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NASA and peanuts: Sounds crazy?

What is the relation between NASA and peanuts? This came up again as a topic of discussion after NASA’s Mars mission landed in Jazero Crater two weeks ago.

Before Mars Perseverance rover landed on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021, the entry, descent, and landing team of NASA posed at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California with individual bags of “lucky peanuts.”

And on the day of Rovers landing on Mars Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate shared a photo of himself showing off a peanut jar alongside Lori Glaze, NASA’s planetary science director, holding another jar with the NASA logo.

The practice of eating peanuts during critical missions did not start recently. Eating peanuts before major mission events is a longstanding tradition at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). This tradition was started during the Ranger 7 mission in 1964. All the six missions before Ranger 7 had failed and so the pressure was on the team to succeed. All were tensed when Ranger 7 Spacecraft was on the pad ready for launch. Dick Wallace, a mission trajectory engineer working on the mission handed out peanuts to everybody to munch on. Unknowingly a tradition was being set.

Ranger 7 performed faultlessly and ever since then, the peanuts have shown up on informal countdown checklists for most of the launches. Missions for which peanuts were not provided failed or were postponed. In one such case spacecraft was lost soon after it was launched. In another launch was delayed for 40 days and it took place only after peanuts were delivered to the team.

“I thought passing out peanuts might take some of the edge off the anxiety in the mission operations room,” said Dick Wallace who had started the tradition. Wallace added that he doesn’t consider lucky peanut tradition as superstition in this ‘bastion of logic and reason’.

Peanuts that showed up only during launch are now often seen in mission control facilities during critical mission stages or whenever there is high pressure on the team. So it seems peanuts are not ‘mere’ peanuts to NASA.


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