NASA’s New Horizons scientists have more superstitious habits than a pro sports team

A good day.
A good day.
Image: Reuters/Bill Ingalls/NASA/Handout
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Cue the planetary image processing software. Then give a special nod to the SpongeBob Square Pants doll sitting on a dark ledge in the high-security Mission Operations Center.

As NASA released on July 15 the first stunning color images of Pluto taken by the New Horizons spacecraft, the brain trust of scientists, engineers, NASA officials and invitation-only space enthusiasts gathered here at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory are engaging in some quirky rituals and habits that seem downright unscientific.

Randy Gladstone, a Caltech PhD in planetary aeronomy—that’s the study of the upper atmosphere—leads the Atmospheres Theme Group for the mission (translation: he oversees craft-gathered data that will shed light on the nature of Pluto’s nitrogen-rich atmosphere). That means he uses high-tech instruments such as a tunable diode-laser spectrometer (don’t ask) but also decidedly non-tech talismans; like a faded, fraying bumper sticker on his 1991 black Honda Accord that says, “My other vehicle is on its way to Pluto.”

“I won’t replace that sticker [with an identical new on] until everything”—pictures and data“comes back,” over the next 16 months, Gladstone told Quartz July 14 outside the APL, which oversees the mission. “It’s like the spacecraft and updates—we don’t like to mess with things.”

NASA engineers aren’t just brainy, robotic, numbers-obsessed techies hungry for the “science candy” of images and data—contrary to conventional wisdom, they’re also superstitious and prone to believing in symbols and good-luck gestures, including placing the ashes of Pluto’s discoverer in 1930, amateur astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, aboard the gold foil-covered craft.

Take the nine-fingered salute, which when viewed from behind the person performing it can resemble an evangelical Christian in a come-to-Jesus momentNine, of course, refers to Pluto’s contested status as the solar system’s ninth planet, demoted to “dwarf planet” and kicked out of the Group of Nine by the International Astronomical Union, a leading group of astronomers, in 2006.

It’s a sore subject inside the APL, and staff scientists and engineers told Quartz that nobody is supposed to even talk about it. That why Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission and the charismatic face of the project, introduced years back, according to one senior scientist on the project, the nine-fingered gesture—the 21st-century equivalent of Spock’s trademark “Live long and prosper” sign. Asked if icy, rocky Pluto has a “personality” Stern exclaimed that the planetary body was “the belle of the ball!”

Nine, of course, is also the number of years, plus a few months, that the 1,054 lb. craft, which Stern told an audience was “about the size of a baby-grand piano,” has been hurtling across three billion miles to the edge of the solar system. (An assist from Jupiter, whose gravity turbo-charged the craft’s initial speed of 36,373 miles per hour, cut what might have been 18 years to nine and prompted NASA to dub the pedal-to-the-metal move “Grand Theft Pluto.”) Nine is also the number of times—plus one half—that adjustments and corrections were made to the craft’s trajectory. “Nine, nine, nine,” said Glen Fountain, the project manager for the mission, to a chuckling audience of around 1,400 people early on the morning of July 14.

The flyby involves as many numbers and statistics as the nearby Kuiper Belt, a vast ring of frozen dwarf planets and flotsam and jetsam beyond Neptune, has mysteries. But inside the APL, it has also involved a sense of unquantifiable giddiness, especially after the craft “phoned home” safe and sound. “We’re a pretty mirthful bunch,” Bill McKinnon, a deputy team leader for geology and geophysics on the mission, told Quartz.

The hibernation bear, which sits inside mission control, is a teddy bear, with a blanket and a pillow, that served as a de facto mascot of New Horizons when the craft was in “sleeping” mode to conserve energy and costs in its guidance and control systems. “The hibernation bear has a party hat on!” Alice Bowman, the craft’s Mission Operations Manager, or MOM, gleefully noted. She then described another good-luck talisman: wooden boards, plastered with New Horizons and Pluto stickers, that Stern handed out to staffers in 2007 after an engineer made a “knock on wood” comment regarding potential problems. “It gets knocked on anytime anyone says something bad” about the missionBowman said. A soft, stuffed Pluto toy sits on the main console sending signals back and forth to the craft through the Deep Space Network of satellites in California, Spain, and Australia.

Stern also handed out dozens of wooden pencils sharpened to two-inch stubs to signify perseverance and hard work. “He’s obsessive-compulsive, especially with lists and details,” his wife, Carole, said the day before the New Horizons made contact.

As for SpongeBob? The character’s significance to the New Horizons team points to a meme inside the Mission Operations Center, or MOC. The underwater-dwelling cartoon character has found himself on fishing and other vessels such as the SS Diarrhea, SS Cheapskate, SS Gourmet, and SS Suicide Bomber Pants. New Horizons insiders refer to the MOC as the SS MOC. “It’s Bastille Day today, but it’s also SpongeBob’s birthday!” Bowman exclaimed, though one staffer complained that the flyby had been eclipsed newswise by the landmark nuclear deal with Iran.

The craft has gotten a birthday cake every January since its launch in 2006. “It’s almost like it’s a baby,” Cathy Olkin, a New Horizons co-investigator, said from the sidelines. Olkin, who works on the craft’s Ralph instrument (that’s its formal name) that takes high-resolution pictures in black, white and sepia of Pluto, sighed that “It’s gotten to where I answer to ‘Ralph.’”

Marc Buie, who helped map Pluto pre-New Horizons, said that he absolutely, positively must eat animal crackers, in the little circus box with string handle, before looking through any telescope, to “ensure” clear skies. Leslie Young, a deputy project scientist and encounter planning leader—think of handling the deadline from hell in outer spacesaid that she, like most MIT-trained astronomers, eats Pop Tarts when looking through telescopes, going so far as to import them to New Zealand, where they’re unavailable, for projects. “It’s an occultation thing,” she said, referring not to a Medieval dark art but to a term in astronomy in which one object is obscured by another object.

Steven Squyres, the principal investigator for the science instruments on the Mars Exploration Rover Project and a leading figure in Mars orbiter missions, said that those missions were plagued with so many glitches early on that he sought solace in an elk tooth from Lapland that he acquired during a bike trip in the 1980s. “I’m very superstitious when it comes to planetary missions,” Squyres, a protege of astronomer Carl Sagan, explained outside the APL, fingering the leather cord of his necklace. He takes it off only to replace the cord, leaving it on even when showering. “Everything was exploding, disasters were everywhere. I decided if ever I needed good luck, it’s now.”