For more than 30 years, one Texas family has shown their support for NASA mission control with a simple gesture: sending flowers. Now, with SpaceX launching astronauts from the U.S. once again, the Shelton family is continuing their rosy tradition.
The Sheltons are a family with a love for space that has spanned over half a century. Back in the 1960s, Mark Shelton dreamed of astronauts from his home in Fort Worth, Texas and, while he hasn't yet become an astronaut, that love for space has endured. But it was tragedy that spurred Mark Shelton into getting uniquely involved in space.
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In 1986, NASA's space shuttle Challenger exploded, an event that shook the world. It would be more than two years until NASA would launch its next crew of astronauts to space. It was on that triumphant return, the STS-26 shuttle mission, that Mark, his wife Terry and their daughter MacKenzie decided to share their appreciation and support for the hardworking teams at the agency, and they sent a bouquet of roses to mission control.
"I didn't actually decide to do it until the day the STS-26 mission was to land, and I didn't know that I even could get it done in time," Shelton said in a NASA statement. "I called information to find a florist near the space center, and then I asked the florist if they could deliver roses to Mission Control. At first they said they couldn't do it ... but then they said they would try. But I had no idea if they actually made it or not."
But the flowers had, in fact, made it. And Milt Helfin, who was a shuttle flight director at the time (and has since retired from his final agency role as associate director for technical activities at Johnson Space Center in Houston), made a personal call to the Shelton family to let them know as much.
"When I first walked into the control room I noticed them right away, because it was so different, and I walked over and read the card," Heflin said in the same statement. "It was very simple, saying congratulations and wishing everyone the best on the mission."
"It really impressed us that NASA took the time and reciprocated on such a personal level," Shelton added about Helfin's response. "We just wanted to show in our way the appreciation that we think many, many people feel for the space program."
This exchange was the start of a longstanding tradition that continues to this day. The Sheltons continued to send flowers to mission control for every shuttle mission that followed STS-26 until the end of the program in 2011. Then in May of 2020, flowers returned to mission control when SpaceX launched its test flight Demo-2: the first astronaut launch to lift off from the U.S. since the shuttle program ended.
Demo-2 marked the 111th bouquet sent to mission control. This will make SpaceX's upcoming Crew-3 launch bouquet #114.
"I think it means so much because we never asked for it," Heflin said. "We never expected it. We believe it truly represents the sentiment of a large part of the public, as well as a very personal gesture."
"The Sheltons have sort of become a part of our team in Mission Control," Heflin said. "I almost look at them as a kind of distant back room, just like the technical support rooms located around the control center. It gives me a very warm feeling."