America's exploration of space has been marked by soaring triumphs — the 50th anniversary of landing on the moon is this summer — and crushing tragedies. The Space Shuttle program suffered its first disaster in 1986, when the orbiter Challenger exploded barely a minute after liftoff, killing all seven astronauts on board.
Shelton, like many others in America, watched in horror that day. He didn't know what to do to show his support for a program that, until Challenger, had become almost an afterthought to much of the American public. "I wanted to find a way to let them know that every flight, people care," Shelton recalls now. "Just because there isn't media coverage didn't mean that people didn't care. We take it seriously that they take it seriously."
More than two-and-a-half years later, after NASA scientists had worked countless hours to determine what went wrong with Challenger and countless more finding ways to make sure it didn't happen again, the Space Shuttle program finally resumed. And Shelton decided on sending a simple gesture.
It was after STS-26 (the first "return to flight" mission after the Challenger disaster) wrapped up its mission in October 1988 and the shuttle Discovery was safely back on land, Shelton, his wife Terry and daughter MacKenzie sent a bunch of roses to NASA's Mission Control at Johnson Space Center in Houston. In the bouquet: A red rose for each of the seven Discovery crew members on board, plus a single white one in remembrance of those who had been lost in the space program. The bouquet included a short note, but no phone number or address for the sender.
For every manned mission that NASA has flown since — even the first manned missions off U.S. soil since the Shuttle missions ended in 2011 — the family has continued the tradition. Over more than three decades, the Sheltons have sent more than 100 bouquets to Mission Control.
"They have never missed one time. They've always been supportive. Mark and I talk every once in a while. He'll call me and I'll call him. It's a friendship that has lasted," says retired NASA flight director Milt Heflin. "They are just so dedicated to doing this and to showing this support. That's what makes this really, really remarkable to me."
They even sent a bouquet to Mission Control for SpaceX's test launch of its Crew Dragon capsule on March 2, 2019, which docked successfully at the International Space Station.
The Crew Dragon was unmanned, but carried a sensor-laden mannequin, dubbed Ripley after the space explorer in the "Alien" movies. It was the first time the family sent a bouquet for an unmanned mission and the first one they've sent since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. This bouquet also included a fake rose in honor of Ripley.
"This was like, 'We're back,'" Shelton says. "We have a capsule that is capable of supporting human life. A crew-rated capsule that can dock with the ISS."