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For decades, bouquets of flowers have passed through NASA's Mission Control. Here's why

The flowers, once a mystery, have now become a decades-long staple.
Credit: James Blair - NASA - JSC
Date: 11-23-11 Location: Bldg 30, FCR-1 Subject: Photograph flowers sent by Shelton/Murphy family in honor of the Expedition 29 flight control team for Thanksgiving Photographer: James Blair

HOUSTON, Texas — As NASA prepared to launch its STS-26 mission in 1988, a special delivery arrived at Mission Control in Houston. 

A bouquet of roses, one for each astronaut taking part in the mission and a white rose to honor astronauts "whose lives have been lost in NASA's exploration of space." Tucked inside was a note of well wishes.

"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," JSC Associate Director Milt Heflin, who at the time was the shuttle flight director, said. "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."

As for who signed the card? Mark, Terry and their daughter MacKenzie Shelton.

The Dallas-area family had no connection to the nation's top space agency, they just happened to be a fan of the space program.

According to NASA, Mark Shelton had been a fan of space since he visited the Johnson Space Center as a child in the 1960s. Following the Challenger tragedy, Shelton said he wanted to find a personal way to let the agency know he and his family supported the work it was doing.

"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," Shelton said, per 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."

The flowers, once a mystery, have now become a decades-long staple.

During the space shuttle era, the Sheltons sent more than 100 bouquets and were even honored during the landing of STS-119.

"The Sheltons have sort of become a part of our team in Mission Control," Heflin said. "I almost look at them as a kind of distant back room, just like the technical support rooms located around the control center. It gives me a very warm feeling."

But when NASA stopped launching American astronauts from American soil in 2011, the flowers stopped too.

That's until the tradition was reignited nearly 10 years later as the Shelton family's 111th bouquet arrived at Mission Control to honor the first Crew Dragon mission in 2020.

Now, come launch day, teams once again have a physical reminder of all that is on the line, just as those decades before them.