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Soyuz crew
A crew prepares to board a Soyuz spacecraft after participating in a number of elaborate traditions. (credit: RSC Energia)

The losing hand: tradition and superstition in spaceflight

It may seem incredible that in the world of manned spaceflight, of high-tech mission control and protocols for everything, there is a body of folklore, superstition, and tradition that is followed by each and every crewmember as if performing a sacred rite. Invocation of spirits of the dead, holy water, lucky card games, talismans, ritual words to be uttered at certain times—it reads like the initiation into some secret lodge.

But perhaps it isn’t as incredible as it first appears. Consider the risk: of the 483 people who have been launched into space as of March 2008, 18 have died during the mission. This mortality rate of 3.74% makes it one of the most dangerous professions one could follow: compare with a 0.39% mortality rate among the US military in Iraq 2003–2006 and 2.18% in Vietnam in 1966–1972, and you see that the risks are much greater for astronauts than they are even for combat troops.

Given this danger, it is quite undertstandable that astronauts should reassure themselves with ritual actions and talismans. It is a natural human impulse to control fears of death and injury by recourse to superstition—we might think of the bullfighter praying to his madonna before the corrida, going through a series of rites and responses built up over the history of this deadly sport.

Invocation of spirits of the dead, holy water, lucky card games, talismans, ritual words to be uttered at certain times—it reads like the initiation into some secret lodge.

Another reason for this accretion of folklore and tradition is simply the “corps spirit”. Astronauts and cosmonauts belong to an elite group, and seek to identify themselves with the pride that anyone would feel in belonging to such a group. Teamwork, shared goals, and mutual trust are all promoted by participating together in rites that mark all members as special, apart from the rest of humanity, together in their uniqueness.

So what are the traditions and superstitions of the three astronaut corps that have grown up since the first rockets entered space half a century ago: Russian, American and most recently, Chinese? The Russians have an impressive number of them, some from the officially-atheist Soviet era, and some from the years since the collapse of the USSR which incorporate the Orthodox faith.

First, Soyuz flight crews observe a number of ceremonies before they leave the Star City training complex outside Moscow. They leave red carnations at the Memorial Wall, which commemorates Yuri Gagarin (who died in a training accident) and the four cosmonauts who have died in the course of space missions (Komarov in Soyuz 1; Dobrovolski, Patsayev, and Volkov in Soyuz 11). Then they visit Yuri Gagarin’s office at Zvyozdniy Gorodok, which is preserved as a shrine, untouched since his death, and sign his guest book. It is said that they also ask Gagarin’s ghost for permission to fly during this visit. This ghost will be with them too at other points during the mission’s preparations.

On arrival at the launch center in Baikonur, the crew are lodged in the Cosmonaut Hotel, a place which is so saturated in folklore and tradition that if the Russian space program ever relocates manned operations to another center, this building will almost certainly go with them. An avenue of trees stretches behind it, each planted by a safely returning cosmonaut, and the crew take care to walk among them and soak up the spirit of success that they exude.

As launch day approaches, the superstitions come thick and fast. The rollout of the Soyuz rocket takes place 48 hours before launch, as the rocket is carried to the pad by train. The crew are forbidden to attend this rollout as their presence here would bring bad luck; instead, they must have a haircut on this day. As the monstrous rocket rolls along the track, the technicians put coins on the rails to be flattened, a process which is known to bring good fortune.

No launch may be scheduled for October 24, a black date in the annals of Russian spaceflight because of two accidents that occurred on that date, separated by three years. First, on October 24, 1960, an R-16 missile blew up on the pad, killing 92 ground staff including the air force general whose imprudent haste had provoked the disaster; on the same date in 1963 an R-9 missile rocket blew up in its silo, killing seven technicians. Following this bizarre coincidence, no further launches were to be allowed on this day of evil omen.

On the day before launch, the crew are blessed by a priest of the Orthodox faith and sprinkled with holy water. That night the 1969 movie White Sun of the Desert, an exotic tale of adventure in the Caspian Sea during the Russian Civil War, and one of the most popular films of the Soviet era, is shown at the hotel. Attendance at this screening is compulsory.

