Fifty years ago today, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. In the half-century following, many men and women have followed in his flight path—and come up with a slew of unusual rituals meant to help their missions go smoothly, described in a 2008 article in The Space Review. Here are Discoblog’s rankings of various space programs’ pre-launch superstitions:
- Eat a steak-and-eggs breakfast. Alan Shepard, the first American in space, had this meal before his 1961 launch. Plus, it’s thought to, uh, decrease the need to do things you’d rather not do in a space suit. (Then again, Shepard is probably not the best example for that, considering he famously peed his suit while Freedom 7 was mired in protracted delays on the launch pad.)
- Take a load off. Before a mission, astronauts sit in the same leather armchairs the Apollo guys sat in. Not just for rest and relaxation, though: As they lean back in the E-Z Boys, the astronauts are wearing pressure suits and breathing pure oxygen to rid their blood of nitrogren pre-launch.
- Lose at cards. Specifically, the mission commander must lose to the tech crew, at a game that may be some sort of blackjack or poker. This is NASA, not Vegas.
- Ranking: 2nd (6/10). While these pre-launch traditions do include run-ins with some of our favorite vices—red meat, sloth, and gambling—they seem awfully practical. Do superstitions usually involve multitasking?
- Get on Gagarin’s Good Side. Cosmonauts take care to honor the first man in space. They leave red carnations at a memorial to him, sign the guestbook in his old office, and ask his ghost for help.
- Take a walk. Returning crews plant trees behind the hotel where the cosmonauts ready to go up stay before a launch. Walking along this arboreal path is thought to be good luck, helping the cosmonauts come back successfully—and safely—to plant their own trees.
- Watch a war movie. All the cosmonauts pile into someone’s hotel room (I’m guessing) and watch The White Rose of the Desert. If you’ve already seen it a hundred times, too bad: This is not optional. (In Soviet Russia, movie picks YOU.)
- Drink, and engage in some light vandalism. The morning of the launch, the cosmonauts drink some bubbly (Champagne, not some kind of bubbly vodka) and sign the doors of their hotel rooms.
- Let loose. Specifically, let loose a stream of urine on the rear right wheel of the transfer bus on your way to the launch. Gagarin did this, the story goes, back in 1961. While this tradition is obviously more convenient for the men, some lady cosmonauts elect to bring along a container of urine to participate. No word yet on whether this modification satisfies the (potentially sexist) gods of safe space journeys.
- Ranking: 1st (8/10). This is what superstitions are supposed to be: over-the-top, slightly morbid, at times intoxicated and occasionally scatological. What kept the Russians from a perfect 10 was that the proceedings seemed a little too extensive—and some smacked of mandatory fun. If you have to require attendance at the pre-launch movie night, maybe it’s time to scale things back.
- The Chinese space program keeps its cards close to the chest, so no one’s sure exactly what the taikunoauts’ pre-launch rituals are. One novel apparently suggests the mission technicians hand the crew a bell emblazoned with a likeness of Mao Zedong to bring them luck. Whoa—don’t get so crazy, guys.
- Ranking: 3rd (3/10). Since we don’t know actually what’s up, we can’t really compare it. The Chinese taikonauts do get 3 points, though, because we’re sure that whatever they do is better than that Mao-lookalike bell. After the astounding fanfare of the Beijing Olympics, they’ve probably come up with something great—hopefully something that involves walking hand in hand with Yao Ming.
Image: Flickr / jurvetson