Ridiculous History: 5 of NASA's Greatest Pranks

Astronaut Dale A. Gardner holds up a 'For Sale' sign referring to the two satellites he and another astronaut retrieved from orbit after their Payload Assist Modules (PAM) failed to fire. NASA

On any successful space mission, the crew's morale is at the top of the list of priorities. After all, the final frontier can be one high-stress workplace. So it's no wonder that, in the 59 years since it was first established, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has seen a small army of passionate pranksters.

Now we're not talking anything too serious of course. That could get dangerous on a NASA mission. These pranks are all relatively mild and silly, but still not necessarily what we'd expect from the crew of astronauts who were the first men to walk on the moon. But when your job consists of being launched into space at 17,500 miles per hour (28,000 kilometers per hour), sometimes a little comedy to go with the cosmos isn't a bad thing.

5
Did a Cockroach Go to the Moon, Too?
Apollo 12 Commander Charles 'Pete' Conrad (seen here training with Apollo 12 astronaut Al Bean) joked that a cockroach hitched on board their mission to the moon. Nobody knows if the insect actually made the round-trip or not. NASA

A six-legged squatter caused a bit of unrest in the days leading up to NASA's Apollo 12 mission. Following a test run at the Kennedy Space Center, a cockroach was seen hiding out in the command module that was to function as the crew's living space. (It would also deliver them back to Earth after re-entering the atmosphere.) Not wanting any insect stowaways on the vessel, launch director Bob Sieck used all sorts of tricks to try to capture the intruder. But to the amusement of many, his quarry eluded him.

Apollo 12 took off on Nov. 14, 1969, with three astronauts on board, including Commander Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr. Five days later, Conrad became the third man to ever walk on the moon. During the journey home, Conrad took part in an in-flight, televised press conference. As the broadcast wound down, he held up a strip of white cardboard. On its surface stood a black, teardrop-shaped object with some faintly visible antennae.

Thinking this was the long-lost roach, one of Conrad's colleagues at NASA said, "You found him, huh?"

"We sure did," replied the astronaut. "He was in the food locker."

"Is he fat?" asked the colleague.

"He's very fat," Conrad answered.

Alas, it was all a practical joke. Conrad later admitted that the roach he showed off was just a plastic toy he'd smuggled aboard. To this day, the real bug's fate remains unknown.

4
Lunar Centerfolds
Apollo 12 astronauts Charles Conrad and Al Bean received 'Playboy' centerfolds pics in their spiral-bound wrist notebooks, courtesy of the Apollo 12 backup crew. NASA

That televised cockroach gag was small potatoes compared to another Apollo 12 prank. Conrad's crewmates on this venture were module pilots Alan Bean and Richard F. Gordon Jr. Once they reached the moon, these astronauts had a long itinerary ahead of them. Part of their mission was to remove components from the Surveyor 3 probe, which landed in a crater back in 1967. Other objectives ranged from surveying the terrain to taking snapshots of sites that future crews might explore. All these tasks had to be completed in a specific order — and within some rigid time constraints.

To help the men stay on top of things, NASA tied spiral-bound wrist notebooks to the arms of their spacesuits. The notebooks had detailed instructions printed inside, along with a scientific glossary.

Something else was in there, too. On Nov. 19, Gordon was orbiting above the moon while Bean and Conrad busied themselves down on the surface. They were amused to discover little cartoons scrawled inside the wrist notebooks. And then, with a fateful page-flip, Bean suddenly found himself looking at the last thing he'd ever expect to see in outer space: a "Playboy" centerfold.

Unbeknownst to him, the Apollo 12 backup crew had printed a copy of Miss December 1969's topless glamour shot into his wrist notebook. Beneath it, the caption read "Don't forget — describe the protuberances." And she wasn't alone. Bean's wrist book also featured Miss January 1969, too. Meanwhile, Conrad got two centerfold photos of his own.

Conrad and Bean were careful to avoid saying anything about the prank out loud, however. That's because built-in spacesuit microphones were radioing their comments back to Earth. As Bean points out in hindsight, the humor probably would've been lost on America's taxpayers.

