The 10 most unusual objects ever launched into space
In the quest to expand our understanding of the universe beyond our home, we've discovered that even the most innocuous objects and processes can function very differently in the environment of space. Over the years, human beings have managed to get all manner of objects in space - sometimes to learn more about how they behave, but just as often to achieve other goals. Some of those objects make a lot of sense - for example, who could be surprised to learn that we've sent mice into space to test their ability to breed?
However, some of the others might surprise you a great deal. Check out the video below, and then read on to find out more, plus two that didn’t make it into the video.
10. A lightsaber
It's an age-old nerd argument: which is better, Star Trek or Star Wars? Whether you're a Trekkie or a would-be Jedi, between them these two franchises have done more than any other work of fiction to shape our fascination with space. It's only natural, then, that astronauts, rocket scientists and aerospace engineers all number among their fans - and that when presented with the opportunity to send objects into space, iconic props from these two series' have sprung to mind.
In 2007, a team of seven astronauts travelled into space to deliver and assemble the Harmony Module (a.k.a. Node 2) to the International Space Station. It so happened that their launch coincided with the 30th anniversary of the release of A New Hope in cinemas. To commemorate the event, Lucasfilm collaborated with Space Center Houston to send the original lightsaber prop wielded by Luke Skywalker himself into space.
Of course, Luke's lightsaber isn't the only Star Wars-related object which has been sent into space. In 2018, we marked the release of The Force Awakens by launching a BB8 figurine into space with UK toy retailer Argos.
9. Human ashes
Launching human ashes into space as a memorial to their life is a beautiful way to celebrate human ingenuity. The first person to have their ashes sent into space was Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry - a sample of his cremated remains were carried into space and then returned to Earth on the NASA Space Shuttle Columbia in 1992. Since then, a number of scientists and celebrities alike have been carried into space, by NASA and by private space funeral companies.
Most of these 'space burials' carry a fraction of a person's ashes as a symbolic representation, for two reasons. Firstly, scattering a person's ashes into orbital space would be potentially dangerous as even a tiny particle could cause damage to satellite constellations if a collision took place at sufficient speeds. Secondly, the cost of launching a person's earthly remains on a rocket would be incredibly high. However, if you want to have your ashes scattered in space, there is an option for you.
Aura Flights is a spin-off from Sent Into Space offering space funeral services. Their unique scattering vessel travels to Near Space, out of reach of satellites, and releases the ashes in a beautiful cascade to travel around the world on stratospheric winds for weeks and months. The ashes eventually drift down into the troposphere, where they mingle with moist air and act as the seed for raindrops and snowflakes, falling to Earth and fertilising the land wherever they settle to promote new life and growth.
8. A car
Few people are more well known for their outlandish self-promotional stunts than Elon Musk, the so-called 'bad boy of Silicon Valley'. SpaceX are one of the world's leading private rocket companies and in recent years have taken responsibility for launching all manner of objects into space - deploying satellites, resupplying the International Space Station, you name it. One of the most unusual payloads they've carried was a cross-promotional stunt with Elon's other company, car manufacturer Tesla.
To showcase the weight carrying capacity of the company's new Falcon Heavy rockets, Musk launched a Tesla Roadster into an elliptical heliocentric orbit in 2018. The car was previously used by Musk, but on launch was 'driven' by a crash test dummy named Starman. The nod to David Bowie's iconic song wasn't the only pop culture reference on board either. The glove box of the car contained a copy of Douglas Adams' novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy along with a towel and a dashboard sign reading "DON'T PANIC", while a 5D optical disc (a revolutionary high-density data storage method designed for longevity) bore the works of another science fiction giant, Isaac Asimov.
While Elon might be the first person to send a standard roadworthy vehicle into space, it's far from the only car to make the trip. In 2016 we launched a model of the Audi R8 to celebrate the announcement that a team from the German auto manufacturer were designing a new lunar rover, named the Audi Lunar Quattro.
7. A dirty sketch by Andy Warhol
The Moon Museum was a concept by sculptor Forrest Myers. Myers produced a small wafer of ceramic and petitioned five of his most famous artist friends - Robert Rauschenberg, David Novros, John Chamberlain, Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol - to sketch a small image to be etched onto the wafer. Then, he petitioned NASA to put the plaque on the moon.
