Image by Chris Thompson/SpaceX
1. Three lego figurines
In an effort to get kids interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, NASA sent three LEGO figurines into space aboard its Juno spacecraft in 2011. The space probe shot off to study Jupiter, so the three LEGO people were Galileo Galilei and the Roman gods Jupiter and Juno.
Galileo is most well known for telling everyone the Earth goes around the sun (and not the other way around), but he also discovered four of Jupiter’s moons. Juno, using its scientific instruments, is investigating different aspects of Jupiter and trying to learn more about how it formed. Juno is about halfway done with its mission and has already shaken the world of Jupiter science.
2. Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Star Wars, NASA sent Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber to the International Space Station aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 2007. Aboard the shuttle was the actual prop Mark Hamill used in Return of the Jedi, plus some astronauts and equipment, of course.
The mission wasn’t really about the lightsaber, though. Discovery’s crew went up to attach a new module to the ISS and then came back to Earth two weeks later. Luke’s lightsaber was put on display at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. While it may not have gone all the way to the Forest Moon of Endor, it still had quite the trip.
3. Bull and sea urchin sperm
Space agencies have sent both bull and sea urchin sperm to space — for science! (and because guys are obsessed with the stuff). The question was: How do different amounts of gravity affect sperm movement? It seems that sperm moves faster in microgravity because one of its enzymes doesn’t activate.
When in hypergravity (gravitational conditions stronger than Earth’s gravity) sperm can’t move as well. But since one sperm-related enzyme was disabled in microgravity, it’s possible that others involved in fertilization could be impacted in space, as well. If humans hope to subsist on animal products on lengthy space voyages or reproduce in space, this needs to be studied more.
4. Dirt from Yankee stadium
Astronaut Garrett Reisman, a huge New York Yankees fan, took a vial of dirt from the Yankees’ pitcher mound and a Yankees banner to space on his first mission. During his time at NASA, he flew on three space shuttles (Endeavour, Discovery, and Atlantis) and stayed on the ISS for three months.
While on the ISS, Reisman threw a ceremonial first pitch for a Yankees game, 200 miles or so below. And then a few months later, once he got back to Earth, he threw the first pitch again while physically in their stadium. As a gift, Reisman gave the team the vial of dirt and banner.
5. A smuggled corned beef sandwich
Back in the Gemini days, astronaut John Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich onto his first space mission. It was just him and astronaut Gus Grissom snuggled together in the Gemini 3 capsule. Young had zipped the sandwich into his spacesuit pre-launch and pulled it out during a lull in their responsibilities.
Once Grissom took a bite, small crumbs of rye bread began floating around. These crumbs are the real reason sandwiches aren’t allowed in space: The particles could float their way into equipment, potentially causing serious problems. And while Young was reprimanded for this stunt, he went on to have the longest astronaut career at NASA so far.
6. The Beatles song “Across the Universe”
“Beam me up, NASA!” is not what The Beatles said, but NASA did it anyway. In 2008, NASA beamed their song “Across the Universe,” well, across the universe. Or, rather, right to the North Star. The song is traveling 186,000 miles per second (the speed of light) via NASA’s Deep Space Network.
The giant radio antennas of the Deep Space Network communicate with NASA’s spacecraft by sending and receiving information via radio waves in the hopes that the communication will arrive on alien ears (or whatever they detect sound with). Will someone receive “Across the Universe”? Who knows, but Paul McCartney did say, “Send my love to the aliens.”
7. The sound of herding sheep
In 1977, NASA prepared to send the spacecraft Voyager 1 and 2 blasting off into space. They were going to be the first human-made objects to leave our solar system, so NASA outfitted them each with a shiny golden record. The Golden Record was carefully curated and etched with 115 photographs, 55 different greetings, 90 minutes of music, and 12 minutes of Earth sounds.
These recordings and pictures were all picked to represent Earth, just in case aliens found one of the records and decoded it. One of the sounds was of someone herding sheep. You can hear the “baaaa” sound coming from the herd, though the quality isn’t great.
8. Three NASCAR starter flags
NASA and the Daytona International Speedway (the “World Center of Racing”) were both celebrating milestones in 2008 — it was NASA’s 50th anniversary and the 50th running of the Daytona 500. So NASA packed three green starter flags on the space shuttle Atlantis and sent it on its way. To space, that is.
The track and space shuttle launch pads were fairly close to each other, so NASCAR drivers and crews enjoyed watching the space shuttles blast off. Once the flags were back on Earth, NASCAR waved one of them at the Daytona 500’s start and NASA gave another to the Daytona 500’s winner (NASA kept the last one).
