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10 Offbeat Things Humans Have Launched Into Space

Space Shuttle Discovery blasts off from the Kennedy Space Center on April 5, 2010, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. See more space exploration pictures.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

From a lead cargo tag uncovered by archaeologists in Jamestown, Va., to unauthorized postage stamps astronauts intended to sell, members of the space program have been inventive about what they take into space.

In between the final launch of the NASA space shuttle Atlantis in July 2011 and its first space flight 30 years earlier, there were more than 100 journeys -- and just about as many unusual items on board.

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Wondering what other offbeat items humans have launched into space? Whether it's a paper airplane or a stuffed animal added to a space shuttle's manifesto, or even a DIY project that sent a child's toy into near-orbit, there have been plenty of upward-bound items that were far from necessary cargo. If you think these examples were odd, we're sure you'll want to know why the cells of a long-dead woman were on-board or why glow-in-the-dark beads tagged along for a ride.

"To infinity ... and beyond!" may have been Buzz Lightyear's fictional call-to-action, but in 2008 the catchphrase signaled a literal adventure for this Disney character. That's when a 12-inch (30.5-centimeter) Buzz Lightyear action figure orbited the Earth for 468 days as a passenger aboard the International Space Station. Lightyear was part of an educational outreach program during Space Shuttle Discovery's STS-124 mission to the space station. Lightyear was a featured character in the STEM program, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics; it included a series of online learning games and science lessons piped into elementary school classrooms [source: Pearlman].

When he did finally come back to Earth, Lightyear, a character in Disney-Pixar's 1995 animated "Toy Story" film, returned to a hero's welcome -- one that included his eventual installment in the Smithsonian Museum's National Collection. Despite a spate of media attention, Lightyear remains mum on whether he prefers the travel of a space shuttle to a self-powered backpack rocket [source: Siceloff].

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HeLa cells are named for Henrietta Lacks, a 1950s cancer patient from whom they were sampled. Lacks later succumbed to the cervical cancer that had spread throughout her body, but the descendants of the hardy cells that were removed from her body are still alive today. In the 1960s, they were rocketed into space with the second Russian satellite ever put into orbit. HeLa cells also were sent with the first humans to go into space, where scientists discovered HeLa cells divided even more quickly in zero gravity. Today, HeLa cells are at the heart of much scientific research. They've been instrumental to researchers developing vaccines and HIV tests, studying disease processes and mapping genetic code [source: NPR].

Henrietta Lack's cells are popular among researchers because, unlike normal human tissue, they divide indefinitely in a laboratory setting and are stable enough to survive shipping. Although controversy has surrounded HeLa cells (Lacks never consented to their removal, nor did her family know of her scientific legacy for several years), Lacks' line of cells did something few people ever do, alive or dead: Orbit the Earth and, arguably, impact medicine around the world [source: Zielinski].

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No well-dressed Star Wars devotee (or costume-enthusiast, for that matter) would dare to be seen without the series' most recognizable weapon: a lightsaber. Turns out, neither would the Space Shuttle Discovery.

In 2007, the Discovery traveled into deep space with an assortment of artifacts reflecting earthly accomplishments, including a plastic movie prop once wielded by actor Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in "Return of the Jedi." The lightsaber handle embarked on its storied journey some three decades after the original Star Wars trilogy was released. At the end of its 14-day trip, Skywalker's lightsaber was returned to moviemaker George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars.

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Some icons, however, have a long shelf life in space, where they remain plastered to the International Space Station walls. Among the more memorable items are a golf ball, a family portrait and a series of digitally encoded signatures [source: Siceloff].

When humans first landed on the moon in July 1969, there was another "first" that took place, too. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin poured a vial of communion wine, set out communion bread, then asked the mission's ground crew for a few moments of radio silence as he ingested the communion elements. While the lineup wasn't exactly a standard astronaut MRE, Aldrin later revealed the ritual was meant to commemorate the discovery of a new world just as Christopher Columbus and other explorers were believed to have done: by celebrating communion.

Although rumors circulated for years that Aldrin's act of communion was suppressed by the government, his plan to break bread on the moon was anything but secret. Not only did the ground crew know, but so did his Presbyterian congregation in Houston, Texas; in the decades that followed, Aldrin shared his story of communion on the moon in magazine articles and included it in his book, "Magnificent Desolation," which was released in 2009 [source: Mikkelson].

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We imagine there's a lot of stuff floating around in space, like the odd malfunctioning satellite and the occasional space-dust bunny. But now we can add one more thing to the list: dirt from Yankee Stadium. Thanks to astronaut Garrett Reisman, who also happened to be a Yankee devotee, dirt from the famed New York City pitcher's mound was aboard space shuttle Endeavour's 2008 STS-123 mission.

