Von Braun to Musk: A Short History of Space Pranks Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Von Braun to Musk: A Short History of Space Pranks

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Nobody should ever do anything light-hearted in outer space, right? After all, the history of space exploration is an epic tale of high-minded effort and portentous pronouncements. There's no room for such frivolity as launching a red sports car with a dashboard sign that advocates calm in large, friendly letters, right? We mean, there's no precedent for that, is there?

If you think that, we have one question: Haven't you been paying attention for the last century? Rocket scientists, engineers, and astro/cosmonauts are a bunch of jolly jokers. They're way funnier than those people you watch on television. We'll prove it.

Halt! You Are Exceeding the Speed Limit!

In the beginning, there was a German rocket scientist. He was the original mad scientist, and a baron, no less. He was all of twelve years old, and he got arrested by the Berlin police in 1924. It seems young Wernher von Braun had attached six rockets to a toy wagon. Maybe he took that 'Radio Flyer' name a little too literally…

Later, there was the Verein für Raumschifffahrt. They really wanted to publicise the idea of space travel. They had to start on the ground, though. They helped Max von Opel advertise his automobiles by building 'rocket cars' – and driving them, the daredevils. You can see a photo of one here. In 1928, Max von Opel reached 238 km/hr in a rocket car.

Before NASA

Hey, Mr Spaceman
Won't you please take me along
I won't do anything wrong...

- The Byrds, 1967

The rocket scientists from the Verein für Raumschifffahrt wanted to go to outer space, but a war broke out, and their leaders had other plans. While space scientists in other countries spun their wheels for lack of funding, and their colleagues worked on atom bombs, German rocket scientists found themselves under pressure to make weapons. Von Braun's doctoral thesis wasn't published – because the army labelled it 'top secret' for its military potential. The Nazi government made the rocket scientists offers they couldn't refuse. Those V-2 rockets weren't headed to the moon, but in the direction of London. Nobody found this amusing: the Second World War wasn't the least bit funny.

After the war, other belligerent powers decided they wanted some of that rocket action. After all, they might want to threaten a neighbour sometime. Wernher von Braun decided the United States was the best destination if he actually hoped to con some authorities into aiming at space rather than a major city, so he manoeuvred his team into the path of the Third Army. Operation Paperclip – the US plan to co-opt talent from the now-defeated Third Reich – brought von Braun and the others to Huntsville, Alabama and testing grounds in New Mexico… along with trainloads of V-2 rockets which hadn't been used as weapons yet.

The scientists were under no illusions: their new bosses wanted missiles, the same as their old bosses. They, however, wanted to get humankind to the moon, one of these days. So they kept refining missile technology. Between 1945 and 1951, they launched 67 V-2 rockets over New Mexico. Okay, once, they accidentally hit Juarez, Mexico, narrowly missing a munitions dump. It was a faulty gyroscope1. Back to the drawing board, as they said back then.

Early missile technology wasn't funny. It was being controlled by the military. At least, it wasn't intentionally funny. However, it was ironic in many ways. Unlike weaponised missiles, space rockets were going to need passengers. The scientists 'volunteered' any number of species, from fungus spores in 1946 up through mice and monkeys. When the experiments hit the higher orders of the animal kingdom, animal protection organisations started to object. Oddly, though, at the same time, the scientists started getting offers of human volunteers, some of them from people with bad consciences who hoped to atone for past misdeeds by a selfless act on behalf of humanity. As a NASA report explains:

Lt Col (later Colonel) John P. Stapp, Chief, Aeromedical Field Laboratory, HADC, noted in September 1955 that an "indignant letter from a mouse-loving lady in England" arrived three years after the first publicity on the Aerobee flights (ltr., Lt Col Stapp to Otto C Winzen, 21 September, 1955). A typical human volunteer letter came from Ernesto S Veloso, Cebu City, Philippine Republic, 21 January, 1956, addressed to "US Air Force Laboratory, Alamogordo, NM." The letter was answered by Maj Simons on 17 February, 1956, respectfully declining this "very patriotic" offer on technical grounds. The offer from Washington State Penitentiary was addressed by an inmate on 27 November, 1956, to Dr Hubertus Strughold of the School of Aviation Medicine; Dr Strughold referred it to Holloman, where it was duly answered by Maj Simons on 10 January, 1957.
- History of Research in Space Biology and Biodynamics, NASA, 1958, Source Notes for Part I, footnote 15.

On 29 July, 1958, NASA was founded as a civilian space agency. Space travel was about to get a lot more fun.

To the Moon!

A spiral galaxy walked into a bar for a drink. The barman threw him out and said 'You're barred!'
- Bad joke on the Internet

NASA astronauts work hard. They put their lives in danger, sitting atop giant bombs just to get free of Earth's gravity and see what's out there. They often relieve tension with jokes. Sometimes, their bosses appreciate - but not always.

