Why do NASA engineers like peanuts?

As Curiosity was landing safely on Mars, many of you noted that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers orchestrating the whole thing were eating an awful lot of peanuts. In fact, each workstation boasted a little commemorative jar of peanuts. Seriously, what is up with all those peanuts?

Discovery News has an answer. And it's surprisingly interesting.

Turns out, this is a JPL-specific tradition, dating back to 1964, when the lab's funding was on the line after the Ranger program—unmanned missions to photograph the Moon—weren't living up to expectations. In fact, six Ranger missions in a row had failed.

This was the heritage leading up to Ranger 7. There was talk that JPL should be shut down, that a university-affiliated center couldn’t handle a rigorous spaceflight program. There were suggestions that the program had been sabotaged -- a worker found a small polyethylene bag with 14 screws and a lock washer in one of the sealed electronic modules in Ranger 7’s television subsystem.

Just before Ranger 7 launched to the moon on July 28, mission manager Harris Schurmeier handed out peanuts to ease tensions. He figured chewing or playing with them on the table would give his team something else to focus on.

The full story is pretty neat. You can read the rest at Discovery News

Via Ed Yong


  1. Sheesh, I thought it was pretty obvious that the peanuts thing was to provide enough vitality for NASA employees to go through a matter transference beam — that is if any Vogons turn up.

  2. I still think it’s more amusing to think that the REAL tradition is to say “penis” on air and passing peanuts around was just a clever way for them to get away with saying “penis” live on NASA TV.

  3.  … “There was talk that JPL should be shut down…”   But luckily, cooler heads prevailed and everyone realized that shutting down a place with the coolest fucking name ever devised, “Jet Propulsion Laboratory” would be the height of folly.   Whew!

  4. HELP WANTED: Rocket physicists.  Willing to work long hours.  People with peanut allergy need not apply.

  5. This story has been told for quite a while, but up until a week ago, the peanuts were always surrounded by chocolate and a candy aeroshell. Not exactly airbrushing out a discredited politician, but it makes me uncomfortable.

    1.  OK, looks like I’m wrong on this one, I found a Donna Shirley passage that says peanuts back in the sojourner days. Coulda sworn I saw a picture of M&Ms in the control room, though!

  6. I have an issue with the conclusion of the article that it was a success after all those failures. I think it was a success BECAUSE of all the failures. Having worked in R&D for so many years, it is frustrating how risk adverse companies are. They need to recognize that “failure” is part of the learning curve to success.

    1. I completely agree. The real meaning of “failure” is to never try.
      you only get to your goals when you learn from your mistakes.

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