Ten Strange and Amazing Historical Artifacts We’ve Launched to Space

As spaceflight catapults us into a high-tech future, several missions have made sure to honor the past

Illustration of mercury dime, Nobel Prize, shipping tag, dinosaur bones, and wristwatch in space
Giving a nod to previous human flight and exploration is a tradition of space travel. Illustration Emily Lankiewicz / Kathryn Dodson / Lauren Harnett / NASA Johnson under CC BY-SA 2.0 / Jamestown Rediscovery / NASA / Paul E. Alers / BrandonBigheart via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

NASA’s groundbreaking Artemis program will send the first humans to the moon since 1972 and deliver the first woman and first person of color to the lunar surface. The initial phase of the mission, an uncrewed test run called Artemis 1, concluded with the Orion spacecraft’s return to Earth on December 11. While the program will set several records—it has already achieved the most powerful rocket launch to date—the forward-looking endeavor will also give a few nods to history.

As it hurtled through space, Artemis 1 paid homage to its lunar predecessors by carrying memorabilia from the nation’s last moon program, Apollo. Tucked inside the Orion crew capsule were a commemorative coin from Apollo 8, a bolt from one of the Apollo 11 engines and a mission patch from Apollo 17. The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum loaned these items to NASA from its collections. Now that they’ve returned, the artifacts will be put on display.

This launch of historic items is a tangible way for the museum to connect the history and future of lunar exploration. It stems from the long-held human fascination with objects that have left Earth, says Margaret Weitekamp, a space history department curator at the National Air and Space Museum. “Since the beginning of the space age, with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, there has been a certain allure to things that have gone into space,” she says. Sending an artifact there “adds to the stories that it tells.”

Astronauts do this sort of thing all the time—they add value to everyday objects by bringing them into the cosmos. Each crew member can bring a 5-by-8-by-2-inch Personal Preference Kit filled with significant items. These collections generally include family photos and personal mementos. Some astronauts carry pennants of their alma maters—sometimes they’d “bring a ‘beat Army’ or ‘beat Navy’ sign, if they thought that they could rib a fellow astronaut who was a graduate of one of the other military academies,” Weitekamp says. A mission’s Official Flight Kit, on the other hand, has items NASA wants to send, such as old mission patches, medallions and American flags. Private companies are in on the game, too: On SpaceX’s 2021 flight that brought billionaire Jared Isaacman to orbit, the Crew Dragon capsule also carried 66 pounds of hops, which Samuel Adams then used to make space beer.

We combed through dozens of archived news stories and interviewed two space historians to find the most fascinating items launched into space and give you their back stories—so you have some space trivia to share the next time a rocket launches or astronauts return from a mission.

Dinosaur bones and eggshell

man removes vial of dinosaur bones from box marked "flown to space"
Joe Iacuzzo, director of the Huntsville Science Festival, unpacks a vial of dinosaur bones after they flew to space on a Blue Origin flight in 2021. Kathryn Dodson

Dinosaurs and space have a fraught history—after all, it was a massive space rock that caused the prehistoric reptiles’ extinction. But in 1985, a fossilized piece of one species ushered in a new era of dinosaurs in space. On an eight-day NASA mission called SpaceLab 2, astronaut Loren Acton brought a bone and bit of eggshell found at a nesting site of a Maiasaura peeblesorum, the “good mother lizard.” The species lived some 76 million years ago and tended to its young in large nesting colonies. The fossils were unearthed in Acton’s home state of Montana, and following Maiasaura’s flight, the state named the creature as its official dinosaur.

Then, in 1998, a whole dinosaur skull went to the Mir space station, a now-closed operation led first by the Soviet Union, then by Russia. The 214-million-year-old skull of Coelophysis, an agile hunter that walked on two legs, spent about nine days in space. Jay Apt, a retired astronaut who later became the director of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History, gave the eight-inch skull to NASA for its flight.