3
Thought I'd Drop By
Astronaut Owen Garriott (seen here in the Skylab 3 Extravehicular Activity) and accomplice Robert Crippen fooled Houston into thinking Garriott's wife somehow hijacked comms onboard. NASA

NASA didn't send a female astronaut into space until Sally Ride in 1983. So imagine mission control's surprise when, some 10 years earlier, they heard a woman's voice in a transmission from the Skylab space station.

In 1973, Owen K. Garriott spent just less than 60 full days orbiting Earth on this NASA craft. Meanwhile, the flight's Earth-bound support crew included communications specialist Robert "Bob" Crippen (an astronaut himself) among its ranks. One day, the space station sent Crippen a weird message. "Hello Houston, this is Skylab," someone said. "Are you reading me down there?" The voice sounded distinctly female and couldn't belong to any of the three men aboard the vessel. When Crippen asked who was on the line, the caller identified herself as Helen Garriott — Owen's wife.

Naturally, Crippen asked what she was doing up there. "Well, we just came up to bring the boys a fresh meal, or a hot cooked meal. They haven't had one for quite a while. We thought they might enjoy that," Helen replied. She then nonchalantly said she'd flown out to the Skylab and made some comments about how California looked from space. By now, a bewildered crowd had gathered around Crippen's speakers. Finally, Helen signed off, saying "Well, I see the boys are floating in my direction. I've got to get off the line. I'm not supposed to be talking to you. See you later, Bob."

It didn't take Houston long to figure out that this entire exchange must've been a practical joke — one Garriott was undoubtedly in on. But how did he pull it off? With careful planning, that's how. Beforehand, Garriott had written down some lines for his wife to read and recorded her doing so. He also made sure to punctuate her comments with pauses in the audio. This gave Crippen — who'd agreed to help out — enough time to offer scripted replies to Helen's statements.

Magicians like to guard their secrets. According to Garriott, NASA didn't figure out how he'd orchestrated this particular gag until he finally explained his methods to them in 1999.

2
How Do You Spell That, Again?
Astronaut Pierre Thuot paid back his crew after NASA actually misspelled his last name on the Shuttle mission badge. NASA

Let the record show that astronaut Pierre Thuot's last name is pronounced "thoo-it." (In case you're curious, it has French-Canadian origins.) Before NASA recruited him in 1985, the Connecticut native had built up an impressive resume as a pilot with the U.S. Navy. To date, he's taken part in three space flights, the first of which was a 1990 shuttle mission known as STS-36. As is the custom, a special patch was designed for the five-astronaut crew. Unfortunately, the first edition of this badge misspelled Thuot's last name as "Thout." Whoops.

From there, some good-natured ribbing ensued, with Thuot's crewmates calling him "Pierre Th-OUT" in jest. Ultimately, though, he got the last laugh. After two postponements, mission STS-36 was set to launch on Feb. 25, 1990. That day, upon entering the room where their pressure suits were kept, the astronauts discovered that Thuot had gotten his revenge. At some point, he'd removed the name tags from all of their chairs (excluding his own) and swapped them out with erroneously spelled placards. Thus, mission specialist Mike Mullane had to recline in a seat labeled "Molline." Being good sports, everyone seemed to get a kick out of the stunt.

1
Crossing Paths With Old St. Nick
When Gemini 6A rendevoused with Gemini 7, astronauts Walter 'Wally' Schirra and pilot Tom Stafford radioed mission control about a mysterious UFO. NASA

On Dec. 15, 1965, NASA's Gemini 6A met up with Gemini 7 some 160 miles (257 kilometers) above Earth's surface for the first manned, inter-ship rendezvous in the history of space travel. The late Walter "Wally" Schirra had command of Gemini 6A, whose only other crew member was pilot Tom Stafford. After the spaceships drifted apart, a dose of holiday cheer suddenly broke out. Early in the morning of Dec. 16, Schirra contacted mission control and Gemini 7. With a quiver of urgency in his voice, he claimed to see an unidentified flying object. "Looks like a satellite, going from north to south, probably in polar orbit," Schirra reported. "Looks like he might be going to re-enter soon."

In Schirra's next message, the UFO as he described it began to take shape — specifically, the shape of Kris Kringle and his reindeer. "I see a command module and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit," Schirra said. Then, he and Stafford broke out a harmonica and some sleigh bells they'd taken along for the ride. Together, they treated their friends in Houston (plus the ones on Gemini 7) to a rendition of the classic carol "Jingle Bells."