NASA's Lucky Charm for a Successful Mission? Peanuts

A longstanding tradition within the space agency is to include the tiny but mighty peanut in every big mission

Rob Manning, Chief Engineer at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory shows NASA's traditional "Lucky Peanuts," as he comments on the Mars 2020 Perseverance's descent which has been described by NASA as "seven minutes of terror," in which flight controllers can only watch helplessly, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, in Pasadena, California.
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Peanuts are popular at baseball games and bars, but did you know they're also a mainstay at NASA?

Last Thursday, as engineers and scientists watched and waited breathlessly as the Perseverance rover hurdled toward Mars in a fiery landing, they did so next to bags and jars of "good-luck peanuts."

On the day of the rover's landing on the red planet, 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 yet another jar emblazoned with the federal agency's logo.

"Director of Planetary Science Lori Glaze and I have our @nasajpl lucky peanuts at hand. Just under 3 hours until @NASAPersevere’s landing! #CountdownToMars," Zurbuchen tweeted.

The science mission chief also tweeted a slow-motion video of members of the Mars 2020 mission's entry, descent and landing team tossing bags of peanuts outside ahead of the intense rover landing.

The lucky peanuts have become a decadeslong tradition within the space agency and its origin is one for the history books.

Adam Nelessen, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who has also contributed to the Mars 2020 mission, explained in a video post on Twitter on Feb. 17 that the tradition dates back to the 1960s:

"Legend has it that after six failed attempts Ranger 7 spacecraft was on the pad ready for launch and the team was tense," he said.

"Someone handed out peanuts for everybody to munch on, hoping it would calm their nerves. Well, the launch and the mission that followed were successful, and the unlucky streak was broken. And the rest is history. Since then, we've made lucky peanuts an important part of our preparations for any critical event."

On NASA's Solar System Exploration website, the agency identifies the mystery member as Dick Wallace, a mission trajectory engineer working on the Ranger 7 mission in 1964. He recalled in the feature, "I thought passing out peanuts might take some of the edge off the anxiety in the mission operations room."

Since the successful launch of Ranger 7, customized jars of peanuts have appeared on mission launch days and in more recent years, they've been incorporated into additional mission stages and in any "event of high anxiety or risk."

Despite the pandemic, NASA staff made sure peanuts were included during the Perseverance rover landing this month — but with a twist. The Associated Press reported that in lieu of extra jars, scientists and engineers were given individual bags of the go-to snacks as a COVID-19 precaution.

Wallace added in the feature that he doesn't consider the lucky peanut tradition as a superstition: "Not in this bastion of logic and reason."

If they're good enough for NASA, we say, pass the peanuts!

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