Super Bowl's Start Hinges on Space Coin Flip

Super Bowl's Start Hinges on Space Coin Flip
The STS-129 astronaut crew presents the space-flown flip coin to NFL officials at the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Jan. 27, 2010. The coin will decide the start of Super Bowl 44 in South Florida. (Image credit: NASA/Marv Smith)

It may be one small flip, but the coin that will decidewhether the Indianapolis Colts or New Orleans Saints possess the ball at thestart of Sunday's Super Bowl XLIV will have already made a giant leapwhen it hits the field at Miami's Sun Life Stadium.

In a move that at the time was known only to a few people at NASA,the NFL, and The Highland Mint of Melbourne, Fla. where the coinwas created last August, the opening-toss medalwas flown on space shuttle Atlantis' STS-129 mission in November.Over 11 days and 171 orbits around the Earth, the silver coin logged fourmillion miles.

The coin's spaceflight was revealed in advance of a Jan. 27 presentationceremony held at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio,where the mission's six astronauts returned the coin, alongwith other flown NFL memorabilia, to officials.

"It is going to be thrilling for me to actually see the coin thatwe flew in space used for the game during the coin toss ceremony,"mission specialist Michael Foreman told a local news network at theHall of Fame.

Should conditions cooperate, the toss of a coin will not be NASA's only launchon Sunday: space shuttle Endeavour is scheduledto liftoff at 4:39 a.m. EST (0939 GMT) from the Kennedy SpaceCenter, about 200 miles north of the stadium.

Completing the coin

When Atlantis left Earth with the coin on Nov. 16, 2009, it was impossiblefor anyone to know who'd be facing off for the big game. As such, thecoin's gold-plated helmets did not display team logos, nor were teamnames inscribed in the same style that previous games' coins were.

And that's the way the coin would have remained for this year's toss hadit not been for a twist of fate and help from a veteranspace journalist-turned-radio host.

Through separate circumstances, Jim Banke, host of the weekly radio show"Space Talk" on Melbourne's WMMB, happened to knowboth Phyllis Hamilton, whose job it was to engrave the die used byThe Highland Mint to produce the coins, and Joe Horrigan, the Hallof Fame's vice president for communications and exhibits.

When news of the space-flown coin broke, it caused some confusion at theMint, as they'd forgotten about providing it almost half-a-year earlier.Hamilton asked Banke about it, as she knew his interest in all thingsspace, and in turn he contacted Horrigan.

Banke's relayed description of the coin jogged Hamilton's memory, asit did Michael Kott's, the Mint's president and CEO. The"mystery" solved, Banke thought "that was it."

As such, he was surprised to hear again from Hamilton a few dayslater, with another request: "They'd love to put the helmets back onthe coin so it was accurate," Banke recounted Hamilton tellinghim. "Can you help us do that?"

After a number of phone calls and e-mails, arrangements were made to havethe coin stop in Melbourne on its way from Canton to Miami.

"A representative from the Hall of Fame arrived around 10 a.m.Friday [Jan. 29], the coin was engraved, gold toned, and put back inits package and he left around lunchtime," Hamilton e-mailed Banke."It was a good effort by all, and we look forward to seeing itthis Sunday!"

Third time's the charm

According to Kott, this is the third time that his Mint has produced anofficial Super Bowl coin that has been flownin space, though it is the first time the coin has been used inthe game.

The first time a coin flew was aboard shuttle Discovery in 1992. NASA andthe NFL coordinated to have the STS-42 crew availablelive from orbit but there was a problem: in microgravity, the coinwould never fall to the ground.

As a result, the astronauts were scrubbed in favor for Hall of Fame player andcoach Chuck Noll.

A second coin, Kott said, was lost 11 years later with the crew of STS-107when shuttle Columbia broke apart upon reentry intothe Earth's atmosphere. The NFL paid tribute to the fallen crew andNASA during the next year's Super Bowl halftime show in Houston.

The most recent coin to fly ? and the first to be used for the officialceremony ? was accompanied to space by Leland Melvin,a former Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys player who became anastronaut after a hamstring injury.

Melvin and Kott are both scheduled to be guests Saturday on Banke'sradio show to discuss the flip coin's flight.

After the Super Bowl, the flown flip coin will be returned to the Hall of Famefor display.

The Highland Mint produced 10,000 duplicates of the coin, to be presented toofficials and the players, and offered to the public for sale.

Continue to to see photosof the space-flown Super Bowl XLIV flip coin.

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:

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.