, their sizes are oftentimes very small, "comparable to the size of a small coin viewed at a distance of a couple hundred kilometers."

The Secret Cold War History of the Missile That Launched America's First Satellite

In 1950, a group of scientists proposed the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a sort of "Science Olympics" in which nations of the world would embark on ambitious experiments and share results openly and in the spirit of friendship. The IGY, they decided, would be celebrated in 1957.

As part of the IGY, the Soviet Union vowed that it would launch an artificial satellite for space science. The U.S., not to be left behind, said that it, too, would launch a satellite. Both countries had ulterior motives, of course; the ostensibly friendly rivalry in the name of science allowed the two superpowers, already engaged in the Cold War, to quite openly develop and test long-range ballistic missiles under the guise of "friendship."

The Soviet Union aimed to develop missiles capable of reaching both western Europe and the continental United States. Such "intercontinental ballistic missiles," a.k.a. ICBMs, would, Nikita Khrushchev hoped, neutralize the overwhelming nuclear superiority of America, which had a $1 billion squadron of B-52 bombers. Their development would solve another of the Soviet Union's pressing issues: Military expenditures were gobbling up one-fifth of the economy, while agricultural output was in a severe decline. In short, there were too many bullets being produced, and not enough bread. Long-range rockets armed with nuclear weapons, already in the Soviet arsenal, could allow Khrushchev to slash the size and expense of the Red Army, forego a heavy long-range bomber fleet, and solve the food problems plaguing the country.

Meanwhile, in the United States, an Army major general named John Bruce Medaris saw a big opportunity in the International Geophysical Year: to use a missile designed for war—which the Army had been prohibited from developing further—to launch a satellite into space. But Medaris, who commanded the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama, would need to be creative about selling it to the Department of Defense.


Medaris was working under heavy restrictions against stiff competition. In 1956, the Secretary of Defense, Charlie Erwin Wilson, had issued an edict expressly forbidding the Army from even planning to build, let alone employ, long-range missiles "or for any other missiles with ranges beyond 200 miles." Land-based intermediate- and long-range ballistic missiles were now to be the sole responsibility of the Air Force, while the Navy had authority for the sea-launched variety.

The idea was to avoid program redundancy and free up money to pay for the B-52 fleet, but the edict wound up having a catastrophic effect on the American missile program and its space ambitions, as author Matthew Brzezinski recounts in Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries That Ignited the Space Age.

At the time of Wilson's injunction, the Army's rocketry program was far ahead of the Air Force's or Navy's. The Army had just tested a rocket prototype called Jupiter that flew 3000 miles—but it was the new and flourishing Air Force that had the political backing of Washington. Moreover, few in the capital were worried about the Soviets developing long-range missile capability. Yes, they were trying, but they didn't have a prayer at developing one before the technically advanced United States, and in the meantime, the U.S. had overwhelming nuclear bomber superiority. When you got right down to it—the DOD reasoning went—who cared whether the Army, Air Force, or Navy developed our missiles?

Major General Medaris cared. He believed that, thanks to a German aerospace engineer named Wernher von Braun, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency had made too much progress on ballistic missile technology to just stop working on them now.

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States—and the Soviets—had scrambled to gather German missile technology. The U.S. lacked the ability to develop anything as powerful as Germany's lethal V-2 rocket and desperately wanted not only as much V-2 hardware as it could find but the V-2 designer himself, von Braun.

The U.S. succeeded in recruiting the engineer, ultimately assigning him to the Army's missile agency in 1950. There Von Braun and his team developed and deployed the Redstone, a short-range missile that could travel 200 miles. (This is where Wilson's 200-mile limitation came from.) Von Braun also began work on a research rocket (in parlance, a sounding rocket) based on the Redstone that could fly 1200 miles. It was not, technically, a missile—it wasn't designed to carry deadly ordnance. Its purpose was to test thermal nose-cone shields. This rocket was called the Jupiter C.

The 1956 injunction on Army missile development threatened the tremendous progress the Army had made. Both Medaris, who led the Army's missile program, and von Braun, who had now spent years trying to advance the rocket technology of the United States, were infuriated.


With the IGY deadline looming, Medaris saw an opportunity to save the Army's role in rocket design. He had the genius German engineer and all the hardware necessary to do the job.

Medaris began to wage bitter bureaucratic warfare to protect the Army's missile program. The Air Force's program, he pointed out to defense officials, seemed not to be going anywhere—there was simply not much rush to replace bomber pilots with long-range missiles in a pilot-led organization. Worse yet, the Naval Research Laboratory, which had been given charge of the U.S. satellite entry for the IGY, was hopelessly behind schedule and underfunded. The Navy's Vanguard program, as it was called, would never succeed in its goal on time. (Why, then, did the Navy get the coveted assignment? In large measure because the Naval Research Laboratory was an essentially civilian organization, which just seemed more in the spirit of the International Geophysical Year.)

design plan of explorer 1 satellite
NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center Collection

Through all of this, it never occurred to Medaris that he was actually in a Space Race against the Soviet Union. To his mind, he was competing against the other branches of the U.S. military. To keep his missile program alive while he waged war in Washington, he allowed von Braun to continue work on ablative nose cone research using the Jupiter C research rocket. Not missile—Medaris could not emphasize that point enough to the Department of Defense. It was a research rocket, he stressed, and therefore exempt from the ban on Army missile development.

