The recent success of the Mars missions has brought space exploration back into the public consciousness, and an exciting future lays ahead. It’s worth remembering the many adventurous and unusual things we’ve sent to the International Space Station, which celebrates its 20th birthday next year.
Mankind has an insatiable thirst for exploration, and we have successfully trekked to and inhabited all corners of the globe—land, sea, and sky. You can find human technology intertwined with the surroundings practically everywhere, and our next target is space. Mars is where explorers and researchers have set their sights, but, in the meantime, the Space Station is a stepping stone that we’ve been making our intermediate home.
Here are 12 things you would not expect to find on the Space Station, which have all been up there during its history.
1. Contraband (not only on the space station—but too good not to mention)
Astronauts are rigorously trained, dedicated to their missions, and put their lives at risk for mankind. However, you may be surprised to hear of some of the acts of insubordination, over the years, with several Space Station inhabitants and other astronauts covertly bringing up things they weren’t supposed to.
The most famous example is that of a corned beef sandwich which was smuggled into space in 1965. When the offending astronaut, John Young, opened it up to take a bite, he only managed one morsel before it disintegrated, making it the most dangerous sandwich (not) in the world. It may seem amusing, but it caused controversy after the mission.
What about Santa Claus? In December 1965, the Gemini 6 crew reported a UFO sighting to mission control, only to later “reveal” that it was Santa Claus (they even shook bells into the communication microphone). This might seem like fun (and it was), but it’s worth bearing in mind that this was a serious mission, and the crew stood to get in trouble for the prank. Thankfully, nothing came of it.
And, finally, back to the Space Station itself. Before setting off for the station in 2015, Rick Mastracchio privately raffled off space in his luggage to allow his Twitter followers to send their photos to space. While it was not a big deal, it was still an unofficial action that could have landed him in trouble like the corned-beef crew.
2. Interesting experiments
Space programs are widely known as a useful means to test under zero-gravity conditions. While most of the results of these experiments would not be considered interesting for those not working in the relevant field of research—some have provided humorous and surprising results. One experiment even demonstrated that roses smell different in space.
3. Musical instruments
There is a ukulele, an electric piano, and a guitar in the Space Station’s “rec room.” Only the guitar has been played much, though.
4. Many, many recordings
Similar to the musical instruments, over the years there have been all sorts of recordings sent to the space station to represent Earth’s cultural heritage. These include recordings of the sounds of thunder, carpenters sawing wood, and ocean waves.
5. Many surprising foods
Space food has a place in popular culture, but some interesting and appetizing items have been placed aboard, like tandoori lamb chops. In 2013, the crew even found a trash-can-lid-sized fruitcake, which none had requested. Fruitcake space food may not sound good, but one of the crew members said: “We tried it, and it was great.”
Not only is unusual food surprising on the space station, but some regular food items you wouldn’t expect have also shown up there. In 2001, Pizza Hut became the first company to deliver in outer space. They had to pay over $1 million to do so, but, to the Russian astronauts who ate it (the Americans weren’t allowed to partake because of NASA’s ban on space advertising), it must have been a good deal.
6. Cosmic rays
On the space station, there have been numerous accounts of astronauts seeing flashing lights even with their eyes closed. This has since been explained as cosmic rays, which are not present on Earth due to our atmosphere.
7. A 3D printer
It is very difficult for space agencies to bring technology into space since it must be folded and made compact for the journey. One solution they recently came up with was to use a 3D printer. This will save time and resources since, if any unplanned repairs are needed, the components can be mostly created on board.
8. Toys and decorations
The space station is a bit of a dreary place, so astronauts have brought up things to lighten the mood. The crew regularly hang Christmas decorations during the festive season, and, once, a Japanese crew member built a Lego model of the space station while he was living aboard.
9. Private companies
This might not be surprising, with the advent of SpaceX, but, to people 20 years ago, the thought that private companies with $12 billion in funding would be docking vehicles at the space station would have been a strange one. This is worth a mention, given the company’s ramping up of its activities, with its first-ever launch from the Kennedy Space Center taking place on February 19, 2017.
10. Remains of the deceased
Some of the remains of several notable people have been brought to the space station, including portions of the remains of physicist Gerard K O’Neill (1927–1992), Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (1921-1991), and rocket scientist Krafft Ehricke (1917–1984).
Animals in space have a long history (longer than ours), but what might surprise you is the sheer volume and range of species that make the trip. Each shuttle flight to the space station carries around two dozen species, and over 3,000 bees were on the station at one stage.
12. A whole range of bizarre knick-knacks and mementos
These include clay from the pitcher’s mound in Yankee stadium, a 6-book library, a lightsaber prop, and a NASCAR flag. In fact, NASA technology has been used in NASCAR vehicles, and the two organizations have close links.
Some of these objects and additions may seem trivial, but the ability to safely contain animals, objects, and activities on the space station is a major engineering challenge and a crucial component of making space inhabitation liveable. It is not easy to keep a colony of animals alive 220 miles above the Earth’s surface, and these feats represent the pinnacle of human and engineering achievement. These advances mean that, someday, you may be able to venture into space comfortably with a private space travel provider. Just don’t forget to pack your corned-beef sandwich.