How NASA Sent the Winning Super Bowl LI Team's Jersey to Space — Before Game Day

Astronauts Peggy Whitson and Shane Kimbrough wear the jerseys of the Super Bowl LI teams – the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons – on board the International Space Station.
Astronauts Peggy Whitson and Shane Kimbrough wear the jerseys of the Super Bowl LI teams – the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons – on board the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA via collectSPACE.com)

HOUSTON — It is a familiar scene: mere seconds after the game ends, out come the shirts celebrating the winner of the Super Bowl.

On Sunday (Feb. 5), the same thing is expected to happen at NRG Stadium in Houston. But for the first time in history, it could also occur in space.

That is because the Super Bowl LI winning team's jersey is already on board the International Space Station. [NASA Goes to Super Bowl 2017 (Photos)

"Congratulations to the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons!" NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Peggy Whitson exclaimed in a video released by NASA on Friday (Feb. 3). "See you in Houston!"

In the clip, the two Expedition 50 crewmates can be seen aboard the orbiting outpost revealing how it is they already have the still-to-be-determined champion's jersey in space: NASA launched all 32 NFL team shirts to the station.

The video shows Kimbough and Whitson unpacking a bag full of jerseys, creating a floating cloud of team colors. The Texans' deep steel blue and battle red flies by the camera, followed by the forest green and cheese gold of the Green Bay Packers, the purple and gold of the Minnesota Vikings and the burgundy of the Washington Redskins.

NASA Astronauts Peggy Whitson and Shane Kimbrough sort through the 32 NFL football team jerseys sent to the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA via collectSPACE.com )

 

All the jerseys are number 51 for Super Bowl LI and rather than players' names, they all read "NASA" on the back.

The astronauts ultimately located and donned the nautical blue, red and new century silver of the Patriots and black, red and silver of the Falcons.

"Well, I'm from Atlanta, so I am picking the Falcons," said Kimbrough during a live video downlink with the press and social media fans on Wednesday (Feb. 1). Kimbrough was born in Texas, but grew up and later earned his masters of science at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

Whitson was born in Iowa and attended Rice University in Houston, but seemed happy to wear the Patriots' jersey.

Both are planning to watch the big game live, streamed via Mission Control.

"Wish we could park [the space station] above the stadium and watch from that perspective, but we can't do that. We are going to be moving at 17,500 mph, whether we want to or not," Kimbrough explained. "But, we will have the game live up here, so we'll get to watch it."

That means staying up, because the space station runs on Greenwich Mean Time, six hours ahead of Houston.

"Luckily we did get the morning off after, because it's going to be the middle of the night," said Whitson in response to a question from collectSPACE.

In addition to launching the jerseys, NASA also delivered a number of regulation Super Bowl LI footballs to the station. In the lead up to the game, one of the footballs returned to Earth and was presented to the Houston Host Committee.

NASA Johnson Space Center, located in Houston, teamed up with the host committee to represent "Space City," and, with six of its aerospace industry contractors, presented a "Future Flight" mission to Mars ride and an exhibit pavilion as part of the Super Bowl LIVE fan festival.

NASA and its astronauts have carried team wear into orbit before, but this was the first time the space agency sent an entire professional sports' lineup at one time. The fate of the jerseys —whether they are brought back to Earth for presentation to the NFL or its respective teams, or stowed on board an uncrewed cargo craft filled with other refuse to burn up in the atmosphere, was not said.

In the short term though, the public may see an astronaut on the space station model the winner's jersey, celebrating the team's Super Bowl championship.

"We've got jerseys on board, so we'll see what we can do," said Ellen Ochoa, director of Johnson Space Center and a former space shuttle astronaut.

Watch Peggy Whitson and Shane Kimbrough unpack the NFL jerseys on the space station at collectSPACE.

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Robert Z. Pearlman
collectSPACE.com Editor, Space.com Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.