SOUTHLAKE, Texas Few men order more flowers than Mark Shelton.

I need to send some roses to Mission Control, please, he told a florist over the phone.

At 54, Shelton has never worked for NASA, but he is responsible for one of its longest traditions. Every time NASA launches a shuttle, Shelton sends roses to Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Each rose represents every astronaut in space at the time. Shelton said he orders an extra white flower to represent the astronauts who have perished over the years.

He has sent a bouquet for every mission since 1987, the one following Challenger. It makes a total of 108 flower shipments in all.

They don't get much attention in the media when things are going well, Shelton said of NASA. But it's every bit as dangerous... every single [flight]. We wanted a way to give them a low-key reminder that the public cares.

NASA cares, too.

The space agency has invited Shelton to launches over the years, sent autographs from astronauts, Christmas cards from flight directors, and even a get well card when he had a heart attack.

I don't know how they knew I was in the hospital then, he said.

Money never mattered, Shelton said. How much has he spent on flowers over the last 22 years? I don't have any idea, was his answer. It doesn't matter.

NASA Flight Director Milt Heflin said the flowers mean so much because no one asked for them. They weren't expected.

Over the years, Heflin and countless others at the space agency has sent the Shelton family dozens of photos, personal letters and mission patches, considering them a small part of the NASA team.

Shelton's daughter, MacKenzie, was three when she first visited Mission Control.

I loved it, she said. I remember being held by one of the astronauts in Mission Control. Story Musgrave!

Now married, at 25, MacKenzie doesn't plan on letting her family tradition die.

I also received a letter from Neil Armstrong when I was three, telling me the moon is mine if I share it, she added.

The Sheltons have always shied away from publicity until now, agreeing to share their story with News 8 as the shuttle program winds down.

We've really enjoyed the anonymity of it, but we would really like to encourage others to do similar things, Shelton said.

Even after the last shuttle is launched in July, Shelton said he plans to still send flowers to Mission Control for the International Space Station.

With tax and delivery it's coming out to $82.22, the florist told Shelton as he completed his most recent order.

Like a lot of kids who grew up in the 1960s, Shelton wanted to be an astronaut. He never pursued space, but he has gone on to become a small part of NASA history.


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