From a lead cargo tag uncovered by archaeologists in Jamestown, Va., to unauthorized postage stamps astronauts intended to sell, members of the space program have been inventive about what they take into space.
In between the final launch of the NASA space shuttle Atlantis in July 2011 and its first space flight 30 years earlier, there were more than 100 journeys — and just about as many unusual items on board.
Wondering what other offbeat items humans have launched into space? Whether it’s a paper airplane or a stuffed animal added to a space shuttle’s manifesto, or even a DIY project that sent a child’s toy into near-orbit, there have been plenty of upward-bound items that were far from necessary cargo. If you think these examples were odd, we’re sure you’ll want to know why the cells of a long-dead woman were on-board or why glow-in-the-dark beads tagged along for a ride.
«To infinity … and beyond!» may have been Buzz Lightyear’s fictional call-to-action, but in 2008 the catchphrase signaled a literal adventure for this Disney character. That’s when a 12-inch (30.5-centimeter) Buzz Lightyear action figure orbited the Earth for 468 days as a passenger aboard the International Space Station. Lightyear was part of an educational outreach program during Space Shuttle Discovery’s STS-124 mission to the space station. Lightyear was a featured character in the STEM program, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics; it included a series of online learning games and science lessons piped into elementary school classrooms [source: Pearlman].
When he did finally come back to Earth, Lightyear, a character in Disney-Pixar’s 1995 animated «Toy Story» film, returned to a hero’s welcome — one that included his eventual installment in the Smithsonian Museum’s National Collection. Despite a spate of media attention, Lightyear remains mum on whether he prefers the travel of a space shuttle to a self-powered backpack rocket [source: Siceloff].
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].