If you were tuned into NASA’s live streaming event yesterday, following the landing of Mars rover Perseverance, you might have seen a big jar of peanuts sitting next to one of the commentators walking us through what was happening.
A jar of peanuts seems like a funny little thing to have in the shot at a NASA command center, especially during such a momentous occasion. It turns out that the peanuts are indeed part of a long-standing tradition for space missions. This helpful article from NASA gives us an inside peek at the proceedings and the presence of the jar, which isn’t just there because the rocket scientists are feeling peckish.
These peanuts, which are a sort of good luck charm, first showed up at the Space Flight Operations Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1964. This was during the Ranger 7 mission, and by then the stress was enormous. The previous six attempts were failures, so the sheer pressure to get Ranger 7 to work was palpable.
“I thought passing out peanuts might take some of the edge off the anxiety in the mission operations room,” Dick Wallace, mission trajectory engineer on the Ranger team, said. “The rest is history.” The mission indeed went off without a hitch. Phew! Ranger 8 and 9 went exactly as planned, and the peanuts have showed up at nearly every launch since.
I say nearly, because the peanuts were left out on a few occasions:
On a few occasions, the peanuts didn’t make it for launch day. In once case, the spacecraft was lost soon after launch. In another, the launch was delayed for 40 days, and only took place after the lucky peanuts were delivered to the mission team.
Someone forgot lucky peanuts for the first Cassini launch opportunity. Peanuts were on hand for the successful October 15, 1997 liftoff.
Up until Voyager’s mission, the peanuts were only around at launch, but now you’ll see a jar around for critical mission stages that involve a high degree of risk and group anxiety. When asked if this was superstition, Wallace said, “I hope not. Not in this bastion of logic and reason.”