Steak, Beans and Vests: NASA's Weird Traditions

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JPL engineers eating handfuls of peanuts during Curiosity’s landing on August 5 was just the latest expression of a long standing legume-based tradition. But it’s far from the only tradition NASA has. There are loads, almost all of which have sprung up accidentally, and many have roots in the nation’s earliest space-faring days.

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On the morning of May 5, 1961, flight surgeon Bill Douglas woke Al Shepard in the wee hours of the morning. The astronaut shaved, showered, then polished off a breakfast of filet minion, eggs, orange juice, and tea. The high protein meal was designed to fill him up while being low residue enough that he wouldn’t need to relieve himself for a few hours.

Shepard’s flight that morning was NASA’s first, the suborbital Freedom 7, and it was a striking success. So much so that the traditional pre-launch breakfast became steak and eggs for all the astronauts.

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That’s changed a little in recent years, though high protein/low residue is still the ideal combination. Astronaut Mike Fincke opted for grilled lobster tails and a baked potato the morning of May 16, 2011, the day he launched on STS-134.

Mission control developed its own food-based tradition during the shuttle program. When the launch team was preparing for STS-1 — the first orbital shuttle flight — people would bring in covered dishes to share during prelaunch and postlaunch operations. NASA test director Norm Carlson joined in the potluck, and on April 12, 1981 — launch day — he brought a small crock pot of beans and cornbread. The launch was a success, and the beans and cornbread disappeared.

Carlson doubled his offering of beans and cornbread for STS-2’s November 12 launch, and again they were devoured after the shuttles reached orbit. He kept bringing in larger quantities of beans until it got to be too much. Instead, he set up an 18 quart cooker on the fourth floor of the Launch Control Center. The call of “Beans are Go!” became the traditional signal of a successful launch that was celebrated with a helping of beans made to Carlson’s recipe.

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Years before launch beans became a staple for launch teams, flight director Gene Kranz’s wife Marta made vests a permanent fixture in mission control. The Gemini program saw NASA’s first multi-day missions, which meant mission control would have to operate in shifts. Each flight director led a team designated by a color; Kranz’s was the White Team. Worried that his youth would make it hard for his team to take him seriously — he was just 31 when he ran his first shift during Gemini 4 — he wanted an insignia to bring unity among his controllers. Marta suggested she sew him a white vest. She did, and it was a hit with the White Team.

Kranz’s vests became a tradition. Marta sewed him a new one for every mission and even had a second vest, usually a more festive one, sent to mission control for her husband to wear during splashdowns.

Another tradition thought to have originated during the Gemini program is the pre-launch card game between the mission commander and the tech crew. The mission can’t launch until the commander loses a hand. This game has been variously described as some variation on blackjack or a kind of five-card poker.

There are equivalent traditions in the Russian space program, many of which are directly related to Yuri Gagarin’s historic Vostok 1 flight.

Before leaving the Star City training complex near Moscow, Soyuz flight crews leave red carnations at the Memorial Wall in memory of the earliest cosmonauts. They then visit Gagarin’s office, which has been preserved just as it was the day he died in 1968. The cosmonauts sign his guestbook and ask his ghost for help on their mission.

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Leaving their hotel rooms for breakfast on launch day — the highlight of the meal being the traditional glass of champagne — cosmonauts autograph the door. Before leaving the building, a Russian Orthodox priest blesses and sprinkles the crew with holy water.

They travel to the launch site in a bus adorned with a horseshoe for good luck. Before climbing into their Soyuz spacecraft, cosmonauts urinate on the transfer bus’ right rear wheel; female cosmonauts bring a vial of their urine to spill. This tradition is traced back to Gagarin himself who is said to have relieved himself on the bus before climbing aboard Vostok 1. But it’s a not an easy one to prove. With his every move was tracked and documented by camera crew, it’s hard to imagine Gagarin would have had the chance or freedom to urinate in the open. Not to mention the Soviet leaders would likely have found it an improper display for a national hero.

The culture of tradition might seem a little strange in a realm where hard science dominates, but it’s unsurprising that traditions of successful flights are repeated in the dangerous business of space exploration. Besides, there are worse rituals to take part in than games of cards, a breakfast of steak, and public urination before launching into space.

Image: Gene Kranz, one of the two Apollo 13 flight directors, lights a cigar in NASA mission control after the successful splashdown of Apollo 13 on April 17, 1970. He’s wearing one of his wife’s vests. Credit: NASA