Medaris argued to Secretary Wilson that if they just gave the Jupiter C a fourth stage—that is, basically, a rocket on top of the rocket—it could reach orbital velocity of 18,000 miles per hour and get a satellite up there.

All of his arguments fell on deaf ears. "Not only were Medaris's pleas gruffly rebuffed," writes Brzezinski, but Wilson "spitefully ordered the general to personally inspect every Jupiter C launch to make sure the uppermost stage was a dud so that Von Braun did not launch a satellite 'by accident.'"

So instead, Medaris made sure that Jupiter C "nose-cone research" plunged ahead. It simulated everything about a long-range, satellite-capable ballistic missile, but it was not a missile. The Jupiter C kept the Army in the rocket development business. Just in case something went south with the Navy's Vanguard program, however, Medaris had two Jupiter C rockets put into storage. Just in case.


Two events would happen in 1957, the International Geophysical Year, that changed the trajectory of history. First: Secretary Wilson, who so vexed the Army missile program, retired. On October 4, 1957, his replacement, Neil McElroy, soon to be confirmed by the Senate, visited Huntsville to tour the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. Second: Later that same day, the Soviet Union stunned the world by launching Sputnik-1 into orbit and ushering humankind into the Space Age.

Von Braun was apoplectic. He'd devoted his life to rocketry. To be beaten by the Soviets! "For God's sake," he implored McElroy, "cut us loose and let us do something! We have the hardware on the shelf." He asked the incoming secretary for just 60 days to get a rocket ready.

McElroy couldn't make any decisions until he was confirmed, but that didn't faze Medaris, who was so certain that his group would get the go-ahead to launch a satellite that he ordered von Braun to get started on launch preparations.

What Medaris didn't anticipate was the Eisenhower White House's response to Sputnik. Rather than appear reactionary or spooked by the Soviet's sudden access to the skies over the U.S., the President assured the American people that there was a plan already in place, and everything was fine—really. The Navy's Vanguard program would soon launch a satellite as scheduled.

One month later, there was indeed another launch—by the Soviet Union. This time the satellite was a dog named Laika. In response, both Medaris and von Braun threatened to quit. To pacify them, the Defense Department promised that they could indeed launch a satellite in January, after the Vanguard's launch. von Braun, satisfied that he would get his shot, had a prediction to make: "Vanguard," he said, "will never make it."

And he was right. On December 6, 1957, the nation watched from television as the Vanguard launch vehicle began countdown from a virtually unknown expanse of Florida swampland called Cape Canaveral. At liftoff, the rocket rose a few feet—then blew up.


After the Navy's failure, the Army was back in business. Medaris had his approval. The Jupiter C rocket would be allowed to carry a satellite called Explorer-1 to space.

Unlike the public outreach that accompanied the Vanguard launch, however, Medaris's rocket readying was done in total secrecy. The upper stages of the rocket were kept under canvas shrouds. The rocket was not to be acknowledged by Cape Canaveral personnel as the rocket, but rather, only as a workaday Redstone rocket. In official communications, it was simply called "Missile Number 29."

The Jupiter C destined to carry the spacecraft was one of the rockets placed in storage "just in case" after the Army was locked out of the long-range missile business. On the launch pad, however, it would be called "Juno." (The name change was in part an effort to conceal the rocket's V-2 and military lineage.) Explorer-1 was built by Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. JPL had worked with the Army "just in case" the Navy's Vanguard program failed. ("We bootlegged the whole job," said William Pickering, the then-director of the JPL lab.) The onboard scientific instrument, a Geiger counter developed by James Van Allen of the University of Iowa, had also been designed with the Army's rocket in mind … just in case.

Medaris wanted no publicity for his launch. No VIPs, no press, no distractions. Even the launch day was to be kept secret until the Explorer-1 team could confirm that the satellite had achieved orbit successfully.

And then 60 years ago today, Explorer-1 left Earth from launch pad 26 at the cape. The response is best captured by the breathless headline atop the front page of the New York Times [PDF] the following morning: "ARMY LAUNCHES U.S. SATELLITE INTO ORBIT; PRESIDENT PROMISES WORLD WILL GET DATA; 30-POUND DEVICE IS HURLED UP 2,000 MILES."


America's first satellite would go on to circle the Earth 58,000 times over the span of 12 years. The modest science payload was the first ever to go into space, and the discovery of the Van Allen belts—caused by the capture of the solar wind's charged particles by the Earth's magnetic field—established the scientific field of magnetospheric research.

Six months after the spacecraft launched, the U.S. would establish the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a.k.a. NASA. (For the next three years, however, the Soviet Union would continue to dominate the Space Race, establishing a long run of "firsts," including placing the first human in space.) Wernher von Braun became director of Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville and was chief architect of the Saturn V rocket that powered the Moon missions. Jet Propulsion Laboratory has since launched more than 100 spacecraft across the solar system and beyond.

The unsung hero today, of course, is Major General Bruce Medaris, whose tenacity righted the U.S. rocket program. It is impossible to know how the Space Race might have ended without his contributions. We do know how his career ended, though. When at last he retired from the military, he rejected overtures to advise John F. Kennedy on space policy. Instead, he took a job as president of the Lionel Corporation, famed for its toy trains. He eventually set his sights on the heavens, literally, and entered the priesthood. He died in 1990 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, his legacy forever set among the stars.

For further reading, see Matthew Brzezinski's Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries That Ignited the Space Age.


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