At breakfast the cosmonauts sip champagne and afterwards sign their hotel room door. As they leave they are serenaded by a Soviet-era rock song, “The Green Grass Near My Home” by the band Zemlyane (“The Earthlings”), which speaks of a cosmonaut’s love for planet Earth. The song goes:

We neither see in dreams the cosmodrome,
Nor stars above and icy bluish glow,
In our dreams we see a green grassed lawn
And clear sky above our lovely home.

The crew board the transfer bus, suitably adorned with horseshoes, and on their trip to the pad perform yet another ritual harking back to Yuri Gagarin. The bus stops, the crewmembers file out, and repeating an act performed by the great Gagarin himself, urinate on the right rear wheel of the bus. Female members are excused this obligation, but the more enthusiastic women cosmonauts have been known to take a vial of their urine with them and sprinkle it on the bus. Paying passenger Anouseh Ansari was content to “mentally participate”. Most recently, Malaysian cosmonaut Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor noted in his flight diary that it took him five minutes to unzip and another five minutes to do himself up again, but that he “enjoyed performing every tradition”.

The crew report to the Chairman of the State Committee for Space, or another suitable dignitary, that they are ready to fly and receive permission to board. Only one more ritual awaits: the talisman.

Though the rites and superstitions of NASA astronauts tend to be more private and less well-known, they most certainly exist and are perhaps as deeply felt.

The origins of this talisman, a little toy on a chain, are a blend of engineering common sense and superstition. The toy is dangled from the inside of the crew compartment in full view of the TV camera, and serves to tell ground controllers when the spacecraft has achieved orbit. When the engines cut off, the craft enters free-fall and becomes weightless. The toy, sometimes called “Boris”, begins to float. The controllers see it floating and confirm that the craft is indeed in orbit. It is the mission commander’s task to choose the talisman and care for it until it is safely installed in the capsule.

Other superstitions are less appealing to 21st century eyes. Following the old nautical tradition that women are bad luck on board ship (many cosmonauts were former navy pilots) there is a widely held belief among Russian spacemen that spacewomen will bring disaster. On April 19, 2008, after a problematic ballistic reentry of their Soyuz TMA-11 capsule, the two women and one man of the crew suffered G-forces of up to 10G and landed 400 kilometers off-target. The head of the Russian Space program, Anatoly Perminov, was quoted as saying “You know in Russia, there are certain bad omens about this sort of thing, but thank God everything worked out successfully. Of course in the future, we will work somehow to ensure that the number of women will not surpass [the number of men]”.

More attractive is the Russians’ insistence on maintaining their traditions of hospitality in space. When on orbit, whether in Salyut, Mir or today’s ISS, the crews of space stations have always offered bread and salt to visitors, in accordance with timeless custom.

On return to Earth there are many ceremonies to be performed, such as signing the outside of the burned-up capsule and the inside of the recovery helicopter, and a series of elaborate welcome-home ceremonies, beginning with another tribute to Yuri Gagarin at his monument in Star City.

The men and women of NASA’s astronaut corps are apparently more coolly rational and less prone to superstition than their Russian counterparts, though a more painstaking examination of their ways shows that though their rites and superstitions tend to be more private and less well-known, they most certainly exist and are perhaps as deeply felt.

Breakfast on launch day must be scrambled eggs and steak, a high-protein “low-residue” meal that minimises the need to relieve oneself in the following hours. Behind the dietary rationale lies a tribute to Alan Shephard, who first breakfasted this way in 1961, and a hope to achieve the same success as he did.

In the suiting room, where technicians help the crew don their pressure suits and the astronauts wait for an hour until their blood is purged of nitrogen by the pure oxygen they breathe, the same E-Z Boy reclining chairs have been in use since the days Apollo.

