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Super Bowl's start hinges on space coin flip

Video still showing Leland Melvin, flanked by Jeff Williams and Charlie Hobaugh, tossing the Super Bowl coin in space. (NASA)
February 5, 2010

— It may be one small flip, but the coin that will decide whether the Indianapolis Colts or New Orleans Saints possess the ball at the start of Sunday's Super Bowl XLIV will have already made a giant leap when it hits the field at Miami's Sun Life Stadium.

In a move that at the time was known only to a few people at NASA, the NFL, and The Highland Mint of Melbourne, Fla. where the coin was created last August, the opening- toss medal was flown on space shuttle Atlantis' STS-129 mission in November. Over 11 days and 171 orbits around the Earth, the silver coin logged four million miles.

The coin's spaceflight was revealed in advance of a Jan. 27 presentation ceremony held at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, where the mission's six astronauts returned the coin, along with other flown NFL memorabilia, to officials.

"Of all the things we brought onboard, this was truly one of the more memorable ones," said STS-129 commander Charles Hobaugh during the ceremony.

"It is going to be thrilling for me to actually see the coin that we flew in space used for the game during the coin toss ceremony," mission specialist Michael Foreman told a local news network at the Hall of Fame.

Should conditions cooperate, the toss of a coin will not be NASA's only launch on Sunday: space shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to liftoff at 4:39 a.m. EST (0939 GMT) from the Kennedy Space Center, about 200 miles north of the stadium. (Update: Weather delayed kickoff of the STS-130 mission.)

Completing the coin

Super Bowl flip coin, as flown, prior to having the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints logos added. (NASA)

When Atlantis left Earth with the coin on Nov. 16, 2009, it was impossible for anyone to know who'd be facing off for the big game. As such, the coin's gold-plated helmets did not display team logos, nor were team names inscribed in the same style that previous games' coins were.

And that's the way the coin would have remained for this year's toss had it not been for a twist of fate and help from a veteran space journalist-turned-radio host.

Through separate circumstances, Jim Banke, host of the weekly radio show "Space Talk" on Melbourne's WMMB, happened to know both Phyllis Hamilton, whose job it was to engrave the die used by The Highland Mint to produce the coins, and Joe Horrigan, the Pro Football Hall of Fame's vice president for communications and exhibits.

When news of the space-flown coin broke, it caused some confusion at the Mint, as they'd forgotten about providing it almost half-a-year earlier. Hamilton asked Banke about it, as she knew his interest in all things space, and in turn he contacted Horrigan.

A finished Super Bowl XLIV flip coin, with team logos, as to be used during the opening-toss ceremony. (The Highland Mint)

Banke's relayed description of the coin jogged Hamilton's memory, as it did Michael Kott's, the Mint's president and CEO. The "mystery" solved, Banke thought "that was it."

As such, he was surprised to hear again from Hamilton a few days later, with another request: "They'd love to put the helmets back on the coin so it was accurate," Banke recounted Hamilton telling him. "Can you help us do that?"

After a number of phone calls and e-mails, arrangements were made to have the coin stop in Melbourne on its way from Canton to Miami.

"A representative from the Hall of Fame arrived around 10 a.m. Friday [Jan. 29], the coin was engraved, gold toned, and put back in its package and he left around lunchtime," Hamilton e-mailed Banke. "It was a good effort by all, and we look forward to seeing it this Sunday!"

Third time's the charm

The STS-129 crew presents the flip coin to NFL officials at the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Jan. 27. (NASA/Marv Smith)

According to Kott, this is the third time that his Mint has produced an official Super Bowl coin that has been flown in space, though it is the first time the coin has been used in the game.

The first time a coin flew was aboard shuttle Discovery in 1992. NASA and the NFL coordinated to have the STS-42 crew available live from orbit but there was a problem: in microgravity, the coin would never fall to the ground.

As a result, the astronauts were scrubbed in favor for Hall of Fame player and coach Chuck Noll.

A second coin, Kott said, was lost 11 years later with the crew of STS-107 when shuttle Columbia broke apart upon reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. The NFL paid tribute to the fallen crew and NASA during the next year's Super Bowl halftime show in Houston.

The most recent coin to fly — and the first to be used for the official ceremony — was accompanied to space by Leland Melvin, a former Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys player who became an astronaut after a hamstring injury.

Melvin and Kott are both scheduled to be guests Saturday on Banke's radio show to discuss the flip coin's flight.

After the Super Bowl, the flown flip coin will be returned to the Hall of Fame for display.

The Highland Mint produced 10,000 duplicates of the coin, to be presented to officials and the players, and offered to the public for sale.

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