From his post on the International Space Station, Reisman even managed to throw out the first pitch on April 16, 2008, to open the Yankees versus Red Sox game (via satellite broadcast, of course). It was a fitting legacy for a space explorer who insisted on taking baseball mementos bearing the signature of New York Yankees' owner (1973-2010) George Steinbrenner along for a shuttle ride. And a fitting legacy for America's pastime, too, especially if there is life on other planets. Just imagine: Major League Baseball could someday include interstellar playoffs [source: Hoch].

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When we first got wind of a spatula circling the third rock from the sun every 90 minutes or so, the only thing that seemed stranger was the fact that military radar stations were tracking it throughout the world. Or maybe the fact that it was ever launched into space in the first place.

Although visions of astronauts competing in burger-flipping wars danced in our heads, the truth was a bit more mundane. The spatula was one of five used to make repairs during a spacewalk by astronaut Piers Sellers in 2006. During a voyage on the Discovery shuttle, he used the spatula to smooth protective liquid onto the shuttle's heat shield, but eventually lost the tool when it became unleashed and drifted into space. It was tracked across the globe to ensure it didn't pose a collision risk to existing objects in orbit -- including, at the time, the space shuttle [source: Malik].

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If you or a loved one has ever dreamed of traveling into space, but just couldn't quite manage to do it within your lifetime, there's still hope. For a fee, a sampling of a person's cremated remains can be launched into space aboard a rocket, bringing the dream of space flight full circle. Concerned about becoming free-roaming space debris? In most cases, a person's ashes are integrated into a rocket-propelled satellite set to orbit the Earth for weeks or years -- however long it takes before the craft re-enters the Earth's atmosphere, where the satellite and its ashen cargo will be decimated by fire.

The first-ever private launch of last remains into outer space took place in 1997, and carried the ashes of two dozen participants, including "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry and 1960s LSD enthusiast Timothy Leary [source: Celestis]. Since then, hundreds more have made the celestial leap, including James Doohan, the late actor who played Scotty on the long-running "Star Trek" series [source: Allen].

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Golf has been a part of space exploration from the very beginning. Alan Shepard was the first American in space in 1961, but it was in 1971 when he used a specially made 6-iron to hit a golf ball on the surface of the moon. Sure, Alan Shepard, a member of the famous Apollo 14 mission, went down in history for more than hitting a golf ball 200 yards (182.9 meters) in zero-gravity, but his idea launched a legacy [source: Driscoll].

Sending a golf ball (or anything, actually) hurtling into space isn't always such sporting fun, although the outcome may be. As early as 1976, composite materials initially tested in the space shuttle program were used to make golf clubs that had just the right balance of strength and flexibility, leading to a new era of power swings [source: NASA]. As for the makeshift club that started it all? Shepard gave the storied club to the Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History at the USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J.

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In 2012, the first commercial craft launched by the U.S. headed for the International Space Station. Although this unmanned spacecraft carried necessities, such as food and storage bags, it also traveled with more than 12,000 souvenirs bound for the stars and back. Presumably to be offered as mementos to those involved in the project, the patches and medallions weren't meant to stay at the International Space Station [source: Collect Space]. But that's not always the case.

The International Space Station is a final resting place for dozens of personal artifacts deposited by astronauts, including religious relics. Russian cosmonauts, for example, have transported religious tomes, icons and crosses -- including one believed to contain a piece of the wooden cross on which Jesus was crucified -- to the space station. Astronauts from the U.S. have contributed, too, leaving behind several relics of saints [source: Catholic News Agency].

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Arizona oncology nurse Jean Baruch had mastered the technical aspects of her job, but felt she could do more to provide the emotional care children with cancer required. And when she noticed how much children with serious illnesses loved crafts projects during summer camp, especially those involving beads, she leapt into action.

Baruch founded Beads of Courage to take the joys of beading into a pediatric hospital setting, using the beads to symbolize a child's spirit, strength and patience during the many medical procedures they often endure. Although the concept grew from one hospital in 2004 to more than 60 hospitals around the world, even Baruch probably never dreamed these special beads would travel to outer space [source: Bannan]. However, when a NASA contractor whose daughter was battling cancer requested the beads accompany astronauts in the space shuttle Atlantis in May 2010, that's exactly what they did [source: Roy].

The beads' journey symbolized not only the strength and resilience of children, but the powerful human element at the heart of space exploration.

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Author's Note: 10 Offbeat Things Humans Have Launched Into Space

Science-related assignments are among my favorites because I always learn something new. Not only is this knowledge handy as a party conversation-starter (who was the last celebrity to be buried in space?), but it reminds me how much there is to discover. I can only imagine how the astronauts -- and everyone involved in space projects -- must have felt to land on the moon, command the Mars Rover or look out of a window and see the Earth's beautiful orb below. I was especially touched to read about the ingenuity of teenagers and doting fathers, each determined to explore space in their own way -- and with the help of a child's toy. Now if only I could get my hands on a weather balloon.

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Sources

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