Plutonium Brownies

Discovery awaiting final stowage.

Discovery awaiting final stowage.

As can be imagined, the NASA managers and engineers were careful about what went on board the Space Shuttle. Each piece of equipment, each item that went into the stowage lockers, each widget or pair of socks had a part number and was catalogued in voluminous detail for each mission. Nothing could be left behind on the ground; nothing could be there that shouldn’t be. All astronauts understood this was a necessary attention to detail for mission success…but were forever finding ways to get around the rules.

They had willing allies.

Astronauts were allowed to take two personal items with them to space. Almost invariably, those included a bumper sticker of a university or military affiliation and a picture of spouse and children. Only a few astronauts were single, but one who was substituted a picture of the cows on his farm for the family shot. These items had to be submitted to the Director of Flight Crew Operations for approval, and there was no telling what he might decide to pull out at the last minute. One unlucky flier submitted a bumper sticker from his home state that said, “Ski Utah.” It got taken out because it was considered an advertisement. Who knew??

Bumper Stickers in space.

Bumper Stickers in space.

A somewhat formal way of sending stuff up was in the “Special Flight Data File.”

Though definitely special, it wasn’t part of the checklists, maps, malfunction procedures, or repair instructions included in the official Flight Data File.

Items in the “Special” file could really be classified as “jokes.” The pranksters were fellow astronauts, trainers, friends, neighbors, and family members, as well as whoever else knew the crewmembers well. These special items were smuggled into the Orbiter and stuffed into someone’s clothing stowage locker by a fellow astronaut babysitting the Shuttle in the hours before launch.

It was like Christmas morning when the crew finally had time—and had sufficiently recovered from the initial motion sickness that sometimes befell some folks—to amuse themselves pulling out all the goodies that clever minds snuck aboard. On one of my trips into space, we had a small refrigerator for blood samples on the middeck. We were able to decorate it with magnets from pizza parlors, dry cleaning establishments, and reminders to take out the garbage on Tuesdays.

Much of the food on the Shuttle was good. Not great. Definitely not homemade. But it was okay. And it was required to be “shelf stable” for a year or more. Translation: it was heavily processed. Our solution? We figured out how to sneak contraband food into orbit.

Plutonium brownies.

Plutonium brownies.

A fellow astronaut loved to bake but gave away all the goodies to keep her slim figure. Boy, could she cook! Her brownies were the best—so rich and full of chocolate that they were amazingly dense. They came to be known in our office as Plutonium Brownies because they were as heavy as that radioactive element. They’d be smuggled aboard at the last minute to make our flight vastly sweeter. Thanks, Marsha!

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  1. Great story and I’m sure you omitted some of the more off color hidden items that found their way onto the flight. I suspect the laughter was loud and boisterous after the impact of opening a door and finding something targeted for a prank.

  2. Love the personal stories!!

  3. Marsha was willing to give me the recipe for my Astronaut Cookbook, but I could not publish it since she was still an active astronaut. It would have been a hit!

  4. I always found it comforting when looking at in flight photos of shuttle flights with cabin fixtures plastered with various sticker (Go Navy, or a college name). Astronauts were proud of their affilations…so sharing the story of what could (or could not) be displayed was enlightening. As for those brownies…wow…Almost Heaven!

  5. sooooo glad you had some chocolate!! so interesting!!


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