Best space pranks: From space apes to smuggled sandwiches

A gorilla appears to climb out of a cargo back on the International Space Station.
Exploring space is serious business, but that doesn't mean astronauts are above a cheeky practical joke or two. (Image credit: NASA)

It turns out the sky is not the limit when it comes to a good old-fashioned practical joke.

With April Fools' Day 2024 upon us, we're exploring some of the best pranks carried out in space, from a forbidden sandwich to a gorilla at large on the International Space Station (ISS). 

These pranks show the lighter side of space exploration. 

Related: Scientist admits 'space telescope' photo is actually chorizo in tasty Twitter prank 

A smuggled sandwich

One of the earliest practical jokes carried out in space involved a contraband sandwich. 

On Mar. 23, 1964, during NASA's first crewed Gemini flight, Gemini III, pilot John Young produced a smuggled corned beef sandwich from his spacesuit pocket shortly after launch. 

He offered fellow astronaut Virgil "Gus" Grissom, mission commander some but soon realized it probably wasn't the best snack for the flight. The transcript from the mission says it all. 

C = Command pilot (Gus Grissom)

P = Pilot (John Young) 

Composite air-to-ground and onboard voice tape transcription of the Gemini 3 mission.  (Image credit: NASA)

In an interview with Life Magazine Young explained that "Wally Schirra had a corned-beef sandwich made up at a restaurant at Cocoa Beach a couple of days before I hid it in a pocket of my spacesuit". 

Young explained that Gus "had been bored by the official menus we'd practiced in training and it seemed like a fun idea at the time." 

But in reality, a several-day-old corned beef sandwich probably wasn't the best snack to smuggle aboard. 

"I hadn't counted on the pungent odor in a closed cabin," Young told Life Magazine. 

Unexpected delivery

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson pops out of a cargo bag during a prank on the International Space Station on Feb. 13, 2017. (Image credit: Peggy Whitson/Twitter/NASA)

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson pulled off an impressive prank on the ISS on Feb. 13, 2017. 

Whitson packed herself into a cargo bag, enlisting the help of NASA's Shane Kimbrough and ESA's Thomas Pesquet to surprise their Russian crewmates, Andrei Borisenko, Sergey Ryzhikov and Oleg Novitskiy.

"They were quite surprised when I popped out!" Whitson wrote in a Twitter post.

Pesquet also tried to squeeze into the cargo back but unfortunately, it didn't quite work out.

"I tried ... I but I didn't fit!" Pesquet wrote on Twitter

Gorilla on the loose

Astronaut Scott Kelly is responsible for one of the most outlandish pranks in space when he dressed in a gorilla suit and chased his fellow expedition 46 cremate ESA astronaut Tim Peake around the international space station. 

"Needed a little humor to lighten up a #YearInSpace," Kelly wrote on Twitter on Feb. 23, 2016. "Go big, or go home. I think I'll do both. #SpaceApe.

Now, where does one get hold of a gorilla suit while in space?

According to NASA, Scott's twin brother astronaut Mark Kelly arranged for the delivery of the costume to the ISS to surprise Scott for his birthday (Feb. 21), during his year-long mission.  

Unauthorized spacewalk

The three-man crew of the International Space Station plays a cosmic prank on Mission Control on April 1, 2010, April Fool's Day. (Image credit: NASA)

If you're going to pull off a prank in space, do it in style, while wearing a pair of cool shades. 

In 2010, NASA astronaut Timothy Creamer, Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov beamed a snapshot of themselves floating in space back to Mission Control for an April Fool's Day prank. 

"You have a real problem, but you know it's outside our capability to help you," astronaut Shannon Lucid radioed the station crew, laughing all the way.

Though the astronauts reassured Mission Control, claiming they were wearing sunscreen and eye protection (the sunglasses) and were securely tethered so as not to float away. 

"We wanted to welcome you guys to April, and hopefully we brought you guys some smiles and not a lot of nervousness," station astronaut Timothy "T.J." Creamer of NASA told Mission Control.

"You brought a lot of laughs, that's for sure," Lucid replied.

Dinner is served

From left to right, scientist-astronaut Owen K. Garriott, science pilot; and astronauts Jack R. Lousma and Alan L. Bean, pilot and commander, respectively (Image credit: NASA)

In 1973, Mission Control was left rather perplexed when a female voice was transmitted from the Skylab space station to Mission Control, 10 years before the first female astronaut, Sally Ride made the trip into space in 1983.

The culprit was a well-planned prank that NASA astronaut Owen Garriott came up with two or three months before he embarked on the Skylab 3 mission. He made a recording of his wife Helen Garriott speaking as if she'd just arrived at Skylab for a visit, bringing the astronauts a nice homecooked meal, according to Owen Garriott's account during an interview on the Kennedy Space Center Complex's YouTube channel.

Garriott had enlisted a few members of the Mission Control team to play along with the prank, including former NASA astronaut Bob Crippen. 

Then Garriott proceeded to transmit his wife's message down to Mission Control using their radio channel, Helen was heard saying "I just came up to bring the boys a home-cooked meal"

According to Garriott, it took everyone who wasn't in on the prank back by surprise. The team on the ground never figured out what they had done or how they had managed to pull it off. 20 years after the prank, Garriott asked some of the ground controllers who were still with NASA "did you know what happened then"? they replied, "No we never did figure that out."

Eventually, Garriout came clean and told the ground control staff how he'd pulled off the trick, 20 years after it happened. 

"I always thought that was an interesting gotcha", Garriot said.

Just popped by to say hello

Chris Hadfield's grand April Fools' Day finale shows him posing with an alien that just stopped by the station to say hi. (Image credit: Canadian Space Agency/Chris Hadfield (Cmdr_Hadfield))

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield welcomed a rather peculiar visitor to the ISS on April Fool's Day in 2013. 

Hadfield's pranking campaign lasted seven hours, over which he slowly revealed his elaborate April Fool's Day joke over Twitter. 

"The view from where we fly the Canadarm2, with some orbital debris off in the distance," Hadfield wrote on Twitter.

He posted a picture alongside the post showing him posing with a flying saucer-like object off in the distance.

His second photo is a little clearer, showing the UFO placed high above the Earth and on its way toward the space station.

"Orbital debris seems to be on a course moving a bit faster than ISS," Hadfield wrote. "I'll try to take more pictures if it swings by."

The Canadian astronaut then posted a photo of the flying saucer off in the distance with the orbiting laboratory's robotic arm in the foreground four hours after his initial post.

"Wow, what a huge piece of debris! Maybe I can grab it with the Canadarm2…," Hadfield continued.

Quickly after that, Hadfield wrote: "The object appears to be coming closer to the Station. I think it might be trying to board us!"

Hadfield then posted a photo of himself holding a small green alien away from him with both hands."I don't know what it is or what it wants, but it keeps repeating 'Sloof Lirpa' over and over," Hadfield wrote. "Alert the press." ("Sloof Lirpa" is actually "April Fools" spelled backward.)

Well played Hadfield, well played. 

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Daisy Dobrijevic
Reference Editor

Daisy Dobrijevic joined in February 2022 having previously worked for our sister publication All About Space magazine as a staff writer. Before joining us, Daisy completed an editorial internship with the BBC Sky at Night Magazine and worked at the National Space Centre in Leicester, U.K., where she enjoyed communicating space science to the public. In 2021, Daisy completed a PhD in plant physiology and also holds a Master's in Environmental Science, she is currently based in Nottingham, U.K. Daisy is passionate about all things space, with a penchant for solar activity and space weather. She has a strong interest in astrotourism and loves nothing more than a good northern lights chase!