The Strangest Moments in Space Launch History

NASA Photos Reveal Rare Views of New Rocket, Space Shuttle
At NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the 327-foot-tall Ares I-X rocket (left) awaits a late October 2009 liftoff on Launch Pad 39B on its upcoming flight test. In the distance are space shuttle Atlantis (right) atop Launch Pad 39A, and the pads and processing facilities on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. (Image credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett.)

This story was updated at 11:59 p.m. EDT.

At times,NASA?s attempts to launch a new Ares I-X rocket Tuesday seemed surreal ? withbad weather, a stuck sensor sock and a wayward cargo ship offshore appearing toconspire to prevent the booster?s liftoff. But believe it or not, there havebeen stranger things to pop up in NASA?s launch history.

There wasan astronaut who peed in his spacesuit before liftoff ? a seeminglyinauspicious start to what became the first American manned spaceflight. Batsand vultures have besieged space shuttles at the launch pad, not to mentionlightning, which tried and failed to tackle NASA?s mightiest rocket.

NASA is hopingfor better weather ? and luck ? on Wednesday morning, when it has anotherfour-hour window to try and launch the $445 million Ares I-X rocket. The rocketlaunch is NASA?s first suborbital test of the new Ares I booster to launchastronauts to space aboard its shuttle successor, the Orion craft.

The launchwas delayed several times due to weather and some unexpected oddities like astubborn sock-like cover that forced engineers into a tug-of-war battle withthe Ares I-X until it finally came free. At one point, when weather finallycleared, an errant cargo ship strayed into the danger zone on the Eastern Range, a patch of restricted waters on the Atlantic Ocean over which rocket launchesfly.

TheAres I-X delays were frustrating to say the least. But here?s a look atsome of the weirder moments, many from recent missions, in NASA?s manned launchhistory:

No pottybreaks

Thepinnacle of manned space oddities may be one of the first. On May 5, 1961, NASAastronaut Alan Shepard ? one of the original seven Mercury spaceflyers ? wasready to become the firstAmerican in space. Clad in a bright silver spacesuit, he climbed into hiscapsule Freedom 7 and engineers bolted the hatch shut behind him. The launchwas delayed over and over, and then he had to pee.

Shepard,who died in 1998 at age 74, related the experience in the book ?Moonshot,?which he wrote with fellow Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton.

'I've gotto pee. I've been in here forever,? Shepard radioed launch control. ?The gantryis still right here, so why don't you guys let me out of here for a quickstretch?''

But theanswer was no. Shepard ultimately opted to urinate in his shiny spacesuit, butasked launch control to switch the power off to his medical sensors first.Astronauts can now add adult diapers to their spacesuits to avoid similarembarrassing situations. There is a Russian tradition among cosmonauts,however, to intentionally pee on the bus taking them to the Soyuz launch padthat dates back to the first-ever human space launch by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin,who launched a month earlier than Shepard.

Adoomed, stowaway bat

Morerecently, a small bat seemingly triedto stow away on the space shuttle Discovery when it launched into spacelast March.

Cameras andan inspection team spotted the bat clinging to the side of Discovery?s 15-storyexternal tank as it was being fueled with propellant ? super-cold liquidhydrogen and liquid oxygen. Some experts thought the bat may have been frozenin place because of the cryogenic temperatures, but it changed position everynow and then.

The bat wasstill hanging on for dear life when Discovery blasted off on March 15 of thisyear, and likely met its doom.

"Basedon images and video, a wildlife expert who provides support to the center saidthe small creature was a free tail bat that likely had a broken left wing andsome problem with its right shoulder or wrist," NASA officials said afterthe launch. "The animal likely perished quickly during Discovery's climbinto orbit."

More batweirdness: Riding aboard Discovery during the March launch was Japaneseastronaut Koichi Wakata on his second spaceflight. Another bat tried to stowaway on his first shuttle launch in 1996, but flew away just before liftoff.

