From the February 2013 issue

Astro April Fools

April 2013: Some pranks were deliberate, some accidental.
By | Published: February 25, 2013 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Imagine a giant saucer hovering above Earth. Over every TV, aliens announce they’ll destroy our planet in one hour. When the time is up, they say, “Just kidding!” And then they fly off to mess with everyone’s head on some other world.
It does seem that one of nature’s traits is playfulness. Look at kittens or dolphins or some of your friends. They just want to fool around.

Do people ever do celestial stuff for a goof? The late Howard Koch did when he wrote the War of the Worlds radio script. Orson Welles grimly read it over CBS radio in 1938, convincing more than a million listeners that martians were invading. The pair did the broadcast just for fun. Two years later, Koch co-wrote Casablanca. (And much later, in his 80s, collaborated with me on a book, which is how I got to know that tall, classy gentleman.)

Apollo 14 created some strange goofing on the Moon when Alan Shepard pulled a famous prank on NASA. He removed a ball he had secreted in his space suit, grasped the handle of a geology instrument, and announced he’d play golf. His one-handed attempts kept missing, but when he made contact, he exclaimed, “There it goes, miles and miles and miles.” Later analysis showed it went more like 400 yards. Still, not bad.
On that same mission, Edgar Mitchell, perhaps channeling the self-proclaimed psychic Edgar Cayce, took out a deck of cards and performed unauthorized ESP experiments to test for telepathy between Earth and the spacecraft. NASA looked on in disbelief.

During the Apollo 16 mission, John Young drove the lunar rover like a dune buggy, with sharp turns and flying dust. Filming it, Charlie Duke said, “Indy’s never seen a driver like this.”

Apollo 17 witnessed astronaut Harrison Schmitt hopping around singing, “I was strolling on the Moon one day, in the merry, merry month of December … ,” with NASA doctors later concluding that euphoria is indeed an odd recurring effect of being on the lunar surface. The Moon can apparently drive people a little loony.

But the greatest astronomical pranks were unintentional. The beloved NASA administrator Dan Goldin, surrounded by a team of experts, held a press conference in 1996 to announce the existence of life on Mars. Say what? They’d based it on apparent fossils in a martian meteorite found in Antarctica in 1984, like plot lines from The Thing. The “martian life” conclusion was soon discredited, however, especially after scientists saw similar “fossils” in lunar rocks. NASA didn’t later say, “April Fool! We got you!” but that’s what it amounted to.


A goof-up is not the same thing as a deliberate prank, of course, but it can create a similar effect. In July 1962, the first Mariner spacecraft to Venus ex-ploded. A missing hyphen in the computer instructions had sent the rocket incorrect guidance signals, so NASA’s range safety officer ordered it destroyed. The absence of a single hyphen cost tens of millions of taxpayer dollars. April Fool.

Perkin-Elmer of Danbury, Connecticut, the world’s most prestigious optical company, won the commission to build the Hubble Space Telescope mirrors. It took them four years. After all that labor, they delivered the main 94-inch mirror polished to the wrong shape. A miscalibrated testing device and their bewildering decision not to double-check the result created the greatest blunder in optics history. Any amateur telescope maker could have caught the flaw. Here’s your Hubble mirror, NASA. April Fool. Too bad you already sent it into space.
Remember Y2K? My neighbor spent $2,500 on a backup kerosene system and a tank full of the stuff because she was convinced that deliveries of heating oil would stop. The fear, you’ll recall, was that computers would read the “00” year code as 1900 instead of 2000. Would the machines then try to dispatch horses and buggies? Doomsday scenarios included airplanes falling from the sky and banks registering everyone’s balance as zero. A hundred billion dollars was spent on the “problem.” But many businesses ignored the peril. When the new year dawned, nothing happened. The world’s computers got it right after all. April Fool.
Also in 1999, the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter failed to enter orbit around the Red Planet. The problem? NASA engineers commanded it using metric units while the company that designed it intended its guidance to be in Imperial units. Later that same year, the $185 million Mars Polar Lander went silent while landing. Mission Control never heard from it again. A missing line of computer code was likely the culprit.
The 20th century thus ended with two April Fools from Mars. Howard Koch and Orson Welles had been one-upped.
Will a cosmic prank await us this month — our lives’ only April Fools Day with a “13” year code? No way, right?

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