Jeff Bezos’ space company, Blue Origin, launched another batch of fossils in 2021: The remains of a dromaeosaurid, a feathered, bird-like dinosaur, rode along on a test flight of the company’s New Shepard vehicle. Nearly 200 pieces of dinosaur bones, packed into a 4-inch vial, were lifted 65 miles into the air—three miles past the boundary between Earth and space—before returning to the ground. The stunt was on behalf of the company’s nonprofit, Club for the Future, and the Huntsville Science Festival. Members of the nonprofit, the festival and various museums received the bones upon their return.

Amelia Earhart's wristwatch

women pose with watch
Joan Kerwin, director of the Ninety-Nines, and astronaut Shannon Walker hold Amelia Earhart’s wristwatch. Lauren Harnett / NASA Johnson under CC BY-SA 2.0

Eighty-two years to the day after its historic first trip across the Atlantic Ocean, the timepiece of famed aviator Amelia Earhart went to space.

When Earhart earned the title of the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, she was wearing the wristwatch that she later gave to H. Gordon Selfridge Jr., the department store owner. In 1937, she set out to circumnavigate the world in an airplane. Had she accomplished that staggering feat, she would have become the first person to ever do so. But on one of the last legs of her journey, between Lae, New Guinea, and the U.S. territory Howland Island, she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared.

During her life, Earhart was a founding member and the first president of the Ninety-Nines, an all-female international organization of pilots. Selfridge presented the watch to the Ninety-Nines after Earhart’s death, and later, the organization’s president Joan Kerwin won the item in an auction.

Kerwin handed the watch over to NASA astronaut Shannon Walker, who took it to space on the Russian Soyuz TMA-19 spacecraft in 2010. On the anniversary of Earhart’s trans-oceanic flight, the gesture recognized her role as a female pioneer in aviation.

When the craft carrying the aviator’s watch docked at the International Space Station (ISS), the orbiting laboratory was, fittingly, passing over the Atlantic.

Shipping tag from the Jamestown colony

close-up on hand holding tag, which is slightly larger than a fingernail
The small lead tag likely marked a container of shipped goods in the 17th century. It flew to space in 2007. Jamestown Rediscovery

In 2006, archaeologists uncovered a trove of artifacts as they excavated a colonial-era well in Jamestown, Virginia. The well water had preserved the items for 400 years, shielding metal from corrosion or rust. Among finds ranging from a halberd to a pistol to a leather shoe was this cargo tag—the first item historians found that shows Jamestown as an address.

The tag, which reads “YAMES TOWNE,” is thought to have accompanied a shipping container of goods that was once stored in England.

To mark the 400th anniversary of English colonizers landing in Jamestown, NASA flew the tag to the ISS on the space shuttle Atlantis in 2007. During its four-month period in space, the artifact orbited Earth and covered a distance of 5.8 million nautical miles.

A drawing by Andy Warhol (allegedly)

An item called the Moon Museum has spurred much debate about whether it truly made a lunar landing under NASA’s nose.

As the story goes, a team of artists and an inside source at NASA led a covert operation to put a collection of minimalist sketches on the moon. The idea was the brainchild of sculptor Forrest Myers, who took a deep interest in the space program. He gathered six artists to each contribute a small illustration to a tiny tile—these ranged from a straight line to a Mickey Mouse. One of these artists was Andy Warhol, and for his part, he drew his initials, arranged in an abstract way that some have said resembles genitals—or perhaps a space rocket.

But here’s the catch: NASA has no record of this art ever going to space. The space agency never agreed to send it, making the Moon Museum an under-the-radar mission. Allegedly, an engineer affixed the chip to a leg of the Apollo 12 lunar module before the craft lifted off. The module is still on the moon today.

The identity of the engineer was known by only one other man, who took the secret to his grave, PBS “History Detectives” reported in 2010. But one of the artists did receive a telegram, signed only with “John F.,” that read “YOUR ON ‘A.O.K. ALL SYSTEMS ARE GO,” per the broadcast.

The artists interpreted this to mean that the drawings were really going to the moon. But NASA’s not so sure.

