Space Age Folklore

Folklore is often regarded as something ‘other people’ have, certainly not educated people such as NASA staff at California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

But a story on Stuart Clark’s Across The Universe blog for The Guardian demonstrates that we all have folklore and traditions, even scientists who normally pour scorn on superstitious beliefs.

Peanuts! Celebrations at Mission Control after Curiosity lands safely on the Cursed Planet, Mars (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech).

Much has been written about the supposed ‘curse of Mars‘ which has been blamed for the loss of two thirds of the 35 missions to the Red Planet since 1960.  So no one can blame NASA staff for being a little uptight in the moments before the Curiosity rover’s safe touchdown in the Gale Crater at 6.31 on Monday, 6 August.  Yet, despite all the years of planning and technical expertise, the pre-landing tension at mission control was broken by a NASA tradition that involves a simple packet of peanuts!

According to Stuart Clark, the ritual dates from 1967 when NASA’s Ranger 7 became the first US spacecraft to take close-up images of the Moon. During the mission someone noticed one of the controllers munching on the snack and ever since that time peanuts are passed around staff to ‘ensure success’.

And peanut-eating is not the only superstition observed by NASA staff. Shortly after the touchdown on Monday, the landing team handed over to the surface team. Every day since the launch of Curiosity in November 2011 the flight team has ‘moved a marble from one jar to another’ to ensure success. On Tuesday the final one of the 254 marbles fell into place to mark the success of the mission.

This type of superstition is entirely consistent with the folklore of other hazardous occupations such as fighter pilots, fishermen and miners who all have their own elaborate rituals that provide a level of control over the unknown.

But nothing beats the ritual followed by Russian cosmonauts who, according to Across the Universe ‘urinate on the wheel of their transport vehicle just before they get on the rocket and… are required to watch the same 1969 adventure movie the night before the launch.’

We might have landed on the Moon and sent probes to other worlds but deep down we remain the same old fearful homo sapiens, clinging to our superstitions and rituals in order to make sense of a chaotic universe.

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One Response to Space Age Folklore

  1. Ross says:

    Exactly. Superstition and science are not incompatible in our world. In fact, they make charming bedfellows.

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