Why Did We Send These Weird Things Into Space?

By Helen LinLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:59:50 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Brannon Naito/Unsplash

Our desire to explore space means we’ve sent all sorts of things into the cosmos, from flora to fauna. In 1962, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first human to journey into space. Space visits are much safer and more frequent now, and the most surprising objects get left behind.

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Some tokens are deliberately sent into space — or to whoever is out there — to present earthling art, sounds, science and more to the universe. Check out these weird things that have found their way into the stratosphere.

Astronaut Animals

Before humans were shot into space, space travel's safety was tested on other mammals. Laika, a Russian dog, was the first living being sent into orbit and sadly died after a few hours. The first real success was in 1959 when squirrel monkey Miss Baker survived traveling 360 miles high aboard a Jupiter rocket.

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Photo Courtesy: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

She went on to appear on the cover of Life magazine, "got married" to fellow monkey Big George, worked as an entertainer at the U.S Space and Rocket Center in Alabama and eventually passed away at the grand age of 27.

Cosmic Crawlies

In 2011 two golden orb spiders, Gladys and Esmerelda, moved into the International Space Station. Scientists wanted to see whether their web-spinning ability was affected by microgravity. Sadly, there were no Marvel-esque results; the spiders created webs the same ways they did on Earth.

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This differed from orb spiders in a previous experiment, which showed they frantically spun webs at all times of day in zero gravity. Various other creepy crawlies have gone cosmic, including cutely named "water bears" — microscopic eight-legged creatures that were sent to see if they'd survive extreme temperatures.

More Beatles

No, not more insects — the music of The Beatles. In 2008, NASA’s Deep Space Network beamed "Across the Universe" into the cosmos for far-flung fans to hear. It was accompanied by a message from Sir Paul McCartney: "Send my love to the aliens. All the best, Paul."

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Photo Courtesy: Fiona/Wikimedia Commons

The tune is making its way across the universe at a speed of 186,000 miles per second. Its end destination, the North Star or Polaris, is 431 light-years from Earth. By the time it arrives, it remains to be seen whether Sir McCartney will still be touring.

Interstellar Songs

Far from limiting aliens to the music of The Fab Four, there have been plenty more songs sent into the stratosphere — with some composed especially for the universe. In 2003, British band Blur composed music for the launch of Beagle 2. The track acted as a call sign that the rocketship successfully landed on Mars.

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Photo Courtesy: Jeremiah Wallace/Unsplash

Other space-bound hits included "Up in the Air" by 30 Seconds to Mars, "Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry and "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" by blues musician Blind Willie Johnson.

Sounds of the Planets

There are some high-culture pieces sent for extraterrestrials to hear, too. But they’re not just any old classical songs — one is a special piece based on the motion of our solar system’s planets. In the 17th century, German astronomer Johannes Kepler discovered laws of planetary motion and the hypothetical music based on them.

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Sadly his ideas predated the technology needed to bring this music to life, and it wasn’t until 350 years later that the music was played into fruition by professors Ruff and Rodgers. Then, it was recorded onto vinyl and shot into space.

Bring the Noise

The Golden Record was a library of images and sounds sent into space in the 1970s. A lot of these noises were chosen to represent Earth’s sounds and were quite evocative, including the sounds of laughter, rainfall, thunder, a heartbeat and ocean waves breaking.

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Other, more random sound snippets that we've broadcast to alien neighbors include some sheep being herded by a shepherd, the sound of an F-111 flyby, wood being sawed, a ship's horn, Morse code, a tractor in motion, a horse and cart, a tame dog and a hyena.

Feel the Force

Where else would it make sense to send a lightsaber than space? The original lightsaber wielded by Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker was aboard the Discovery shuttle-flight mission STS-120. The rocket departed in 2007, marking the 30th anniversary of the Star Wars franchise with the prop from the 1983 film onboard.

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Chewbacca, the much-beloved giant Wookie, presented the legendary weapon to officials at Space Center Houston before the launch. On return, the flight was greeted by Stormtroopers, R2-D2 and other Star Wars stalwarts who collected the lightsaber from William P. Hobby Airport baggage claim.

To Infinity...and Beyond!

