'Columbus' Compass,' Crew Mementos Ride Aboard Shuttle Atlantis

'Columbus' Compass,' Crew Mementos Ride Aboard Shuttle Atlantis
NASA is taking three green starter's flags from the Daytona 500 into space to mark the 50th anniversary of NASA and NASCAR's premiere race. (Image credit: NASA)

WhenChristopher Columbus left the shores of Spain in 1492, he sailed with theguidance of a compass as he sought a quicker route to the West via the east(unknowingly reaching the New World in the process).

Fivehundred years later, Columbus is still traveling witha compass, though the direction of discovery has changed.

"We'retrying to show the continuing voyage of discovery of the early explorers,symbolized by the ship and taking it from their path, from east to west whenthey were in their age of discovery, to our orbital path of discovery from thewest to east," described astronaut Rex Walheim of his and his crew'smission insignia. "The shape kind of takes in the old compasses that showyou directions; that was kind of a nice shape that hadn't been seen before [ona patch]."

Walheim,together with fellow astronaut Stan Love, made a spacewalk today to outfit theEuropean Space Agency's Columbus science lab, named for the Genoan explorer, inpreparation for removing the module from shuttle Atlantis' payload bay toattach it to the International Space Station. Both spacewalkers were wearingtheir mission's compass- shaped emblem, which Walheim's wife had designed.

"My wifecame up with the original design," Walheim told collectSPACE.com duringa pre-flight interview. "She's a graphic designer by trade. She's astay-at-home mom now but she designed the patch."

"Designingfor engineers is not the most pleasant activity, if you've the seen results ofsome of engineers' designs being artistic. So, I think it worked outwell," he said with a smile.

[Click here to readthe complete manifest of the STS-122 mission's memento-filled Official FlightKit]

Like the15th century explorer, Walheim and his STS-122 crewmates launched their missionwith a packed ship, as most of the shuttle's cargo capacity was taken by the22.6 foot long by 14.7 foot wide Columbus lab, aswell as their own supplies for the voyage. Still, the seven person crew had asmall space in which to fly a few personal items for themselves and for others.

Forexample, Walheim's brother Lance, a garden expert for Bayer Advanced, deliveredhim a dried rose that is named for and will be featured in the Tournament ofRoses. It was originally planned to be part of the 2008 parade but as themission was delayed by two months, it will be incorporated into Bayer's 2009float.

Walheimalso chose some small mementos to fly. "I have packed some medallions ofour crew patch," Walheim said of the items he packed for his family."I have got a banner from my school, from the University of California that I will fly with me."

Stan Love,who became Walheim's spacewalking partner after another crewman, Hans Schlegelfell ill, also packed items for his schools.

"I'mflying a t-shirt with signatures for my high school, same thing for my graduateschool. My college sent me some stuff to take. The University of Hawaii, where I worked for a year before I came [to NASA], is sending a meteorite because Iworked in the meteorite group there. And so it's going to be the world's onlymeteorite to enter the atmosphere twice," Love told collectSPACE.

As forSchlegel, who was reported to be feeling better and is expected to perform theflight's second spacewalk, he is flying items for his family and for home townin Germany. This is Schlegel's second mission, though he chose not to takeanything from his first flight 15 years ago, "besides my spirit," hesaid.

Schlegel'sEuropean crewmate, Leopold Eyharts, who was transferred to the space station's crewand will stay there until the next shuttle arrives to bring him home, also flewmementos for his home region in France but preferred not to share the details,yet.

"Idon't want to tell it actually, but you will probably know it when I am there[on the station]," he teased. "I have a few surprises for the peoplethat I am bringing things for."

"I amflying an item for each of my colleges that I went to, I'm flying some thingsfor the Navy, a couple of religious organizations," shared Atlantis' pilotAlan 'Dex' Poindexter.

All of thecrew's items are packed into one of two different kits that are standard onevery mission. The astronauts' mementos for other individuals are packed withinpersonal preference kits, separate for each crew member. Items for theirschools and other organizations, together with items flown for NASA and itspartners, are stored inside a single 2 cubic foot container, referred to as theOfficial Flight Kit.

Amongthe thousandsof mementos in the STS-122 OFK are two (deflated) footballs, one ofwhich is packed for the alma matter of the only former NFL player among NASA'sastronaut corps.

"I'm takingup a couple of NFL jerseys, Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys," saidLeland Melvin, who had been a member of both teams before an injury forced hiscareer change.

"I amtaking up Christian McBride's 'Live At Tonic,' his new album. I'm taking thatup because I went to a concert a while back, met him and we talked."

Melvin'salso brought some of his own music.

"Iplay piano and I try to compose some songs every now and then. I've recorded afew songs. At home I have a little studio where I record," he explained."Everything that was on my computer, it's now on the space iPod so I willhave some of my music and quite a few songs."

Melvin isalso taking a symbol of his inquisitiveness that led to his becoming anastronaut. "I am taking a Curious George t-shirt that a friend of minegave me, because that's one of the books my mother read to me every day when Iwas a child, even before I could read. I always liked the fact that he wascurious about life [as] that is something that I have always aspired to, beingcurious and staying focused on things that are out there," he said.

LikeMelvin, STS-122 mission commander Stephen Frick also thought of his childhood.

"Sadlyno lightsabers, STS-120 beat us tothat punch. Certainly all of us are Star Wars fans from our early days, so wewere excited to see that go up."

Instead,STS-122 is carrying three green raceflags from the Daytona 500, which like NASA, is celebrating its 50thanniversary this year. Two of the flags will be returned to NASCAR after themission lands.

NASA isbroadcasting Atlantis' STS-122 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com's shuttle mission coverage and NASA TV feed. 

  • SPACE.com Video Interplayer: NASA's STS-122: Columbus Sets Sail for ISS
  • SPACE.com Quiz: The Reality of Life in Orbit
  • Complete Space Shuttle Mission Coverage

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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.