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When NASA and the Department of Defense Launched a Human Skull Into Space

In the annals of bizarre shit blasted into the void, it's safe to say this one takes the crown.
The takeoff and landing of STS-28 (via).

In the golden age of space flight, NASA was no stranger to sending all sorts of wacky shit into the void. It became a sort of wink 'n nod game for the agency, which rocket-strapped, among other things, a wood panel from the Wright brothers' 1903 airplane, a lead cargo tag from the colony at Jamestown, tree seeds (and maybe even cannabis seeds), a roast beef sandwich, and porn. But it's one rather grim artifact from a 1989 Shuttle Columbia mission that takes the crown--I'm talking about a real human skull.

The exact payload and flight details of STS-28, the fourth ever joint NASA-DoD space mission, remain classified. It's believed the five-day trek, which lifted off from Kennedy Space Center 24 years ago this morning, carted up the first SDS-2 communications satellite, a "high-inclination" orbital relay for secure military communications.


We do know, however, that STS-28 carried with it an 11-pound female skull. The thing was housed in a plastic matrix that mimicked flesh, and cut into ten layers. The idea was to better understand how radiation blasts the human cranium in low-Earth orbit. As the centerpiece of "Detailed Secondary Objective 469", or what's more formally known as the In-Flight Radiation Dose Distribution experiment, its layers were packed with hundreds of thermo-luminescent dosimeters that took note of radiation intensity at variouis depths.

Not sure if this classical score belies the skull, or not.

It was the first of a few NASA missions that took along the skull. And never ones to miss out on a good gag, astronauts on some of these later rides had a real laugh in scaring the shit out eachother.

Take Mike Mullane. He flew aboard 1990's skull-loaded STS-36 mission, and recalls how he and and another mission specialist decided to have some fun with the research dome:

I get in one of our sleeping bags and pull my head below the opening. The other Mission Specialist then tapes the skull to the top of the bag so that it looks like the head of whoever is in the bag. The disguise is really scary. The face of the skull has evil looking eyes and there are two bolts sticking up from the back of the head that look like horns. Even Captain Kirk would have run if he had seen this thing floating around his spaceship! Ever so quietly, my accomplice floats me to the upper deck where the rest of the crew are working. I have my arms through the arm holes in the sides of the sleeping bags. Carefully, I push myself to float to the back of an unsuspecting crewmember. Hovering behind him, I breath loud and slow, making a deep, raspy, evil sound. The victim turns to investigate and….. aieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! He screams as I grab him! It's the attack of the horned alien from planet X!

Later, we stuff the sleeping bag with some clothes and buckle our alien onto the toilet seat to surprise another crewmember.

Anything to get into that head space, right?