And NASA ignored him. So Forrest took a different approach. Through a non-profit group established to build links between engineers and artists, he made contact with a scientist from Bell Laboratories who manufactured the wafer and gave it to an unnamed friend who was working on the Apollo 12 lander module. Although it has never been officially confirmed, Myers and the Bell Labs scientist Fred Waldhauer claim the wafer was successfully installed on the lander and currently sits on the moon.
Warhol claimed later when copies of the artwork were distributed to the press that he had drawn his initials A. W. intersecting. However, to everyone else, it looks undeniably like a drawing of a penis.
I bet you're wondering, have Sent Into Space sent a rude illustration into space? Well, not quite, but on April Fools' Day 2019 we did launch a pair of rubber testicles into space. The stunt, planned with the Robin Cancer Trust, helped raise awareness of the dangers of testicular cancer and the importance of regular self-checks.
This ubiquitous toy has inspired many budding engineers, architects and imaginers. Indeed, the Lego Space range is one of the company's most expansive and longest running product lines, introduced in 1978 and now spanning over 200 sets. Combined with its lightweight form factor, it's a clever choice of decorative item on a space launch.
In 2011, NASA launched the Juno mission. Intended to study the gas giant Jupiter, the orbiter intended to collect data to answer a raft of questions, including whether the planet has a solid central core, how much water is present in its atmosphere, what kind of magnetic field surrounds the planet, and perhaps most intriguing, how the giant weather systems on its outer face remain so stable. At launch, in addition to the array of state-of-the-art sensors and a colour camera called JunoCam (which you can follow on Twitter) the craft carried three custom Lego figurines, representing the Roman god and goddess Jupiter and Juno and astronomer Galileo Galilei, whose early investigations of the planet were the leading source of information for centuries after his death.
When Lego came to launch their new space station set in the Lego Cities line, they approached us to launch it into space for them. The resulting footage truly is out of this world!
5. A corned-beef sandwich
As we've learned from the Moon Museum story, even people at the highest levels of NASA aren't immune to a bit of cheeky disobedience from time to time. In 1965, astronaut John Young smuggled a corned-beef sandwich on board the Gemini 3 craft moments before takeoff. For context, one of the objectives of the launch - NASA's first flight carrying more than one astronaut - was to test NASA's own nutritional pouches as a foodstuff. Partway into the mission, John pulled out the sandwich and shared a bite with his crewmate, Gus Grissom. Unfortunately, the sandwich began to break apart due to the crumbly rye bread used in its construction, and Young said to Grissom, "It was a thought... not a very good one".
That was that, until they returned home and were summoned to testify in front of a Congressional hearing by the House of Representatives. Politicians took Young to task for his decision, one calling it "a $30 million sandwich" in light of the tremendous cost of the mission while others raised concerns about the possibility of breadcrumbs interfering with spacecraft operations. NASA's associate administrator for manned space flight, George Mueller, was forced to utter the immortal words: "We have taken steps... to prevent reoccurrence of corned-beef sandwiches in future flights". Young would later comment "at the time [we] were not smiling" but said in 2012 "today the theatre that took place inside that meeting room... strikes me as totally comic".
Corned beef may have been one of the first foodstuffs sent into space, but many others have followed. From a Pizza Hut pizza sent to the ISS, to the pie we launched in 2016 for the World Pie Eating Championships, if you can eat it, odds are someone has sent it into space.
If you were responsible for constructing a message introducing our species to an alien intelligence, what would your message contain? That was the question posed to Carl Edward Sagan in 1971, when his friend Eric Burgess suggested that the Pioneer spacecraft should carry a message from mankind during a visit to the Pasadena Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The plaque Sagan designed in just three weeks was launched on Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 in the following years and the idea gathered sufficient approval that when a new mission called Voyager was proposed in the latter half of the decade, Sagan was given a year to expand the project and put together a phonograph record as a time capsule of Earth's diverse life and culture.
