The International Space Station is one of the most incredible engineering feats accomplished by humanity: a laboratory for studying the effects of zero gravity orbiting 400km above Earth. Its inhabitants are both astronauts and scientists, undertaking risky spacewalks and conducting experiments to further our understanding of spaceflight and how human biology adapts to life off-Earth.
There are more than a few dangers on the International Space Station too.
Yet despite its serious credentials, the ISS is also home to some quirky, bizarre and downright cool objects that you might not expect to find onboard a space station.
Astronauts are only human after all, and in between EVAs (extra-vehicular activities), media interviews, a rigid cardiovascular regime and zero gravity science, they also find time to bond with one another and have a bit of fun along the way.
Here are 11 of the more interesting or unexpected objects that have been found on the International Space Station in the 2 decades it’s been operational.
11 of the strangest objects on the International Space Station
A gorilla suit
There have been many animals in space, but a gorilla isn’t one of them. There is, however, a gorilla suit that was sent up to the International Space Station in 2016 by astronaut Mark Kelly as a birthday present for his twin brother Scott Kelly, who was on the ISS during his One-Year Mission at the time.
Scott Kelly and UK astronaut Tim Peake had become good friends during their time together on the space station, and the former duly utilised his new outfit to prank the latter.
Watch a video of the prank via Scott Kelly’s Tweet below.
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) February 23, 2016
In 2001 US restaurant chain Pizza Hut became the first company to deliver pizza to the International Space Station on behalf of Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Usachov, who developed a craving while in Earth orbit.
The pizza was delivered via a Russian Soyuz rocket to the ISS, and reportedly Pizza Hut paid the Russian space agency about £700,000 for the stunt. Because humans’ taste receptors are dulled slightly in space, Pizza Hut had to add extra salt and spices to the dish, while salami was used rather than pepperoni due to its longer shelf life.
In 2015 NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren played ‘Amazing Grace’ on a set of bagpipes in tribute to research scientist Victor Hurst, who had passed away. The bagpipes were made for Lindgren by a company in Ayrshire in Scotland called McCallum Bagpipes.
Of his colleague and friend Hurst, Lindgren said: “He always had a quick smile, a kind word. I don’t know if anyone was more enthusiastic and professional about being involved in human spaceflight.”
And other musical instruments
The astronauts on the International Space Station are a talented bunch and over the years have played a varied musical ensemble including a guitar (most notably by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield), flute (played in the video above by NASA astronaut Cady Coleman at 2:09), piccolo, keyboard, alto saxophone, koto and even a didgeridoo.
An espresso machine
"Coffee: the finest organic suspension ever devised." Fresh espresso in the new Zero-G cup! To boldly brew… pic.twitter.com/Zw2CllJgzF
— Samantha Cristoforetti (@AstroSamantha) May 3, 2015
In 2015, astronauts got a chance to brew a real cup of coffee from an espresso machine dubbed the ‘ISSpresso’, designed by Italian companies Lavazza and Argotec. The machine was delivered to the International Space Station and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti was the first to take a sip, becoming the first astronaut in history to drink an espresso coffee in space.
Because the International Space Station has been continuously occupied since 2000, every Christmas since then has been celebrated by a crew of astronauts and cosmonauts in Earth orbit. The Space Station has accumulated festive decorations throughout the years so that crews can deck the halls with a miniature Christmas tree, stockings and Santa hats.
Toys and teddy bears
Tremor, Earthy, Miss Mouse, Smokey and Buzz Lightyear are some of the toys and teddies that have earned their space wings. Tremor, a sequinned dinosaur, arrived in 2020 aboard SpaceX’s Dragon.
While soft toys in space are a fun way of getting young children interested in spaceflight, they also provide an important function as they are hung inside launch capsules to let astronauts know when they have reached zero gravity.
A LEGO model of the International Space Station
It doesn’t get much cooler than building a LEGO model of the International Space Station…while orbiting Earth on board the International Space Station. That’s exactly what Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa did during his stay on the ISS in 2012.
Apparently it took Furukawa 2 hours to build the model, which as LEGO builders will know is no mean feat. Remember how frustrating it is when you drop a vital piece during a build? Now imagine how it annoying it would be to have that piece simply float away out of reach.
Incidentally, the official LEGO model of the International Space Station is one of our best space gifts for kids…
A good amount of literature has been read on the ISS over the years by astronauts bringing up copies of some of the world’s greatest works. Some of the books that have made it to the International Space Station include Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species, Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities, Goethe’s Faust and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind.
Books also make up a key element of the ISS outreach programme, with the Story Time From Space initiative seeing astronauts read aloud to inspire students, children, families and educators.
Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber
The actual lightsaber prop used by Mark Hamill in Return of the Jedi was flown to the International Space Station onboard Space Shuttle Discovery during the STS-120 mission.
While the lightsaber remained onboard the docked Discovery throughout the mission and didn’t actually make it inside the Space Station itself, this is still one of the coolest objects to have been launched into space.
A Star Trek uniform
— Samantha Cristoforetti (@AstroSamantha) February 28, 2015
Those who followed ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti’s 200 days on the International Space Station will be more than aware how much of a Star Trek fan she is. See number 5 on this list for a pic of Cristoforetti drinking an espresso in the Cupola while wearing a Star Trek Voyager era uniform.
Directly above is a Tweet she posted on 28 February 2015 upon learning of the death of actor Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock in the cult sci-fi show.
Have we missed any? What are your favourite moments from the history of the International Space Station? Let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.