Counting Down 10 Rocket Launch Traditions, Superstitions and Lore

By Caroline Mroz, Bethany Wilson and Leslie Zychowski

2023 marks 10 years since Northrop Grumman’s first Cygnus mission to carry critical cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), launched by our Antares rocket. As our launch team members reflect on the last decade of missions, they share the traditions, superstitions and lore that have powered them through liftoff, re-entry and everything in-between.

10. Blast Off in Style

At Northrop Grumman, creating launch-themed socks commemorating the mission (pictured above) is a tradition. “Donning the socks has become a ritual for many members of the team,” said Graphic Artist Blake, who creates the sock designs. For some teammates, it’s considered good luck to wear the socks prior to launch; for others, the tradition is to wait until after launch to put them on.

9. Rocket Selfierocket launching at night

Taking a selfie with an almost 140-foot-tall rocket before it takes off into space is something not many people get to experience. Prior to launch, it’s customary for team members to snap a photo with the rocket. “I’ve never missed a chance to take a selfie with Antares,” said Public Relations Representative Kristi.

8. Secret Succulents

Retelling favorite mission memories is an important part of launch culture. For example, Integration and Test (I&T) Electrical Lead Chris loves to reminisce about the night a secret “cactus fairy” delivered small succulents to the desks of I&T engineers. The secretive gift-giver was never identified, but their act of kindness — which gave the team a much-needed boost of energy — lives on in the team’s lore.

7. Sweet Treats

Peanut butter M&Ms were the candy of choice for Chris and his I&T team during long days of conducting 24/7 thermal vacuum chamber (TVAC) tests on Cygnus. The candy fueled the team — they jokingly considered writing a test requirement that M&Ms had to be present for testing to continue — and, although the team has more recently transitioned to 8-hour TVAC shifts, peanut butter M&Ms remain a favorite treat. 

6. Tee Up for Liftoff

Before every launch, the public relations team supporting the launch gets together for a game of mini golf — a cherished team-building opportunity that persists even in the dead of winter, explained Communications Director Josh. “We once even tracked down the owners of a mini golf course that had closed for the season to open the course so we could carry on the tradition,” said Josh.

5. Hang the Mission Plaque

Each mission, a team member is chosen to hang a commemorative mission plaque, which is signed by the team and includes the mission patch, on the walls of the Northrop Grumman Mission Operations Center (MOC) in Dulles, Virginia. Hanging the plaque is an honor given to a team member who has played a key role in ensuring mission success, said Mission Operations Lead Zach.

4. Spot the Space Station

If the conditions are right, the ISS can be seen from Earth, and the Flight Control team will step outside to catch a glimpse together — it’s tradition. If they’re really lucky, they’ll get to see Cygnus trailing ISS in the sky, said Mission Director Ken. “We trucked out to the parking lot to see our work fly overhead,” said Ken, remembering one such instance. “There were lots of ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhhhs.’”

3. No Bugs Allowed

During the first cargo delivery mission, the Cygnus team captured a wasp flying around the launchpad to ensure it didn’t get inside the spacecraft, nicknaming it “the flight software bug,” said Engineering Manager Eric. However, the team decided the bug was bad luck and released it.

2. Name that Tune

The final re-entry burn powers Cygnus’ return to Earth, where the spacecraft burns up in the atmosphere. During this final leg of the mission, the MOC blasts a team-selected playlist that fittingly features songs about “space, fire and burning up,” said Deputy Program Manager Tony — everything from Prince’s “Purple Rain” to Blue Oyster Cult’s “Burnin’ for You.” Check out the full playlist.

1. Place Your Guesses

During the re-entry operation, teammates guess the time of the final telemetry packet, which signifies the end of the mission. Winning is really about the bragging rights, said Cygnus Chief Engineer Rob. “While we’re all happy that we’ve completed another successful mission, it’s also a bit bittersweet that we are saying goodbye to another Cygnus vehicle that served us well,” said Rob.

Learn more about the NG-19 mission, which launched from Wallops Island, Virginia, on Aug. 1, 2023.

Kristi Davidson, Laura Keefe and Ellen Klicka contributed to this story.

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