The identical golden records on the two Voyager craft are packed full of information about the human race. While the Pioneer plaque was designed for simplicity and clarity, with illustrations designed to be as simple as possible to interpret correctly by any hypothetical scientifically advanced civilisation that may encounter it, the wealth of data capacity and larger scope of the Voyager Golden Record project allowed for slightly more 'romantic' inclusions. In addition to 116 digitally encoded images and a wealth of natural sounds and animal noises, the record features spoken greetings in 55 different languages from across the world and pieces of music ranging from traditional folk music, classical European compositions and a few contemporary jazz and blues numbers. Check out the full contents here.
Will alien life ever listen to that record and understand a little of what it means to be a human being? Well, Voyager 1 is currently the furthest manmade object from Earth at a distance of 22.2 billion km away, and along with its twin Voyager 2, one of only two objects to leave the heliosphere and enter the interstellar medium between stars. If there is intelligent alien life out there, it's not impossible to imagine. Of course, we've sent music of our own into space, but as all our flights are returned to Earth and recovered, the chance of an alien encounter is pretty slim - unless they're already here, among us?
3. Amelia Earhart's watch
The most famous aviatrix has long been an inspiration for women in engineering, aerospace and astronomy. Amelia Earhart (known by her friends as A. E.) was the first woman to cross the Atlantic by plane in 1928 and made an historic solo flight four years later in 1932. Her record-setting trips as a pilot brought her into the public spotlight, a position which was bolstered by the tireless efforts of her publicist and later husband George P. Putnam, who helped her publish a book, secured public speaking events for her and encouraged her to become a spokeswoman for a number of big companies. Of course, her fame was cemented after her second attempt at circumnavigating the globe in 1937 ended in her plane disappearing over the Pacific Ocean, its final resting place still unrecovered to this day.
Alongside her achievements as an aviator, Earhart was an early feminist and proponent of female equality. In 1929, following the Women's Air Derby at the National Air Races, Earhart invited a number of other female pilots to meet with her to discuss the formation of a group for networking and mentoring. Of the 117 women pilots licensed at the time, 99 expressed an interest and The Ninety-Nines was created.
Earhart's wristwatch has a storied history of its own. The watch in question is a Longines one-button, two-register chronograph which she had worn on both her solo flights. Why didn't she have it on her final voyage? Well, after her 1932 solo crossing, A. E. met a man called H. Gordon Selfridge Jr, owner of the London department store that shares his name. A savvy businessman, he realised there was a branding opportunity and offered to outfit her free of charge, including a new watch. In return, she gifted him her own watch.
After her death, Selfridge passed the watch to a charter member of the Ninety-Nines, Fay Gillis Wells, who later auctioned it off to pay for a memorial to Earhart and other aviation heroes called the Forest of Friendship, located in Amelia's hometown of Atchison, Kansas. It was bought by director of the Ninety-Nines, Joan Kerwin, who held onto it until 2009, when it was presented to another Ninety-Nines member and history-maker, astronaut Shannon Walker. Shannon took it with her to the ISS, 82 years to the day after its first flight.
Accurate timekeeping has always been important in navigation, especially when it comes to space travel. In 2017 we gave away a Seiko Astron watch in a space scavenger hunt with Jura Watches, encouraging the spirit of adventure for hundreds of teams who scoured the countryside seeking out the watch that fell from space.
2. A piece of the Wright Brothers' first ever aeroplane
It's baffling to think that less than 70 years separate the first powered, controlled flight by the Wright Brothers and the moment that human footprints first marked the surface of the moon. That it took so little time to bridge the gap is partly due to human ingenuity, but it's impossible to discount the role that global conflict played in driving forward rocket development as well.
However, one factor which undoubtedly played a part was Wilbur and Orville Wright's approach to aircraft design. Neither was university educated and their experience of engineering came from running a bicycle shop. As such, they didn't rely on theoretical models of flight or scientific understanding of airflow in building their craft. Instead, they pioneered a data-driven experimental design approach, collecting data after each failed flight and changing their next design based on the results. What's more, they started from a different perspective than others trying to achieve powered flight, mastering the creation of gliders that could carry increasing weights rather than starting with brute force and attempting to maximise time aloft. Their humble, fail-fast approach was adopted into NASA's operational philosophy from the beginning, helping them in the race to the stars.
