Sending a Nobel Prize to Orbit

Posted on Wed, May 26 2010


The notation in the Museum’s artifact database is simple: “On loan.”  But this artifact is a replica Nobel Prize.  And its loan involves two government agencies, a crushed storage building, and a flight to the International Space Station. Let’s start at the beginning – literally.  As in the Big Bang.  In 2006, John Mather of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics jointly with George F. Smoot of the University of California at Berkeley "for their discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic background radiation."  That is, using the COBE (COsmic Background Explorer) satellite, Mather and Smoot discovered "the basic form of the cosmic microwave background radiation as well as its small variations"—work that confirms the theory of the Big Bang.  The National Air and Space Museum displays a replica of the COBE satellite in the "Explore the Universe" exhibit in the National Mall Building.

Explore the Universe COBE

Close up of front end of COBE showing entrances for FIRAS (left) and DIRBE (right.)

The Nobel Prize, a series of yearly international awards endowed by Swedish industrialist and inventor Alfred Nobel, consists of a monetary prize, a diploma, and a gold medal.  But Laureates have the opportunity to have bronze replica medals minted for their private use.  Mather requested three. And thus, the Museum received into its collection a Nobel Prize medal.  On October 3, 2007, during a reception and invited talk sponsored by NASA at the National Air and Space Museum, Mather presented Museum director General Jack Dailey with a bronze replica of the award's medal.  Mather gave another copy to NASA. In 2010, NASA astronaut Piers Sellers contacted Mather about flying a copy of his Nobel Prize aboard STS-132, a mission aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis, destined for the International Space Station in May.  Astronauts often collaborate to assemble the significant objects that fly aboard each space mission.  Mather was delighted.  But, he quickly discovered that the medals he had given to NASA had been encased in thick plastic for display.  Removing the coating risked damaging the medals.  Flying the coated medals risked off-gassing (that smell that almost all plastics emit), which could be harmful in a spacecraft’s sealed environment.  Only the Museum’s medal remained in its original state.  So Mather contacted the Museum. The timing stunk.  Just the week prior was the historic early February snow storm that paralyzed Washington, DC for a full week.  The heavy snow damaged a critical storage and processing building at the Paul E. Garber facility in Suitland, Maryland.  Every object that came in or out of the Museum usually passed through that building.  The entire loan program was shut down, frozen, blocked.  The staff was working overtime in rescue mode. Fortunately, the Mather Nobel Prize replica was at the National Mall Building.  And, notwithstanding the pressures they were facing, the Museum’s loan staff were willing to do all of the work (and paperwork) necessary to prepare an object for loan in only 24 hours, without cutting corners.  Within days, Museum staff had hand-delivered the replica Nobel Prize to NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. Surprisingly, tracking the transit of a Nobel Prize is not very different than tracking any other package.  Because time was short, NASA shipped Mather’s Nobel to the Johnson Spaceflight Center in Houston, Texas via FedEx.  Entering the tracking number in the website, one could “watch” the Nobel make its way to the astronaut office.

Space Shuttle Atlantis

The completion of the complex loan delivery came with glad tidings and good humor.  When he received the package, Piers Sellers e-mailed the Museum, “Hello everyone.  I have received the Nobel Prize. (I always wanted to say that.) I will hand it over to NASA pronto.  Best, P.”