Lightningvs. Saturn V

There?sgood reasoning behind NASA?s weather rules for launching spacecraft. No onewants to get hit by lightning, but that?s what happened to the massive Saturn Vrocket launching the Apollo 12 mission ? the second manned moon landing ? on Nov.14, 1969. A bolt hit the rocket 36 seconds after liftoff, causing some tensemoments.

?I don?tknow what happened here, we had everything in the world drop out,? Apollo 12commander Pete Conrad radioed Mission Control. ?I?m not sure we didn?t get hitby lightning.?

The boltdid not cause serious damage and Apollo 12 went on to make a successful,pinpoint landing on the moon near an old unmanned Surveyor probe.

AnAstronaut Alligator?

Sometimes,NASA astronauts have to find a good luck charm and the crew of the shuttleEndeavour apparently picked alazy alligator that crossed their path while they were headed to the launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The reptilerendezvous occurred in June of this year, when astronauts were trying to launchon NASA?s STS-127 mission to the International Space Station. After two falsestarts due to a gas leak, they were riding in NASA?s silver Astrovan andspotted the alligator on the road in front of them. The toothy beast quicklybecame the crew?s mascot, so taken were the spaceflyers by its abrupt appearance.

Thealligator offered no extra luck, however. The seven Endeavour astronauts were ultimatelydelayed until July, when they flew a marathon delivery flight to the spacestation. NASA?s Kennedy Space Center shares a boundary with the Merritt IslandWildlife Nature Refuge, which is a habitat for more than 310 species of birds,25 species of mammals, 117 species of fish and 65 species of amphibians andreptiles.

Doordefeats shuttle?

Actuallyno, but it was almost the case in November 2006, when a launch pad technicianforgot to secure a door in the White Room leading to the space shuttleEndeavour just before launch.

NASA wasworried the door, which is attached to the gantry structure of the launch pad,might swing wildly during liftoff and damage Endeavour as it blasted off. For abrief moment, launch controllers considered delaying the launch because of thatrisk. But engineers decided that the damage risk was not to Endeavour, but tothe gantry structure near the door. It was deemed acceptable and Endeavourblasted off successfully.

Afterlaunch, a quality inspector told launch director Michael Leinbach that he wasthe one who forgot to lock the door down.

"It'sa testament to the team that when we do know that we've made a mistake, we ownup to it and we go out and we fix that," Leinbach said then. "And Iguarantee you we will never see that issue again."


It seemsthat many of the weird space launch tales involve some sort of hapless animal.This one is no different. One problem NASA has tackled in recent years has beenthe proliferation of large turkey vultures around its Kennedy Space Center launchsite.

In July2005, a large vulture hitthe space shuttle Discovery?s external tank during liftoff and sadly metits demise. But the odd incident, which occurred on NASA?s first shuttle flightsince the tragic 2003 Columbia accident, was a wake up call since similar birdstrikes could create tank foam debris that could damage a launching shuttle.

NASA hitthe challenge hard. The space agency built a bird radar to scan for flocks thatcould fly through a shuttle?s launch path and pose an impact risk. There aresound cannons in place to scare avian interlopers at the Shuttle LandingFacility near the launch site so returning astronauts won?t hit any birdsduring landing (sparing the birds and preventing damage to the shuttle).

The agencyalso asks employees at the Kennedy Space Center to report any road kill at thespace center that can attract large groups of the big turkey vultures.

But wildtales are by no means the norm for human spaceflight and NASA is hoping for aless eventful day of launch attempts for Ares I-X on Wednesday.

The rockethas a 60 percent chance of good weather, but NASA will be sure to watch thehigh upper level winds, cloudy weather and a static electricity risk calledtriboelectrification ? which can interfere with the telemetry and electronicson Ares I-X ? during the next attempt.

SPACE.comwill provide full coverage of NASA's Ares I-X test flight with Staff WriterClara Moskowitz in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and Managing Editor Tariq Malik in NewYork. Click here for live launchcoverage and mission coverage. Live coverage begins at 5 a.m. EDT.



Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.