“I can’t speak to the veracity of that, because I don’t have any documentation,” says Jennifer Ross-Nazzal, a historian at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “No one has ever sat down with me and done an interview or provided me any sort of documentation or photograph. I think it’s very interesting. And I’m curious, when we do go to the moon, if anyone’s going to go over to the Apollo 12 lunar module and actually check [if it’s there].”

A Nobel Prize replica

the Nobel Prize replica is handed off on stage
Cosmologist John Mather (center) presents a replica of his Nobel Prize to John Dailey (left), director of the National Air and Space Museum, on July 27, 2010. Astronaut Piers Sellers (right) brought the award to space. NASA / Paul E. Alers

Today, a trace amount of radiation left over from the Big Bang fills the universe. This energy, known as the cosmic microwave background, was discovered by accident in the 1960s. In 1989, cosmologists John Mather and George Smoot measured this phenomenon with a satellite, and they earned the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for this work.

Nobel Prize winners are granted a few copies of their award, and Mather, who today is a senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope program, received three. Two went to the space agency, and one went to the National Air and Space Museum.

prize replica on grey background
The space-flown Nobel Prize replica National Air and Space Museum, Gift of John C. Mather

To honor Mather, his colleague Piers Sellers, an astronaut, arranged to have the museum’s replica flown on one of the last space shuttle missions. Upon its return to Earth, Sellers carried the prize in his pocket to Washington, D.C. and presented it back to Mather and the museum.

“The object can tell the story of … how admired Mather is and beloved as a colleague and a mentor,” Weitekamp says. “Because that really was what that gesture was about, was being able to do something special for him.”

Human ashes

With nontraditional burials, such as human composting and cryopreservation, gaining popularity, perhaps it makes sense that NASA and private launchers have sent some people to rest among the stars.

A portion of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered Pluto, took off on NASA’s New Horizons mission to the dwarf planet in 2006. Having traveled billions of miles, Tombaugh has the distinction of the longest post-mortem spaceflight. The craft passed Pluto in 2015 and is now flying out into the Kuiper Belt. This year, the cremated remains of Bernard Kutter, a former rocket engineer who helped develop NASA’s inflatable heat shield (an economical and crucial component to keeping astronauts alive during re-entry), flew on the agency’s test of the device in November.

Celestis, a company specializing in space burials, has taken the ashes of more than 1,500 people to space. Celestis often uses private launch providers and, to avoid creating orbital debris, does not “release” the ashes to fly freely in space. Instead, the company launches remains in a capsule, offering four memorial options: flying and returning ashes to the family, orbiting the ashes and allowing them to burn up on re-entry, depositing ashes on the moon, or sending ashes into deep space.

In particular, some late “Star Trek” cast and crew members have been remembered with a celestial send-off. The ashes of James Doohan (who played Scotty) were reportedly smuggled onto the ISS in 2008 by private citizen astronaut Richard Garriott. In 1992, a portion of the ashes of the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, flew on the space shuttle Columbia at the request of his wife, Majel Barrett, who played various roles on the show, including the voice of the computer.

Barrett had another wish: to one day posthumously fly with her husband into space. Next year, some of her and Roddenberry’s ashes will travel together on the first flight of the United Launch Alliance’s aptly named Vulcan Centaur rocket via a Celestis memorial spaceflight. Nichelle Nichols, who portrayed Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, will also be honored with a post-mortem spot on this flight, which is slated for no sooner than early 2023.

A roll of Mercury dimes

dime with profile of Liberty
A Mercury dime minted in 1943 BrandonBigheart via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

On the second mission of NASA’s first human spaceflight program, called Project Mercury, astronaut Gus Grissom carried a roll of Mercury dimes in his pocket. The coins depict Liberty wearing a winged hat, but the public mistook this for an image of the Roman god Mercury, earning the currency its nickname.

When Grissom went to space in 1961, becoming the second American to do so, Mercury dimes had already been out of circulation for 16 years. The first of these now-rare ten-cent pieces date to 1916, and they continued to be minted until 1945. During that year, they were discontinued in favor of modern dimes adorned with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s face.

