Traveling to space is an incredible feat. To leave the bounds of Earth requires great ambition, endurance, nerves of steel, and even a dash of luck.
Yuri Gagarin was the first man to orbit the Earth successfully. Prior to his voyage, he decided to complete a few tasks: first, he planted a tree and then he got a haircut. And, on his back way to the launchpad, he hopped out of the bus and relieved himself on its back right tire.
Though seemingly bizarre, this routine of Gagarin’s has since been followed to the tee by every single astronaut to fly from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the deserts of Kazakhstan. This superstitious ritual provides a sense of familiarity and solace for departing astronauts. “People become very comforted in doing the same routine before a launch,” said Paul Lockhart, a former NASA astronaut. “And sometimes that has to happen two or three times for a single mission, because your launch could be delayed if there was weather or if a system failed,” he added.
Across the Atlantic at the Kennedy Space Center, astronauts follow rituals too. Before a launch, each astronaut is presented with a large platter of steak, eggs, and cake, regardless of what time the takeoff will be. Immediately before launch, the entire crew “sits down for a last-minute poker game that has to continue until the commander plays the worst hand,” said Tanya Lewis in Wired. In addition, it is considered bad luck for the crew to see the spacecraft until it is ready for the scheduled launch. Kennedy Space Center astronauts are also known to bring a stuffed animal along for the trip, for good luck as well as to act as a signal. Once the toy starts to float, the crew knows they have attained zero gravity.
More recent superstitions are quickly catching on among astronauts as well, from requiring the blessing of an Orthodox priest over a spacecraft or having NASA engineers design a new poster with the crew in costumes from a favorite sci-fi movie pre-launch. Anything and everything is done to ensure the crew is content, regardless of the apparent absurdity behind the superstition.
[Sources: smithsonian.com; Wired]