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M&M's gives NASA sweet sendoff for final space shuttle mission

July 13, 2011

— In the hours that led up to NASA's final space shuttle launch last Friday (July 8), the launch and mission control teams, as well as the astronauts flying on board shuttle Atlantis, received a sweet surprise: special space shuttle-themed M&M's candies.

The red, blue and silver "candy-coated chocolates" — as NASA has generically labeled them ever since they flew aboard the first shuttle mission in 1981 — were packaged in small metal tins. Marked with their trademark "m" on one side, the candies were decorated on the reverse with either a small image of the shuttle orbiter, the phrase "3... 2... 1... Lift Off!" or the date of the launch, "July 8, 2011."

"We've been honored to fly on more than 130 missions with hundreds of American heroes over the last three decades," said Debra Sandler, chief consumer officer for Mars Chocolate North America, whose products include M&M's. "It's bittersweet to see this program, which has inspired millions to reach for the stars, come to an end, but we wish the crew of Atlantis a safe and successful mission," she said in a statement.

The customized M&M's were delivered to NASA's team members at both launch control at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida and mission control at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

The STS-135 astronauts — commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim — received M&M's personalized with their names.

M&M's history on the shuttle

One of the most well-known examples of the off-the-shelf foods flown on the space shuttle, M&M's have been eaten on the winged spacecraft since the STS-1 crew requested them on shuttle Columbia when they lifted off on April 12, 1981.

The candies' small shape and colorful assortment have made them a favorite for astronauts, not just to eat but to play with in the microgravity environment on the shuttle. It has been a common sight over the past three decades to see shuttle crew members tossing the M&M's between them, catching them in their mouths, or playing Pac-Man — chomping on a floating line up of the candy pieces.

A memorable photo taken in 1992 of STS-46 commander Loren Shriver showed the astronaut attempting to catch the floating sweets as he hovered in front of space shuttle Atlantis' window overlooking the Earth below.

NASA, as a federal agency, has been eager to avoid the appearance of commercial endorsements, so when then candies flew, they were removed from their packaging, placed in vacuum sealed clear pouches and identified only as "candy-coated chocolates."

The M&M's retained their "m" markings, though.

The candies remained more or less generic until astronaut Shannon Lucid spent 188 days aboard the Russian space station Mir in 1996. When asked what she missed most back on Earth, she replied from orbit, "I guess the only thing that would be nice is to have a few more M&M's."

Her confession led to both the NASA Administrator and President of the United States presenting Lucid with many pounds of M&M's upon her landing on the space shuttle. The Mars Chocolates company also packaged red, white, and blue M&M's to give to her and visitors to the Kennedy Space Center.

M&M's will continue to be consumed in space aboard the International Space Station. Space shuttle Atlantis, flying this final shuttle flight, has the almond-variety on board, or "candy-coated almonds." The crew's personalized M&M's remained on the ground.

Pop culture pays tribute to the space shuttle

Mars Chocolates' shuttle-themed M&M's were not the only corporate or pop culture tributes to the end of the space shuttle program.

For example, Walgreens' stores in the towns surrounding the Kennedy Space Center distributed to their customers aluminum tokens engraved with the pharmacy's logo and the shuttle program commemorative emblem, as well as the crew patch for Atlantis' STS-135 mission.

Composer Bear McCreary, whose credits include scoring the SyFy Channel's "Battlestar Galactica" and "Caprica," wrote a fanfare for the launch and the STS-135 mission. The song debuted before a group of invited Twitter users at the Kennedy Space Center prior to the launch and will be made available for download later this fall.

And Rovio Mobile, the company behind the popular Angry Birds games for smart phones, released on July 8 a new reduced-gravity level for its Seasons version of the game. Though the level was moon landing-themed, the company said that its debut was specifically timed to coincide with the last launch of the space shuttle.

The tradition of companies saluting the shuttle dates back to the first flight. General Mills' breakfast cereal Cheerios offered kids the opportunity to write away for "The Space Shuttle Adventure Kit" including a story book, an iron-on T-shirt transfer, and a shuttle program logo decal.

And a Pepsico, Inc. cannery decorated cans of Pepsi with a commemorative design paying tribute to the "1st NASA space shuttle landing" at Edwards Air Force Base, California.


Space shuttle-themed M&M's candies: melts in your mouth, not at your launch. (collectSPACE)

M&M's candies as they are repackaged by NASA to be flown on the space shuttle: "Candy-Coated Chocolates." (NASA)

Astronaut Loren Shriver catches M&M's candies aboard the space shuttle Atlantis. (NASA)

Rivio's Angry Birds and Walgreens both have paid tribute to the last mission of the space shuttle. (collectSPACE)

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