Much is made of that history, as the memoirs of Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean (who flew twice on the shuttle, in 1992 and 2006) attest: “My suit tech whispered with excitement, ‘Steve you have John Young’s chair.’ I was tickled by the thought, as John had been out to the moon twice and I was just a kid when he splashed into the Atlantic after his first spaceflight. Well, I have the same chair this time, and even though it is refurbished with new leather they say it will still bring good fortune”. Nobody seems to consider a simple fact: the Apollo flights had a crew of three, the Shuttle carries seven. So at least four of these chairs have had nothing to do with the legendary Apollo astronauts. The reassurance given by this simple gesture at the moment of maximum peril outweighs simple considerations of logic, so the legend goes on.

At the same time the commander of the mission must play cards with the tech crew until he loses a hand. This card game, variously described as a type of blackjack and as a kind of five-card poker, has its origins in the earliest American spaceflights, though apparently nobody knows who began this custom. Since the ritual specifies that it is the mission commander who must play and lose, this suggests a beginning with the Gemini missions and the first two-man crews. Gus Grissom, perhaps, the first Gemini commander?

Not only the astronauts have superstitions. Gene Kranz, the legendary mission controller, famously had a new waistcoat for each mission. No doubt others involved, mission controllers and technicians, have their own rites that they keep to themselves or among close friends.

Other rituals followed by the NASA corps fall more into the category of reinforcing the elite-team mentality. A little-known custom is the creation of alternative crew patches, parallel to the official mission patches that NASA creates and publicises. These feature in-jokes and boyish humour, such as the series of Shuttle “Dog Crews”, each crew patch showing cartoon dogs and the crewmembers adopting doggie code-names. These patches are known of primarily by hearsay, since the patches themselves have never been shown to the public.

As strange as it may seem, not one of the traditional rituals of spaceflight has a documented origin. Even the story of Yuri Gagarin’s unscheduled relief stop is contradicted by the documentary evidence.

Of course, superstition plays a part in the public aura surrounding spaceflight too. Apollo 13 cleared the launch tower at 1313 Houston time and the command module exploded on April 13. How unlucky could that be? Meanwhile, the USAF’s repeated failures to put the Space Launch Complex 6 at Vandenburg into operation were blamed on unquiet spirits from ancestral Native American burial grounds. A Native American exorcism ritual was even carried out by one of the contractors. However, when this “curse” was investigated, it turned out there was no cemetery, no curse, no ancestral spirit (see “Curses and myths”, The Space Review, July 3, 2006 and “The Chumash Indians and the Air Force”, The Space Review, September 4, 2007). As the rumour grew, sparked perhaps by the 1982 movie Poltergeist, nobody had thought to ask the local Chumash tribe. It seemed easier to blame cost overruns and design failures on ghosts rather than on military inadequacies.

What of the third group to be launched into space, the Chinese taikonauts? Almost nothing is known about the inside workings of the Chinese space program, which first launched a man into orbit in 2003. So far only three Chinese have been in orbit, with a further pair expected to make a spacewalk in October 2008. No personal memoirs or insider accounts have come to light. However, Steven Baxter in his 1997 novel Titan imagines the scene inside the first Shenzou spacecraft. He rather absurdly imagines the mission being crewed by a woman of non-Chinese Ugyur descent, which, given the known Chinese attitudes regarding sexual and ethnic equality, is a highly unrealistic expectation. Before launch, the technicians give the first taikonaut a gift:

One of them passed her a small brass bell… It was inscribed with the face of Mao Zedong… ‘Maybe ta laorenjia [the Old Man] will bring you luck’.

Did this scene, or something like it, take place on October 15, 2003, when Colonel Yang Liwei became the first Chinese person in space? It seems likely, but given the secrecy of the whole Chinese program, we may never know.

As strange as it may seem, not one of the traditional rituals of spaceflight has a documented origin. Even the story of Yuri Gagarin’s unscheduled relief stop is contradicted by the documentary evidence. So it is that at the human heart of this gleaming technological enterprise lie the atavistic fears and magic of the caveman. In centuries ahead, no doubt colonists will travel to the outer planets clutching their strands of blond Gagarin hair, their fragments of Young’s armchair or Yang’s spacesuit, and these demigods of spaceflight will protect them, as saints have always blessed the faithful.


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