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Space travel has own traditions and supersitions

Posted February 10, 2012

Human spaceflight is a dangerous business. Of the 500+ men and women who have followed Yuri Gagarin into space, 18 have lost their lives during missions. Another 11 have died in training accidents including Gagarin himself. Working with these machines is dangerous as well.

In 1960 and again 20 years later, more than 100 cosmonauts were killed in a pair of Soviet launch pad accidents.

The inherent dangers along with the military backgrounds of many of the people involved have filled spaceflight with traditions and superstitions. This may seem silly for such a serious business, but the rituals have a practical side as well. They blow off a bit of steam as well as promoting some team spirit. Space workers use the word family often and families have their traditions, often involving food.

Before each launch, Space Shuttle crew members and their families gather at a beach house, the only remaining structure from the subdivision NASA purchased in the 1960s to make way for expansion. The deck of this small beachfront house has been the site of preflight barbecues with crews and their families providing a last chance to say their goodbyes. Walls are adorned with wine bottles (along with a bottle of Russian cognac and a couple of Bud Light bottles) with mission stickers and autographs from last toasts to a safe mission.

You've probably seen images of smiling shuttle astronauts in their orange flight suits waving as they board a bus to the launch pad.

Just minutes before, they were playing cards. Tradition insists. A homegrown game of "Possum Fargo" continues until the commander has the lowest hand, leaving the bad luck in the suit-up room before heading out to the pad. That room is filled with history as well. The same recliners that that Apollo astronauts sat in were used throughout the shuttle program with an additional four added for the larger shuttle crew – part history and part frugality.

Tradition isn't limited to the astronaut corps. After processing is complete and the shuttle orbiter is rolled over to the massive Vehicle Assembly Building, managers treat the team to (round) doughnuts and bagels. Next door in Launch Control, test director Norm Carlson brought in a small crockpot of beans to the Launch Control Center to share with hungry coworkers during long hours leading up the launch of STS-1. That tradition continued over the 135 missions growing to a dozen 18-quart cookers and tray after tray of cornbread. Hungry launch control workers gather after the launch to enjoy a meal of great northern beans, ham, onion and a hint of liquid smoke. I've tried the recipe, and it's good southern comfort food.

Recipe: Successful Launch Beans (courtesy KSC newspaper)

Scientists and engineers monitoring unmanned probes exploring the solar system pass containers of peanuts while they wait for important milestones such as rover landings. These are particularly tense times as they must wait several minutes for the data to make it back to Earth with word of success or failure. Managers will likely be buying extra peanuts this August for the Mars Science Laboratory mission and the landing of the huge Curiosity rover.

NASA astronauts have nothing on their cosmonaut counterparts.

Astronauts are invited to participate in cosmonaut traditions. Many traditions involve autographs including the door of their hotel room before heading out to the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Cosmonauts have their serene moments before a launch as well.

Crews take time to walk a path behind the hotel lined with trees planted by previous crews. Among all the "must do" traditions, there is one "must not do:" attend the rocket's rollout to the launch pad.

This is considered bad luck. The crew uses this time to get one last haircut.

The night before the launch, the crew gathers in a hotel room to watch "White Sun of the Desert," a Russian action-comedy from 1969 that has nothing to do with space. But it's tradition, so everyone watches.

Before heading out to the launch pad there is more signing required, this time in the guest book in the former office of Yuri Gagarin. After suit-up, the bus ride to the launch pad is interrupted by a stop to answer nature's call, on the right rear bus tire, just as Gagarin did. Female cosmonauts are excused from this tradition.

The Russian engineers and technicians supporting the mission have their rituals as well. Rockets are delivered horizontally via rail and then erected at the Baikonur launch pad. As the rollout is monitored by workers, coins are placed on the rails to be flattened by the massive load, becoming keepsakes with a story. During fueling of the rocket, a woman's name is written on the side in the frost created by the supercooled fuel. Tradition turned superstition when this wasn't carried out leading up to the launch of a satellite in March
1980 and an accident during fueling left 47 pad workers dead. This checklist item has not been skipped since. American astronauts must have picked up the tradition as they began writing initials in the frosty liquid oxygen line fueling the shuttle.

Traditions aren't limited to the launch site; mission control has some of their own. Flight Director Gene Kranz was known for the vests he wore in mission control. Over the years, Kranz's wife Marta, sewed nearly 60 unique vests featuring the mission patch. The vest he wore while leading the team that got the Apollo 13 crew home safely is proudly displayed in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Another mission control tradition came from outside of the agency and continued for 23 years. The Shelton family of Houston sent flowers to wish controllers well during STS-26, the return to flight mission following the Challenger accident and continued through remaining shuttle missions. Bouquets include a rose for each crew member plus a single white rose in memory of astronauts who have been lost and are put in a place of honor above a controller's console. NASA managers tracked down the family of spaceflight fans and invited them to tour mission control to make sure they knew how much the gesture meant to the team.

Traditions make their way into space as well. Initially, space craft received impersonal serial numbers but this didn't sit well with the astronaut corps. Spacecraft must receive names, following age-old naval tradition. Even unmanned probes and rovers are named. Recent spacecraft names have been provided by submissions from school children.

The commander of Soyuz missions selects a talisman for the mission and hangs it from a string in the capsule. It provides the first sign that orbit has been achieved as the item floats upward. Most recently Anton Shkaplerov, with the help of his 5-year-old daughter, selected a red Angry Bird from the popular video game. Upon reaching the International Space Station, naval tradition is again followed with the clang of the station's bell announcing the arrival followed by the traditional Slavic offering of bread and salt.


Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.

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