Next up is another item of legendary film status: Buzz Lightyear. The 12-inch astronaut action figure from the Toy Story film franchise embarked on a mission in 2008 as part of the team aboard the Discovery STS-124.

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Buzz went as a proud representative of Disney Parks, with the aim of encouraging students to pursue studies in science, technology and mathematics. These are all characteristics and skills that’ll set you in good stead for going on to train and work with NASA. Cheesy Buzz Lightyear smile and catchphrases are, however, optional.

Lunar Lego

Just as Disney used its platform to get kids interested in science, tech, engineering and mathematics, so too has Lego. The massively popular blocks remain one of the most beloved children’s toys because they make creation and problem-solving fun.

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NASA and Lego teamed up to launch the Juno spacecraft in 2011 as part of their educational Bricks in Space project. Onboard the craft were three Lego figurines: Jupiter, named after the planet the spacecraft orbits; Juno, the craft’s namesake and Jupiter’s wife; and Galileo, the ancient scholar who first studied Jupiter.

Galactic Gallery

In further attempts to portray earthlings’ culture, different art mediums were given interplanetary previews. In 1993, a sculpture called Cosmic Dancer was featured in the Russian Mir space station after being specifically designed for display in a space habitat. The space station crew admired the 1kg structure made out of aluminum tubing as it bobbed around weightlessly.

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Photo Courtesy: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Elsewhere in the "galactic gallery" was the sculpture Prisma by artist Pierre Comte, two art prints by the German artist Michael Böhme and a watercolor painting by Elizabeth Carroll Smith.

Interplanetary Penises

Anatomical images on Voyager’s The Golden Record depicted human sex organs, purely for educational purposes. But when Andy Warhol, eminent contemporary artist, doodled a picture of a penis bound for space travel, it was more for entertainment purposes.

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Photo Courtesy: Jack Mitchell/Wikimedia Commons

The image was part of the Moon Museum conceived by Frosty Myers for the Apollo 12 mission in 1969. Considered the first art installation in space, the Moon Museum is a small ceramic wafer featuring art from prominent 1960s artists. Along with Myers and Warhol, it includes Robert Rauschenberg's, David Novros’, John Chamberlain's and Claes Oldenburg's works.

More Space-bound Snaps

Genitalia aside, there are plenty more images floating around on the Golden Record image archive. These include scientific, educational and technological diagrams, along with images of local cuisines and dinner parties — in case our intergalactic cousins fancy cooking something a little different.

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There are multiple black and white images and plenty of color photos too: a tree with daffodils, snowflakes falling, the city of Oxford, Sydney Opera House, Toronto Airport, grape picking, cotton harvesting, mountain climbing, deep-sea diving and many others.

Space Success United

The Wright brothers were dreaming big when they built a craft that flew a few feet off the ground in 1903. But in the early 20th century on Earth, we were still years away from getting significantly off the ground, let alone soaring off into the stratosphere.

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Photo Courtesy: John T Daniels/Wikimedia Commons

Fast-forward to 1969. The team on Apollo 11 honored the Wright brothers by taking along a plaque containing pieces of the aircraft that the innovative brothers flew. It soared into space aboard the moon-bound flight, thus uniting two of humankind's greatest flight achievements.

Dinosaurs in Space!

It's widely presumed dinosaurs were wiped off Earth by a huge comet. Moreover, some theories say that it was a comet, containing dino DNA, that actually started their population on Earth millions of years ago.

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Photo Courtesy: Keith Schengili-Roberts/Wikimedia Commons

If that’s the case, the remains of a Maiasaura dinosaur flew back toward where its kind started. Bits of shell and fossil of this duck-billed dinosaur were taken by astronaut Loren Acton on a Spacelab 2 flight in 1985. The second dinosaur in space was the skull of a Coelophysis, which was on the U.S. space shuttle Endeavour in 1998.

Space Jam

While gravitational conditions somewhat impair the playing of instruments in space, they won't stop the music-loving astronauts. The first live band in space were Wally Schirra and Thomas Stafford. Without NASA’s knowledge, the men smuggled some bells on board and broadcast a version of "Jingle Bells’" over the radio in December 1985.