9. A Buzz Lightyear toy
NASA, Pixar, and Disney partnered to send a toy Buzz Lightyear to the International Space Station aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Buzz Aldrin, y’know, the second guy to walk on the moon (and the first guy to pee on the moon!), cleared the toy Buzz for launch before it blasted off to infinity and beyond.
Buzz Lightyear hung out on the space station for 15 months before returning to Earth. This very important mission was largely for education, as it was used to get kids interested in NASA, space, and science. Pixar made “Mission Logs” for Buzz, which were released on the Toy Story 1, 2, and 3 DVDs.
10. A sculpture commemorating fallen astronauts
During their lunar mission, the Apollo 15 crew left a small statue and plaque on the moon to commemorate the 14 astronauts and cosmonauts that died (thus far) in the line of duty. Some of them died of unrelated things like disease and car accidents, but several died in aircraft accidents or in spacecraft.
The statue, Fallen Astronaut, was a small aluminum sculpture in the shape of a person. Apollo 15’s crew members placed it on the moon’s surface next to their lunar rover. It was a bit secretive at first, but word of the commemorative art eventually got out.
11. Dinosaur fossils
Dinosaurs… in space! What could be a better combination? Well in 1985, NASA astronaut Loren Acton brought dinosaur fossils to space aboard the space shuttle Challenger. The space shuttle was outfitted with Spacelab 2, which was exactly what it sounds like — a space lab.
The fossils were small bone and eggshell pieces from a hadrosaur nesting site; Maiasaura peeblesorum, the “good mother lizard” was 76 million years old. Then, in 1998, space shuttle Endeavor took a dinosaur skull to the space station Mir. Both sets of fossils were returned to Earth. These excursions were a whole lot less exciting than science fiction has made Dinosaurs in Space! out to be.
12. Thousands of craigslist ads
In 2005, all you had to do was check a box when posting your Craigslist ad and it would be beamed to space. Craigslist sent over 100,000 of their ads into outer space via the Deep Space Communications Network. They were aimed toward an empty bit of space about three light-years away.
Mental Floss writes that one of the ads was “Free kittens to a good home,” which just brings to mind the adorable thought of aliens adopting kittens. But many of the other ads were likely for miscellaneous furniture or some shadier stuff. All in all, it was probably a fairly accurate snapshot of humanity.
13. A Pizza Hut pizza
In 2001, Pizza Hut did a major publicity stunt by becoming the first restaurant chain to deliver food to space. It cost them over a million dollars, but gosh golly they got that pizza to the International Space Station (aboard a standard supply rocket).
The pizza was extra salty (because taste buds can become dulled in space) and covered in salami (because pepperoni goes bad quicker). The American astronauts weren’t allowed to have any because NASA was against the commercialization of their spacecraft (but that’s no longer the case). But the joke’s on you, Pizza Hut, because they can now 3D print pizza in space.
14. A recording of human brainwaves
A small team curated the Golden Record, including astrophysicist Carl Sagan and creative director Ann Druyan. They worked hard to pick images and sounds to represent all of humanity to whatever is out there. At the same time, though, they were falling in love. The two got engaged just days before Druyan recorded her brain activity for the record.
At the Bellevue Hospital, Druyan thought through a planned script while her brain’s electrical impulses were recorded. But the mind tends to wander, so she also ruminated on “the wonder of love, of being in love” (she told NPR). These thoughts were all etched onto the Golden Record and sent into space for aliens to discover.
15. A Le Brouere cheese wheel
When sending a spacecraft on its very first flight, it’s a good idea to make its payload something with little value, just in case anything goes wrong. So SpaceX sent a giant wheel of cheese into space on their very first Dragon capsule flight in 2010.
The cheese wheel was a giant homage (fromage?) to Monty Python as it was inspired by one of their comedy sketches (the sketch takes place in a cheese shop). At first, the cheese payload was kept secret: On the Dragon, it was encased in a metal box with “Top Secret” and a cow printed on it.
16. Pieces of the original Wright Brothers plane
The moon landing was a big deal, and so to acknowledge that, the Apollo 11 crew took a myriad of things with them. They left some things on the moon’s surface, like an American flag and a chip etched with messages from 73 different world leaders, but some stuff was just along for the ride there and back.
To commemorate humankind’s first flight, Apollo 11 took fabric and wood pieces from the Wright Brothers’ airplane to the moon and back. Only 66 years separated humanity’s first proper, controlled flight in 1903 and people stepping foot on the moon in 1969.
17. A Doritos commercial
In 2008, history was made when the first advertisement was sent into space. The EISCAT European space station sent a Doritos commercial encoded in ones and zeros to a solar system in the Ursa Major constellation (the Big Dipper is part of Ursa Major).
