The week before Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth, he planted a tree. Two days before he boarded the Vostok he got a haircut. The night before his launch, Gagarin watched a movie. Halfway to the launchpad, he realized he needed to pee, and stepped out of the bus to urinate on the back right tire. Ever since, every space traveler to fly from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan has followed suit, right down to taking a bathroom break on the bus.
Explorers have always had all sorts of rituals and superstitions to give them comfort before a long and dangerous voyage. The same goes for astronauts, writes Ella Morton for Atlas Obscura. Just as sailors take cats along with them for good luck or refrain from whistling to keep the winds from getting too strong, astronauts have their own traditions and rituals to soothe their nerves before blastoff.
“People become very comforted in doing the same routine before launch," former NASA astronaut Paul Lockhart tells Morton. "And sometimes that has to happen two or three times for a single mission, because your launch could be delayed if there was weather or if a system failed."
For American astronauts launching from the Kennedy Space Center, Morton writes, the leadup to the launch starts with a meal of steak, eggs and cake, no matter when takeoff is scheduled. Just before the crew boards the spacecraft, they sit down for a last-minute poker game that has to continue until the commander plays the worst hand, writes Tanya Lewis for Wired.
Out on the launchpad, there’s a whole other set of traditions for the engineers. It’s considered bad luck for the crew to see their ship wheeled out of the hangar, so they’re kept away from the staging area until the spacecraft is ready for takeoff. At Baikonur, the Soyuz spacecraft are rolled out on rails which observers place coins on to be flattened, reports Richard Hollingham for the BBC. It’s also standard for the crew to bring a stuffed animal along for the ride, both for good luck and to let them know when they’ve reached zero gravity: that’s when the fuzzy toy will start floating.
Not every tradition dates back to the 1960s: since a cosmonaut requested it in 1994, each spacecraft leaving Baikonur is blessed by an Orthodox priest. Before every mission, NASA engineers design a new poster featuring the crew modeled after a favorite sci-fi movie. And recently, some astronauts have even begun taking a towel along with them for good luck (because, of course, it’s the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have). Just remember: don’t panic.