Making a Mark: Surprising Things We’ve Launched Into Space
Even now, space remains a vast, largely unexplored frontier. Something about its vastness not only encourages us to voyage deeper into our solar system, but it also inspires this very human need to be known — to be heard, or seen. Maybe not as individuals, but as a whole.
Earlier this year, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched some peculiar items into orbit. Most famously, Musk’s first rocket carried with it a Tesla Roadster and a mannequin "driver" dubbed Starman — which have recently passed beyond the outer bounds of Mars — and, less famously, about 36,000 worms, which have similar muscle structures to our own. One of those things carries with it a certain amount of ego, while the other has (obvious) ties to scientific research. Both seemed important enough to send into orbit.
Long before SpaceX’s endeavors, some pretty remarkable, remarkably ordinary and remarkably bizarre items were sent or transmitted into space. The recordings, artifacts, pop culture totems and art objects that have risen above the Kármán line all hold cultural significance but, at the same time, represent very different ways to leave one’s mark.
The Force Is With Pop Culture
While some of the items sent into space hold a more practical cultural or scientific value, there’s no denying that popular culture is a significant part of any Earthling’s experience. Instead of transmitting a moment of historical significance into the aether, a Doritos commercial was sent a remarkable 42 light years away — to the Big Dipper, because chip lovers can’t resist a good pun.
In 2011, NASA launched the Juno probe, which arrived at Jupiter on July 4, 2016. While Juno’s goal was to study Jupiter’s atmosphere, map magnetic fields, measure water in the atmosphere and more, the (allegedly) unmanned probe carried something else with it: three Lego figurines. That’s right; to get kids interested in science, NASA sent Jupiter, the Roman god from which the planet takes its name; the Roman goddess Juno; and astronomer Galileo Galilei into orbit.
Sci-fi-themed pop culture items also have a storied history when it comes to reaching space. A Buzz Lightyear action figure from the Toy Story films really went "to infinity and beyond" and then back to Earth again in 2008 alongside the Discovery mission STS-124. After hanging out at the International Space Station for a bit, Lightyear joined namesake and icon Buzz Aldrin for a ticker-tape parade at Walt Disney World Resort.
Of course, pop culture space endeavors wouldn’t be complete without nods to Star Trek and Star Wars. Following in the footsteps of Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry, the original Scotty, James Doohan, wanted his ashes shot into space. Easier said than done: The first attempt in 2007 ended with Doohan’s ashes crashing down in a New Mexico desert. The second attempt ended with a rocket explosion over the Pacific Ocean. (Next time, just beam him up.)
Meanwhile, the Force proved to be strong with Discovery shuttle-flight mission STS-120, which took Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber from Return of the Jedi (1983) into space to commemorate the series’ 30th anniversary.
Recordings Lend Voices to the Vacuum
As we learned from Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), in space no one can hear you scream. Still, that didn’t deter NASA from trying. In 2008, the organization beamed the Beatles song "Across the Universe" into the stars via its Deep Space Network. Traveling at a speed of 186,000 miles per second, the song will reach the North Star (Polaris), roughly 431 light years away from Earth.
But the pop hit wasn’t the first vocal transmission broadcast to (potential) alien lifeforms. Since 1977, when NASA launched Voyager 1 and 2, several sound recordings were made accessible to our interstellar pals. The collection included music from various cultures and eras (songs from Australia’s Aboriginal peoples, Chuck Berry’s "Johnny B. Goode" and more); natural noises like rainfall and wind; human-made sounds like a mother kissing their child; a message from then-President Jimmy Carter; and greetings in 55 different languages in the hopes that extraterrestrials will be able to decipher at least one of them. All of the sounds — and some encoded images — were made available on 12-inch gold-plated copper discs. The thoughtful folks over at NASA even included a needle.
More recently, the 2009 project "Hello From Earth" sent 25,800 text messages from Australians all the way to the distant star Gliese 581. Here’s hoping they accounted for international roaming charges.
Art Becomes “Lost in Space”
In 1972, Charles Duke acted as the lunar-module pilot aboard Apollo 16 and became of one of 12 folks to walk on the moon’s surface. Apart from his footprints, Duke wanted to leave a real impression and placed a photograph of his family on the surface. The deeply personal memento underscores this universal desire not only to connect with others, but to be understood by them — to leave a legacy that extends beyond Earth.
Thought to be the first instance of art in space, drawings by icons like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg traveled to the moon as part of The Moon Museum in 1969. Skip ahead five decades: In collaboration with the Nevada Museum of Art, Trevor Paglen created Orbital Reflector (2018), an outer-space art "installation" made out of a Mylar-like material that reflects light. At 100 feet long, the object was planned to be visible to stargazers for a few months before burning up in Earth’s atmosphere. However, the inflatable sculpture failed to deploy, meaning it’s now (sadly) classified as "space junk," lost in orbit.
Although Orbital Reflector didn’t quite work out, its initial objective remains important: It was meant to be the first "purely artistic" object in space. While earlier endeavors felt fueled by scientific discovery — or very human humor — this illustrates something bigger: the desire to make a mark on space.