To Pluto With Postage: Nine Souvenirs Stow Away on NASA Probe

To Pluto With Postage: Nine Souvenirs Stow Away on NASA Probe
This artist's rendering depicts the New Horizons spacecraft as it approaches Pluto and its moons in summer 2015. (Image credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI))

Have youheard the one about the two men looking to launch a probe to Pluto who went toBurger King to find a part for their spacecraft?

It mightsound funny, but it's no joke.

Tounderstand how a fast food restaurant almost factored into NASA's first missionto the last planet, you need to know a bit of the historybehind New Horizons, which just recently marked 1000 days on its nine yearflight to Pluto.

"NewHorizons was a nuclear launch," explained Dr. Alan Stern, New Horizons' principalinvestigator, of his probe's plutonium-powered battery. "Those are rare. Thereare a lot preparations for safety's sake, but they also do require all majorstakeholders being briefed and in agreement we are ready to go."

"Afterthe federal government had given its approval, the state of Florida had to giveits approval, so then-Kennedy Space Center director, whose name is Jim Kennedy,and I drove up to Tallahassee one day to see Governor [Jeb] Bush, who wasthen-governor," recalled Stern of his road trip on Nov. 22, 2005.

Sterndescribed what happened next in an interview with

"Onthe way to see the governor - it was a long drive, I think it may have beenthree to four hundred miles - we got to talking about what we might do to gethim a little more personally interested in the mission, other than just invitehim to the launch," said Stern. "We came upon the thought, why don'twe fly a statequarter of Florida?"

As Sternreasoned, they would launch from Florida, some of the parts of New Horizons hadbeen built there and the state quarter just happened to have a space theme.They both liked the idea a lot but upon searching their pockets, came up emptyfor a quarter to illustrate their point to the governor.

So, at asmall town in the panhandle of Florida, they went to a Burger King.

"Wetried to find a state quarter in their cash registers. We had their entirestaff looking," Stern shared. "It was a pretty surreal scene. Theentire time I was thinking, 'Here are these 18- and 19-year-old, minimum wagefolks rifling for a quarter that's going to flyto the Kuiper belt."

Not thatthe restaurant's employees knew of the reason behind their search. "Jimand I sat there and said, 'Should we tell them?' And I was like, 'Nah, it's tooinvolved. They wouldn't believe it if we told them.' We were just a couple ofguys with a coat and tie on, stopped in a van."

Unfortunately,despite their best efforts, the Burger King didn't have a Florida state quarterto offer them and as they didn't have the time to stop at every other fast foodjoint along the way, Stern and Kennedy almost forewent flying the quarter.

"Towardthe end of the briefing, I mentioned to [Governor Bush] that we really wantedto fly a Florida state quarter but couldn't come up with one and it was due toour poor planning because we had only thought of it today," Sternrecounted. "And he said, 'Well, I've got plenty!'" and with that ranout of the room and when he came back, he had a roll of the quarters. "Hesaid, 'Fly these!'"

Sternaccepted the roll from the governor, but explained he could only fly one. Theothers would be distributed to team members as a souvenir of the mission.

Less youthink however, that the quarter flew simply as a gesture to the governor, itserved a bona fide purpose on the spacecraft.

"Forspin balance, we need to add a number of kilograms to various places [on New Horizons],"explained Stern. "We knew this was the case because the moments of inertiaof the spacecraft and the dynamical properties of it, that we would have totrim it out down to literally the grams-level with balance weights. Of course,we had a whole variety of big ones and little ones; you start off with adding akilogram here and a kilogram there and you end up getting smaller and smallerweights in various places until you're done. We used the coins to thatpurpose," he said.

"Sincewe needed a counter balance to [the Florida state quarter], we decided to fly asecond state quarter. We picked Maryland because that is where the spacecraftwas built. And because we had so many people back in Maryland at the AppliedPhysics Lab and at Goddard, it was easy for someone to ship us a quarter reallyquick."

The storycontinues with the history behind New Horizon's missing messageplaque and the 1991 postage stamp that served as the spacecraft team'smotivation.

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Robert Z. Pearlman Editor, Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of, 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 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.