The early astronaut flew with the dimes so he could gift them to others upon his return. Grissom’s choice to bring these coins to space shows that “from the very first flights, people were thinking about making space-flown memorabilia,” Weitekamp says.

But upon Grissom’s return to Earth, his space capsule, the Liberty Bell 7, sank in the Atlantic Ocean after he splashed down. The astronaut almost drowned, and the capsule lay on the ocean floor for 38 years, until a 1999 expedition recovered it—and the Mercury dimes inside.

The Olympic torch and other sports memorabilia

As is tradition, Olympic torches travel the Earth on a long relay from Olympia, Greece, to the site of the games. But certain torches have made much farther voyages.

Before the summer games in Atlanta in 1996, an Olympic torch flew aboard the space shuttle Columbia. Four years later, another torch reached space via the shuttle Atlantis prior to Sydney’s summer games. But no torch went outside a spacecraft—until 2013. In honor of the Sochi winter games, Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazansky took the torch on a spacewalk outside the ISS. Upon its return to Earth, the iconic beacon proceeded to be carried on a 40,000-mile relay before the games.

In other space-flown sports memorabilia history, astronaut Garrett Reisman brought a bit of dirt from the New York Yankees’ pitcher’s mound aboard a 2008 space shuttle Endeavour mission. He also brought a hat signed by the team’s owner and threw a ceremonial first pitch from the ISS, via video. Not to be outdone, the New York Mets sent their former home plate on the last trip to the Hubble Space Telescope, completed by the space shuttle Atlantis in 2009.

September 11 artifacts

overhead view of Mars rover
The Mars rover Opportunity took this selfie, which displays a cable shield made with aluminum from the destroyed World Trade Center buildings. The shield is marked with an American flag. NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell University / Arizona State University

In tribute to the people who were killed in the September 11, 2001, attacks, NASA has launched a few significant items recovered from the disaster’s wreckage.

In December 2001, the space shuttle Endeavour carried to space a tattered American flag that was recovered from the ground zero site at the World Trade Center.

Other ground zero artifacts remain in space today: The Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which launched in 2003 and began exploring the Red Planet in 2004, both had components made from metal recovered from the ruin. On each rover is a rock abrasion tool for drilling samples of Mars’ ground. The cable shields for these instruments contain aluminum from the destroyed World Trade Center buildings, and the pieces are marked with American flags.

Astronauts have flown other items in tribute to past tragedies, such as a medal of a World War II pilot who died in action and a replica of a teddy bear that belonged to a Holocaust survivor.

Pieces of the Wright Flyer

wood, fabric and two letters of authenticity in display case labeled "First manned lunar landing Kitty Hawk to Tranquility Base"
Pieces of wood and fabric from the Wright Flyer that flew on the Apollo 11 mission, accompanied by letters of verification from Orville Wright’s estate and NASA, are on display at the National Air and Space Museum. NASM

Before space exploration could be possible, humans first had to figure out how to get off the ground. In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright made history by completing the first controlled, powered and sustained flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

As NASA prepared to achieve another first in flight—sending humans to the moon—the astronauts wanted to honor their pioneering predecessors. Neil Armstrong, who like the Wrights grew up in Ohio, brought a piece of wood and a scrap of fabric from the 1903 Wright Flyer on his historic Apollo 11 mission—the trip when he took the first steps on the moon.

But that wasn’t the end of spaceflight for the Wright brothers’ invention. John Glenn (another Ohioan) brought a different swatch of the Flyer’s fabric on a space shuttle Discovery flight in 1998. And Ingenuity, NASA’s helicopter that’s currently on Mars, has a postage stamp-sized section of Wright Flyer fabric taped to a cable below its solar panels.

Today, the pieces that Armstrong carried are on display at the National Air and Space Museum. The artifacts capture two distinct eras of flight.

“It connects those dots, if you will, between the earliest history of heavier-than-air flight and the trip by humans to stand on the moon,” Weitekamp says. “It’s really a remarkable story of technological progress and human innovation.”

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