It's the Space Pumpkin, Charlie Brown: A NASA Worker's Halloween Tradition
STS-114 Halloween pumpkin carved by Liz Warren.
Credit: Liz Warren ("Spasmunkey"/Flickr)

Houston, we have a space pumpkin. Each year NASA worker Liz Warren carves a unique jack-o-lantern to mark a very space-y Halloween for flight controllers at NASA's Johnson Space Center and this year is no different. Here, Warren describes the motivation behind her gourd-gouging Halloween tradition for SPACE.com:

This year, I carved a Halloween pumpkin of the mission patch for the International Space Station's Expedition 29. I’m proud to report that it’s sitting in Mission Control on the flight director's desk this week.

The satisfaction I get from transforming a pumpkin into a space mission emblem pumpkin is tremendous.  Space exploration is an extremely challenging and stressful endeavor. I like to think that my pumpkins bring a moment of levity and a smile to the astronaut crews and the teams that support them.

My ritual of carving pumpkins fell in line with the astronauts’ tradition of designing space mission patches when my passion for human spaceflight brought me to Houston to work at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Each mission patch symbolically depicts the objectives of the mission, and serves as a symbol of the crew and their ground team. 

Every Halloween, I carve one or two pumpkins with the mission emblem of either an upcoming mission or one that is currently in orbit. Many mission emblems are quite detailed and too complex to translate using pumpkin as the only medium, so I use a simplified version of the artwork as often seen on the astronauts' shirts. [Gallery: Space-y Halloween Pumpkins]

Halloween is my favorite holiday. There is something magic about fall. The crispness in the air signals the end of the growing season and the ensuing harvest. The days are noticeably shorter, the leaves have changed colors, and the smell of fireplace smoke fills the air.

Every October, my family would make a trip to a pumpkin patch at a working farm north of San Francisco. Pulling a wheelbarrow behind us, we’d ramble through the field seeking the perfect gourds for our Halloween jack-o'-lanterns.

How to carve a space pumpkin

The process of planning a design, cutting out a template, tracing the template onto the surface of the pumpkin, and then carving the pumpkin takes about five hours. For carving utensils, I use the serrated saws sold in kits specifically for carving pumpkins. I also employ the use of razor blades for small detail work and a Dremel for removing the skin of the pumpkin in areas that I want light to shine through without cutting through the pumpkin. [Image Gallery: Peculiar Halloween Pumpkins]

Once completed, I bring my pumpkin to the crew if they are available around Halloween. Sometimes, in the case of an Expedition crew, they may be in space. In those circumstances, I send a picture of their pumpkin to their ground support team to uplink to the space station.

Sometimes, I don’t hear anything from the crew regarding their pumpkin. Astronauts are extremely busy people and are focused on their mission. Other times, I hear back from them with words of appreciation.

I received an email from the International Space Station from Mike Lopez-Alegria regarding the Expedition 14 pumpkin. He seemed genuinely interested in the technique I used to allow light to shine through the pumpkin without cutting all the way through.

An Expedition 29 Halloween pumpkin carved by Liz Warren.
An Expedition 29 Halloween pumpkin carved by Liz Warren.
Credit: Liz Warren ("Spasmunkey"/Flickr)

The carver's craft

Of all the folklore and traditions surrounding this time of year, carving vegetables into lanterns is a favorite that I have enjoyed since before my parents would allow me to wield a knife (I would draw a face on my pumpkin and my dad would do the carving).

In the Fall of 2004, NASA was working very hard toward the STS-114 Return to Flight space shuttle mission after the loss of the space shuttle Columbia. I was struck by the idea to carve a jack-o'-lantern with the STS-114 emblem, postulating that it would be a light-hearted treat in the high stakes environment.

After spending an entire evening working on the STS-114 pumpkin, I recall feeling nervous about the potential reaction from others. I was relieved that no one was around when I left the pumpkin for the STS-114 crew, though I left a note with my contact information in case they wanted me to come dispose of the gourd. By the end of the day, I had received several emails thanking me for the pumpkin. Thus began a tradition that I have upheld for seven years.  

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