Here are some of NASA astronauts' greatest pranks:

  • Around Christmas 1965, Gemini astronauts Walter Schirra and Tom Stafford claimed to see 'a command module and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit...' They broke out a smuggled harmonica and sleigh bells, and became the first humans to sing 'Jingle Bells' in space.
  • Space food wasn't universally regarded with enthusiasm by the astronauts. In 1965, Gus Grissom, the mission commander of Gemini 3, was less than complimentary about it. Two hours after take-off Grissom's crewmember, John Young, famously gave Grissom a corned beef sandwich which he'd smuggled up in his spacesuit. The sandwich shed crumbs and had to be disposed of. Apparently the joke didn't go down too well with the powers that be, either.
  • Grissom also nicknamed Gemini 3 'Molly Brown' after a Broadway play, The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Molly was the American lady who had pretty much taken command of one of Titanic's lifeboats and tried to rescue others. The name was a bit of a dig at those who had implied that Grissom was responsible for the loss of his previous Mercury spacecraft Liberty Bell 7 when the hatch blew off prematurely and it sank.
  • Apollo 12 had a stowaway: a live cockroach. When all attempts to capture the insect proved futile, astronaut and moon-walker Pete Conrad displayed a plastic bug he'd smuggled aboard, claiming it was the cockroach in question. Did a roach go to the Moon? Nobody knows.
  • The Apollo 12 backup crew added a Playboy centrefold and other 'girlie' pictures to the away team's wrist notebooks - something they carefully avoided mentioning in their live-mic comments. Some taxpayers have no sense of humour.
  • In 1971, Apollo 15 astronaut Dave Scott carried out a humorous but enlightening demonstration of Galileo's famous gravity experiment - using a hammer and a feather.
  • In 1973, Skylab astronauts smuggled in a carefully-scripted tape in which Helen Garriott – not an astronaut herself, but an astronaut's wife   - claimed to be aboard Skylab, to bring 'the boys' a 'hot cooked meal'. As this was before female astronauts joined the crews, consternation at ground control was great. The astronauts didn't reveal how they pulled the prank off until 1999.

Orbital Jollification

I'd like to apologise to the lady I just called by mistake saying 'Hello, is this planet Earth?' - not a prank call... just a wrong number.
- Tim Peake on Twitter, from aboard the ISS, 24 December, 2015

Working aboard the ISS is clearly an awesome experience. The view surpasses that of any office in the world. Astronauts up there are busy. Still, there seems to be time to pull off a few workplace pranks and indulge in play.

  • In 2007, space shuttle Discovery took a lightsabre into space.
  • In 2008, Discovery took a Buzz Lightyear figure along for the ride. They seemed to like toys.
  • In 2012, ISS astronaut Satoshi Furukawa made a Lego model of his temporary home to pass the downtime in orbit.
  • In 2015, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield broadcast his cover of David Bowie's Space Oddity from aboard the ISS. The video was awesome.
  • Samantha Cristoforetti wore a stunning Star Trek uniform in orbit in April 2015.
  • In 2016, Scott Kelly put on a gorilla costume and chased fellow astronauts around the ISS. The video, complete with Yakkety Sax2 score, went viral.
  • In 2017, Peggy Whitson packed herself into a cargo bag, then emerged to startle her fellow astronauts.
  • A 2017 crew posed for its 'crew picture' by striking superhero poses in zero g.
  • The ISS has served as the backdrop for more than one video or film. The absolute worst was probably space tourist Richard Allen Garriott's epic Apogee of Fear, in which astronauts and cosmonauts proved they shouldn't quit their day jobs.

Commercial Hijinks

I would like to die on Mars; just not on impact.
- Elon Musk, 2012

Now that space exploration is becoming commercial – see space tourists – it is inevitable that product placement will happen. This has already been foreshadowed in many a science fiction film, but has now become 21st-Century reality with the launching of a red Tesla convertible by SpaceX3.

This wasn't the first piece of space levity by SpaceX. In 2010, the firm launched a Dragon spacecraft into orbit carrying a 'top secret' payload: a big wheel of Le Brouère cheese. Payloads need to be tested: why not a wheel of cheese? As space travel becomes cheaper and more common, it will no doubt become more amusing. We can probably expect a lot more jokes.

1This and other fascinating facts and statistics can be gleaned from the Marshall Space Flight Center History Office report available online. They'll tell you how big the rockets were, how much fuel they used, and all those fun numbers.2Famously used by 'comedian' Benny Hill at the end of each episode of The Benny Hill Show, which always involved a chase sequence.3This test of the Falcon Heavy also made science fiction history by affixing the words 'Don't Panic' to the dashboard of the space-borne vehicle.

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