Doritos actually held a competition for people to submit their own videos, one of which was sent to space. The winning clip was called “Tribe” and it featured stop motion Doritos sacrificing one of their own to a jar of salsa. The message was sent repeatedly over a six-hour period to the solar system 42 light-years away.
While many of these things have been sent to space for sentimental reasons or as a gimmick, salmonella blasted off for science. The bacteria were grown aboard the space shuttle Atlantis but once it landed back on Earth, scientists quickly shuttled it off to infect unsuspecting mice.
Another group of mice was infected with salmonella grown on Earth. When the researchers compared the two groups, they found the space salmonella got the mice sick quicker. The bacteria’s gene activity changed while it was in space, making it more dangerous. So while astronauts probably don’t need to worry about moon diseases, they should be careful about what they bring from Earth.
19. A bright red Tesla
Just last year, in 2018, Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla and SpaceX) sent a bright red Tesla Roadster to space. In the driver’s seat was Starman, a dummy astronaut. The Verge called it “science served with a side of badass.” This publicity stunt was certainly more eye-catching than Pizza Hut’s space station delivery.
The roadster and Starman continue to orbit the sun. Every now and then they get close to Earth or Mars, but for the most part, the car is just cruising through empty space. While the red Tesla was a stunt, its launch was actually quite important for a different reason: it was the first flight of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.
20. A treadmill named after Stephen Colbert
To not lose muscle mass from life in microgravity, astronauts staying at the ISS must exercise a few hours a day. But they have to contend with microgravity, so NASA makes special treadmills that work with floating people. One of these special treadmills is named the Combined Operational Load-Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT.
That’s right, it’s named after comedian Stephen Colbert. He encouraged his viewers to submit his name for the treadmill, gaining public interest in NASA and bragging rights for himself. To actually use the machine, an astronaut must strap into it; with the straps on, it’s kind of like wearing a backpack.
21. Playboy magazine pictures
Just a few months after humans landed on the moon for the very first time, astronauts returned with Playboy nude photos strapped to their wrists. So, what exactly happened on Apollo 12? Well, astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean had very detailed itineraries for their lunar activities. These were in the form of little books on their wrists, which someone hijacked before blast off.
The mission’s backup commander, Dave Scott, thought it would be funny if he inserted a Playboy photo into each of their books. Conrad and Bean were surprised when, two and a half hours into the second-ever moon mission, they flipped to the next page and found nude pictures. The two giggled about it but didn’t say anything to avoid alerting everyone down below what had transpired.
22. Star Trek cast and crew ashes
While James Doohan played an interstellar explorer on TV, as chief engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott in Star Trek, he actually got to the stars in the afterlife. The company Celestis offers memorial spaceflights to those who would like to rest among the stars. Celestis took some of Doohan’s ashes to space via SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in 2012.
But this wasn’t the first member of Star Trek whose ashes were sent to space: Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek creator, went up twice (once in 1992 aboard space shuttle Columbia and then again in 1994 with Celestis). However, only one person has ever been “buried” on the moon: geologist Eugene Shoemaker.
23. Microscopic animals called tardigrades
Tardigrades (a type of microscopic animal) can survive at temperatures between -328 and 300 degrees Fahrenheit, pressures 6000 times as strong as Earth’s atmosphere, and radiation that would kill a human a thousand times over. These creepy yet adorable little animals were found to be the ultimate survivalist that some European scientists thought they might be able to survive in space…
The answer, dear reader, is yes. After being subjected to the vacuum and solar radiation of space for ten days, about two-thirds of the dehydrated tardigrades survived. They were rehydrated on Earth and a few of them even had healthy offspring afterward. These tough “water bears” can live in a half-dead, dehydrated state for decades.
24. The movie The Day the Earth Stood Still
Back in 2008, the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still opened both on Earth and in space. While people saw the remake in theaters for the first time, the Deep Space Communications Network was beaming the movie into space. The movie was sent four light-years away to Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to our solar system.
At that point in time, all you needed to do to blast your signal to space was give the Deep Space Communications Network $299. It still says you can do so on their website, but the site looks like it hasn’t been updated in a while.
25. Thousands of text messages
Have you ever wanted to text aliens? In 2009, COSMOS magazine and the Australian government partnered with NASA to send 25,878 text messages to space — that’s nearly as much as your friend who keeps sharing their FaceApp results. The project was called “Hello From Earth” and people submitted their texts to HelloFromEarth.net.
From there, the texts were beamed to Gliese 581d, an exoplanet 20 light-years away from Earth. While the planet’s existence is still a little up in the air, if it does exist, it seems to be in the habitable zone of its sun. This means it could conceivably have liquid water, which (as far as we know) is crucial for sustaining life.