April Fools – The Lighter Side of Space
Space missions are usually high-pressure, serious affairs. This April Fool's Day we celebrate the people that remind us that there’s fun to be had in even the most testing situations.
We start with the ultimate astronaut prankster – Apollo 12’s Pete Conrad, who followed in Neil Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s footsteps to become the third person on the Moon. Upon putting his boot on the Lunar surface, Conrad, making reference to both Neil’s famous “one small step” speech and his own diminutive 5ft 6in statue, exclaimed “Whoopie! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.” Not only funny, but a statement that won Conrad $500 by proving that astronauts’ first speeches on the Moon weren’t scripted.
Conrad was always known by fellow astronauts as a prankster. After all, this was a man who was rejected from the original astronaut programme, Mercury 7, for not taking the tests seriously enough. Incidents included dropping a full enema bag (most commonly used to help relieve severe constipation) on a clinic commander’s desk and leaving without saying a word, then presenting a stool sample in a gift-wrapped box. He also returned an inkblot card (the test where you are asked what you see in a blob of ink), proclaiming it was “upside down” after being handed a blank card. Conrad was deemed “not suitable for long-duration flight.”
Luckily, he was given a second chance, and Conrad managed to bite his tongue long enough this time around to become an astronaut. Not that he stopped fooling around. Amongst other incidents, Conrad came up with a secret code so astronauts could make dirty jokes without being found out. He also made up a fictitious astronaut called ‘Walter Frisbee’ to mess with news reporters and fittingly became the first astronaut to fall over on the Moon.
You’ll be happy to know that occasionally people got him back – the Apollo 12 backup crew were able to get hold of Conrad and his crewmates’ notebooks and on the Moon the astronauts discovered that the centrefold of a famous brand of ‘mature’ magazine had been placed inside.
Conrad’s exploits were on a long list of practical jokes between the Apollo astronauts, commonly referred to between the group as a “Gotcha!”
One of the best ‘Gotchas’ was executed by the Apollo 14 backup crew on the main team, led by Alan Shepard. Shepard was renowned for having a sense of humour himself, joking on the launchpad before becoming the first American in space that he was keeping his spirits high by thinking about how everything beneath him was built by “the lowest bidder.” The backup crew tested his humorous limits by creating a mock ‘crew patch’, consisting of the Road Runner beating Wile E. Coyote to the Moon in a tongue in cheek taunt that implied the second team were ready if the main crew decided they weren’t up to the task. This escalated when the back up team had final access to the Apollo spacecraft before launch, hiding countless patches onboard, with Shepard thanking them on the actual flight that “every compartment we open up” resulted in a patch with the iconic duo of Looney Tunes characters flying out at them.
The Apollo jokes weren’t exclusive to the astronauts either. Sam Greenburg of Grumman Aerospace Corporation was one of the people that helped solve problems to get the crew of Apollo 13 back to Earth after an oxygen tank disaster in the service module occurred two days into their mission. In a humorous gesture following their safe return, he sent an invoice to North American Rockwell. The charge of $312,421 was for Grumman’s Lunar Module towing Rockwell’s Service Module to the Moon and back. North American refused to pay, noting that on three previous occasions (Apollo 10, 11 and 12) they had already ferried Grumman’s Lunar Module to the Moon.
The Apollo era may have ended in the early 1970s, but the jokes did not.
The United States followed up the Moon landings by launching their first space station, Skylab. In 1973 a woman’s voice started playing over the intercom from the station back to Mission Control in Houston, a peculiar event considering America didn’t send a female astronaut into space until 1983.
Upon being asked the obvious question – “Who are you?” – the voice replied that she was Helen Garriott, the wife of Skylab astronaut Owen Garriott. She said she’d been snuck onboard and, after talking about seeing California from space and cooking meals, announced she had to go as the boys “are floating towards me” and “I’m not supposed to be talking to you.”
With Mission Control bemused, they concluded that this must have been a practical joke. The exact truth of what happened wasn’t revealed until 1999; Owen Garriott had got his wife to prerecord answers to questions before the mission, with gaps between each one to give time for a response. Mission control’s communications specialist, Bob Crippen, played along and filled in the right questions to leave the rest of his team befuddled. Certainly, one of the better space pranks for intricate planning alone.
A New Age of Jokes
If you thought astronauts would have matured over time, someone forgot to tell Peggy Whitson.
America’s most experienced astronaut, by number of days in space, Whitson was looking for new ways to entertain herself on the International Space Station (ISS), when in 2017 she decided to tuck herself away inside a cargo bag. Naturally, fellow astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Thomas Pesquet were quite surprised upon opening the cargo only to find their colleague jumping out at them.
Perhaps Whiston took inspiration from Scott Kelly, who a year prior had placed himself into a similar bag. The difference? Kelly was wearing a full Gorilla suit, sent up in a resupply flight by his identical twin brother – and fellow astronaut – Mark. The unfortunate recipient of the prank was British astronaut Tim Peake, who was subsequently chased around the station by said Gorilla, making for some hilarious footage.
Tim Peake chased through ISS by a "gorilla"
Fact Stranger Than Fiction
No matter how strange some of these incidents seem, it should always be remembered that some of the most incredible things in space are not jokes at all. Buzz Aldrin’s mother’s maiden name being Moon. Jack Black’s mother, Judith Love Cohen, helping save Apollo 13. Tim Peake being the great-great nephew of Neil Armstrong.
Okay the last one’s a lie, but what do you expect? Happy April Fools!
About the author: Alex Thompson is a Space Communications Presenter at the National Space Centre.