It took more than two years following the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986 for NASA to launch its next manned space flight. Shortly before it returned to earth, a bouquet of roses arrived at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"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, who sent the flowers on behalf of his Dallas-area family, later told NASA. "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. But I had no idea if they actually made it or not."
Since then, the Sheltons have been more prompt, making sure the flowers -- a colored rose for each astronaut on the mission, one white one to commemorate those who have died -- arrive before each of the 110-plus NASA-led space flights have launched. The upcoming launch of Expedition 39/40 is no different.
Some things have changed over the years. The space shuttle program has ended; Mackenzie, 3 when her father first took her to the Johnson Space Center, has grown up and married; Mark no longer has the righteous beard he sported when the family toured mission control in 1990. But the flowers have remained a ritual, so much so that, in NASA's words, "it would not be a space shuttle mission without these roses arriving."
With each bouquet comes a note.
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"The handprints and heartprints of so many touch every surface, every moment," the Shelton family wrote in 2011. "Thank you all for sharing it all, the glory and the unspeakable pain, a grateful planet. Godspeed, godspeed, godspeed."
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.