Why Flower Bouquets Regularly Show Up In NASA Mission Control

Three red roses and a white one. The flower bouquet sitting in NASA Mission Control right now in Houston is one of a series that has appeared with every single mission since 1988 — a small gift from a Texas family whose members are long-standing fans of space exploration.

The first bouquet showed up on landing day for the first flight (STS-26) after the shuttle Challenger explosion. And bouquets have continued for every flight since, a gift that NASA is glad to see when it arrives.

“It means a lot to the team here in Houston,” NASA spokesperson Josh Byerly said in the YouTube video above, an excerpt from a broadcast on NASA TV. “We’re big on tradition here at NASA, and we are very happy that this tradition continues.”

Each red rose symbolizes a member of an expedition crew — in this case, Expedition 39/40‘s Steve Swanson (NASA), Alexander Skvortsov (Roscosmos) and Oleg Artemyev (Roscosmos). The white one is a symbol of all of the astronauts who have lost their lives, such as those in the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia disasters.

Four years ago, when the 100th bouquet came to Mission Control, a flight director from STS-26 described what happened when he saw the flowers in 1988.

“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,” stated Milt Heflin, who was a shuttle flight director at the time. “It was very simple, saying congratulations and wishing everyone the best on the mission. It was signed but it didn’t have any contact information for the senders.”

Helfin did manage to track down the family — Mark, Terry and daughter MacKenzie — and over the years, the Sheltons received cards of thanks and invitations to see launches and Mission Control.

The Shelton family during a visit to NASA Mission Control in Houston in 1990. From left, NASA’s Steve Stitch, Terry Shelton, Mark Shelton and daughter MacKenzie. They have been sending flowers to NASA regularly since shuttle mission STS-26 in 1988. Credit: NASA

“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,” Mark Shelton stated, who added he first became interested in space after a childhood visit to the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston in the 1960s.

“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.”

The attempt succeeded, obviously, and with each mission new flowers arrive. The bouquets are now including participation from a “second” generation, Byerly said in the video, saying that they now come from the Sheltons and the Murphys.

Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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