Fri, Sep 08, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Superstitions vie with science in space programs


"Superstitions? What's that all about?" NASA's shuttle launch director, Michael Leinbach, asked in an interview this week. "I am not a superstitious person."

If not, he is one of the few. The space program is rife with rituals, charms, lucky numbers, and other defenses against bad karma -- not just disaster, but the mechanical and weather problems that have postponed the Atlantis liftoff.

In a custom that dates back to the first shuttle mission in 1981, shuttle crews will not leave the suit-up room until the commander loses in a card game. They repeatedly draw poker hands until the commander ends up with the lowest.

Some managers insist on wearing special clothes. During the Apollo era, the Lunar Orbiter program manager, Lee Scherer, always wore the same sports coat, said Hugh Harris, a retired public affairs chief at the Kennedy Space Center. When the program ended, Scherer shredded the coat and distributed pieces among co-workers.

Numerology is also important. Space shuttle missions were numbered as STS-1, STS-2, and so on, for Space Transportation System. Then NASA turned the consecutive identification system into an awkward combination of numbers and letters that included even the fiscal year.

"Whether that was superstition, you really can't say, but somehow they avoided STS-13," Harris said, laughing

It should be noted that three astronauts aboard the International Space Station are the 13th team of permanent residents, and NASA officially refers to them as the Expedition 13 crew.

At Russia, in keeping with a custom almost half a century old, the wives of astronauts do not attend launchings. Nor do the crews watch their Soyuz spacecraft roll to the pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome two days before liftoff.

Russian astronauts have another ritual: urinating against a tire of the bus taking them to the launching pad.

They are commemorating the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, by replicating his urgent deed before his launching in 1961.

An odder ceremony took place before Titan rocket missions back in the 1960s. Members of the launch team would meet the night before liftoff, and the youngest would bury a knife in the sand, aimed in the same direction as the flight path.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top