The link between two of humankind's greatest achievements in flight was commemorated on the Apollo 11 mission. Neil Armstrong carried with him a few scraps of fabric and wood (all the weight he was allowed) from Kitty Hawk, the Wright Brothers' first successful aircraft, into Apollo 11 and onto the lunar module Eagle that landed on the moon in 1969. Returned to Earth, those pieces now adorn a plaque in the Smithsonian museum, commemorating both incredible achievements.
Like the Wright Brothers' craft, the RRS Discovery was a craft designed for adventure - in this case, traversing the fierce waters and breaking the ice of the Antarctic for the British National Antarctic Expedition in 1901. We launched a fragment of its hull back in 2016 in one of several artistic collaborations we've been involved in over the years.
1. Buzz Lightyear
Officially, everyone's favourite Space Ranger is "not a flying toy", but that hasn't stopped him from making his way into space. In May 2008, a Buzz Lightyear model was launched into space on the Space Shuttle Discovery to spend over 15 months in space - longer than any astronaut or cosmonaut! - as part of the toys-in-space educational program designed to excite kids about space science. The collaboration between Disney Parks and NASA saw the production of interactive games, worksheets and special messages encouraging students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Created by John Lasseter and voiced by Tim Allen, Buzz is one of Pixar's most beloved characters. His story of arriving in Andy's bedroom, believing himself to be a genuine Space Ranger, slowly discovering his true calling as a toy and a hero, is one of learning to understand your place in the world and becoming the best you can with what you have - morals very close to those which motivate our drive to explore space.
We too have launched a Buzz Lightyear toy into space. In this case, we were working with LadBaby and eBay to auction the beloved toy off in order to raise money for charity Together For Short Lives, a wonderful organisation that support children with life-threatening and life-limiting conditions and their families to make the most of every moment they have together. Their work involved campaigning for care reform measures that will benefit seriously ill children, offering financial and emotional support and organising events that create lasting happy memories together.
Cool stuff that has been to space, continued….
Tardigrades (or, tiny little ‘water bears’)
They also go by the lovely epithet ‘moss piglet’. Despite their microscopic stature, tardigrades are arguably the most badass beings out there. They can withstand conditions that would kill pretty much all other life forms - temperatures ranging from -450 degrees Fahrenheit to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, pressures equal to almost 6,000 Earth atmospheres, no water for a decade, high levels of radiation, as well as other chemicals that would be lethal to most.
In these extreme conditions, they assume a different form known as a ‘tun’ state - a state of suspended animation, sort of like pressing pause on a bizarre, otherworldly cartoon, only for them to shapeshift back to being seemingly indestructible, micro power houses of both land and sea.
Among their myriad of impressive qualities, perhaps the most fascinating idiosyncrasy particular to tardigrades is how their DNA literally breaks into pieces when withstanding harsh climates, assimilating other biological matter in the process.
In 2007, tardigrades were sent to space to see how they fared outside of our planet. The European Space Agency (ESA) sent them on a 12-day expedition, discovering, unsurprisingly, that they can withstand exposure to vacuum and cosmic rays.
The oldest tardigrade, looking like some sort of sentient vacuum cleaner bag is 90 million years old! Arguably the coolest thing to ever take a trip to the stars.
Would you believe that dinosaur remains have been sent to space, not once, but twice? The first dino-fossils-in-space expedition was in 1985, when bone and egg shell remnants from a Maiasaura peeblesorum went to Skylab 2 (USA’s first orbital space station).
This dinosaur is now a whopping 76 million years old. Referred to as ‘good mother lizard’, the hadrosaur cared for their young in large numbers of nesting colonies. This dinosaur in particular is perhaps the best-understood species of dinosaurs.
Later, in 1998, a skull from a species known as a Coelophysis made its way to the Mir, on the spacecraft Endeavour. The fossils came back to Earth safe and sound.
While these are undoubtedly some of the most unusual things that have been sent into space, there are plenty of other odd objects that didn't make the list. What's more, there's plenty of room up there. In over 500 launches, we've sent up some pretty strange items and we're always excited to conduct the next unusual flight. Learn about our other launches and get in touch today right here!