December 10, 2010
— The moon may not be made of cheese, but for about three hours on Wednesday, a wheel of cheese rounded the Earth twice before returning for an historic splashdown.
Packed aboard SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, the wheel of Le Brouére — a type of French Gruyère made in northeast France — was hinted to by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk prior to the capsule launching. It wasn't revealed however until the day after the Dragon landed in the ocean, having then made history as the first spacecraft launched, orbited and recovered by a private company.
In a pre-flight interview with the website Spaceflight Now, Musk set the stage for the cheesy cargo.
"There's a humorous secret payload that I can't tell you about," Musk teased. "If the mission's successful, I'll tell you about it. Otherwise, I won't."
By all accounts, the mission was a success. Launched by the company's second Falcon 9 rocket to fly, the Dragon was placed into a 186 mile (300 kilometer) circular orbit for two revolutions of the planet. It then reentered the Earth's atmosphere — a feat previously accomplished by only six government space agencies — and deployed two drogue chutes and three main parachutes before splashing down about 500 miles off the coast of southern California.
SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft is lowered to a safe splashdown by three main parachutes on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2010. (SpaceX)
In addition to writing SpaceX into the history books, the mission also served as the first demonstration for NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. As contracted, a dozen Dragon spacecraft will carry supplies to and from the International Space Station. Future flights might also launch and land astronauts.
Even after Dragon returned, Musk remained coy about the cargo.
"It's kind of funny," Musk said after being asked to reveal the payload during a post-flight press conference. "If you like Monty Python, you'll love the secret."
Still, he deferred the unveiling to the following day, leading some to speculate what was onboard. Several observers suggested it was canned Spam.
"That would be a clever reference to the Monty Python comedy troupe's Spam-themed skits, as well as famed test pilot Chuck Yeager's crack that Mercury astronauts were merely 'Spam in a can,'" wrote MSNBC's Alan Boyle. "If the mystery payload wasn't canned meat... well, it should have been."
On Thursday, SpaceX announced its secret payload.
SpaceX's "Top Secret" cheese-carrying metal cylinder, bolted to the floor of the Dragon spacecraft. (SpaceX/Chris Thompson)
"It was a payload so secret," the press release explained, "SpaceXers made it Top Secret (think Val Kilmer 1984, not official US Government)."
An accompanying photograph showed the bolted cover of the cheese-carrying metal cylinder aboard Dragon adorned with a cow wearing galoshes, which was the "Top Secret" movie poster.
"So what was inside the mystery package?" the release teased one last time. "A wheel of cheese."
The cheese was inspired by a classic skit from the British comedy show "Monty Python's Flying Circus," in which actor John Cleese tries to order cheese from a cheese shop that has no cheese — but at least there's a band.
The wheel of cheese wasn't the only cargo onboard the Dragon, which mostly carried ballast weights for this first test flight. Also flown to space and back were thousands of patches, enough to give to SpaceX's 1200 employees and then some.
SpaceX's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Demonstration Flight-1 mission insignia (SpaceX)
"There's all sorts of memorabilia," Musk told Spaceflight Now. "There are badges for everyone at the company, so everyone has a badge that's been in space."
"There are a lot of knick-knacks and odds and ends," he added.
Of course, now that its back on Earth and made history, the Dragon itself is a space-flown artifact perhaps worthy of a museum.
Asked by collectSPACE if the capsule was bound for the Smithsonian, Musk said that he hadn't thought of that yet.
"The first thing we are going to do obviously is examine the spacecraft very, very closely. We're going to do deep forensics on it," he said.
"Where it goes from there, I'm not sure," Musk continued. "Certainly it would be a great honor to have anything in the Smithsonian. The National Air and Space Museum is my favorite museum in the world."