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Photo Courtesy: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Now all sorts of instruments have been played in space, from a saxophone to an orchestral arrangement to a full rock band with a drum kit. The Smithsonian Institution says the very first musical instrument played in space was an eight-note harmonica.

Cosmic Coffins

Space burials seemed like the thing of science fiction up until a few years ago. But they're bound to become more commonplace — particularly if people have NASA links (or plenty of money). Currently floating around the atmosphere are remains of space physicist Gerard K. O'Neill and astronomer Clyde Tombaugh.

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Photo Courtesy: C Thomas/Wikimedia Commons

They’re in good company with Star Trek's James Doohan, who played Scotty on the original television series, and series creator Gene Roddenberry. Astrogeologist Eugene Shoemaker went one step further and remains the only human ever to have their ashes buried on the moon.

Junk Mail

Even outer space isn't safe from internet spamming. In 2005, a record-breaking 100,000 Craigslist advertisements were broadcast in a commercial move by the Deep Space Optical Communications network. For some reason, Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster wanted to send classified ads into space, so he added the requisite tick box for people when taking out ads.

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This means aliens have been offered second-hand sofas, "personal services" and, of course, thousands of free kittens to a good home — even if that home is in another solar system.

Coins Cover Centuries and Cosmos

Two sets of coins commemorating Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America, were aboard the 2007 space rocket Atlantis. Alongside the coins that honored American exploration, there was a cargo tag detailing the destination "Yames Towne."

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Photo Courtesy: Pi3.124/Wikimedia Commons

It was crafted from metal in England in approximately 1607 before it departed to the Americas. So, it's traveled more than 4 million miles in just a few centuries. The tag is now on display in the Historic Jamestowne Archaearium. NASA presented the coins to different Jamestown archives once they arrived back on Earth.

G’day From Down Under

For National Science Week in 2009, Cosmos magazine in Australia launched a website project called Hello From Earth. Its purpose was to collect English-language texts, each with a maximum length of 160 characters, to send to space. Specifically, the intended destination was a planet in the Gliese 581 system, which, if you’re ever planning a space trip, is approximately 20.4 light-years away in the Libra constellation.

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In total, there were 25,880 messages collected and sent from a huge radio telescope at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex in Tidbinbilla, Australia.

And Greetings From Elsewhere

Voyager’s The Golden Record was the original bulk load of messages sent into outer space, and it wasn’t just in English. There are numerous modern and ancient languages and dialects included — and even a handwritten message from President Jimmy Carter.

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Photo Courtesy: Department of Defense. Department of the Navy. Naval Photographic Center/Wikimedia Commons

The "Greetings in 55 Languages" section features four Chinese dialects,12 South Asian languages and five ancient languages. The voice recordings capture everything from an eager-sounding Mandarin message saying "How’s everyone? We all very much wish to meet you. If you're free please come and visit!" to the short, sweet Korean "Please be well."

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Check Print Settings

If you struggle to work your office printer, spare a thought for those working on one of the newest additions to space clutter: a 3D printer. In 2019, the company Made In Space, Inc. was awarded a $73.3 million contract from NASA to demonstrate the printing of 3D spacecraft parts in orbit.

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Photo Courtesy: zmorph-multitool-3d-printer/Unsplash

This will take place aboard a dedicated craft called Archinaut One, which has the astronomical job of printing at least two 32-foot beams that will ultimately hold solar arrays on each of the spacecraft’s sides. Let’s hope it doesn’t run out of printing material.

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Who Ordered Take-out?

In this day and age, you can get food delivered anytime, anywhere. In the year 2000, Pizza Hut spent a million dollars on a takeaway space-race. A specially made pizza in a Pizza Hut box was delivered to Russian cosmonaut Yuri Usachov aboard the International Space Station. But, we’re guessing it didn't make it in under 30 minutes.

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Another food-based promotional stunt occurred in 2014. Author Nikesh Shukla sent a tandoori lamb chop attached to a fork into the stratosphere just to promote his book, Meatscape.

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More Far-flung Food

Other notable intergalactic food items include four cans of Pepsi and four cans of Coke, taken by the crew aboard the Challenger mission in 1985; some communion wine and bread taken up by legendary astronaut Buzz Aldrin; and a corned beef sandwich from a deli in Cocoa Beach, Florida, taken by John Young in 1965 — which sadly disintegrated when it reached low gravity.

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Photo Courtesy: James Coleman/Unsplash

In 2010 it was revealed the "secret payload" launched in Elon Musk’s SpaceX ship was a Le Brouere wheel of cheese. The flighty fromage was in honor of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus "cheese shop" sketch.

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Pass the Sick Bag

Unfortunately, travel can come with motion sickness, and zero gravity can make throwing up even more of a yucky experience. Thankfully spacecrafts are equipped with special gravity-adapted sick bags — or emesis bags, as they’re more properly known.

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It was once rumored that the Apollo moon landings dumped a load of bags of used vomit behind, but NASA has since cleared these rumors up. Yes, there are sick bags on the moon, but not used ones — just ones the astronauts ditched before the spacecraft departed to keep their cargo weight down.

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A Message of Love

This list item could be a great plot to a sci-fi film about aliens discovering human transmissions. Also on Voyager’s The Golden Record, there’s an hour-long recording of the brainwaves of scientist Ann Druyan.

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Photo Courtesy: The Peabody Awards/Wikimedia Commons

As part of Carl Sagan’s team to find various recordings for Voyager, Ann posited that because EEG patterns register changes in thought, they could be used by more sophisticated beings with more advanced technology to decipher human thoughts. What’s more, the recording was made while Ann was speaking to someone she’d fallen madly in love with — head researcher Sagan.

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Sports in Space

We earthlings love sports, so of course we took those to space too. Famously, astronaut Alan Shepard played golf in zero-gravity conditions on Apollo 14 missions. He hit the ball, and it bobbed along 183 meters. To this day he's the only person to have played on a non-Earth golf course.

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In other missions, astronauts have taken footballs, Frisbees and ping pong for entertainment. And in the ultimate show of fandom, astronaut and Yankees fan Garrett Reisman took a pile of dirt from the pitcher’s mound at Yankee Stadium on his 2008 space mission.

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Rocket Reading Material

Reading is the ultimate travel pastime, so naturally, plenty of literature was packed for space journeys. Here are two of the most noteworthy. The first is by Saparmurat Niyazov, the President of Turkmenistan from 1990 to 2006.

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His book on moral guidance, Ruhnama, or The Book of the Soul, was sent into outer space on a Russian rocket in 2005. Arguably its moral opposite, a copy of Playboy Magazine, was taken into space by a member of the Apollo 12 back-up crew in 1967. We wonder which one the aliens would find more interesting...

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Amelia Flies On

Amelia Earhart is one of the most famous names in aviation history, known for being the first woman to pilot a solo flight across the Atlantic. As a tribute, the American icon’s watch was flown to a Space Station in 2010 with astronaut Shannon Walker.

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Photo Courtesy: Underwood & Underwood/Wikimedia Commons

Shannon is a member of the women’s pilot organization The Ninety-Nines, of whom Amelia Earhart was the first president. Also in 2010, the grandson of Earhart’s trusted photographer, astronaut Randy Bresnik, took a scarf belonging to Amelia with him aboard Atlantis for the STS-129 mission.

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Extreme Skydiving

Think of the weirdest, wildest place to skydive. It doesn’t get much more extreme than miles above Earth! In footage made famous around the world — thanks to generous funding from Red Bull — an Austrian skydiver-turned-astronaut found that the drink really did give him wings.

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Photo Courtesy: FlugKerl2/Wikimedia Commons

After flying 24 miles into the stratosphere in a hot air balloon, Felix Baumgartner free-fell in a pressure suit, reaching 843 miles an hour and breaking the sound barrier, before floating the rest of the way back down over New Mexico in a parachute. Far out, man!

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Interplanetary Pinup

Not many famous actors get bragging rights of interplanetary fame. Val Kilmer is one of very few that could have been featured on the walls of alien fans. At least that might have happened if the capsule, sealed by the movie poster for Kilmer’s 1984 film Top Secret!, hadn’t safely landed back on Earth.

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Photo Courtesy: Top Secret!/IMDb

In Elon Musk’s SpaceX Dragon capsule, the poster covered the top of the aforementioned cheese-wheel payload that was sent into orbit to test the commercial spacecraft flight in 2010.

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