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The strangest moments in space launch history

The Ares I-X delays are frustrating to say the least. But here's a look at some of the weirder moments, many from recent missions, in NASA's manned launch history.
Image: Alligator on runway
Taking a midday stroll, an alligator crosses the Saturn Causeway June 2 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida in front of the Astrovan with STS-127 crew members aboard.Kim Shiflett
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At times, NASA's attempts to launch a new Ares I-X rocket Tuesday seemed surreal — with bad weather, a stuck sensor sock and a wayward cargo ship offshore appearing to conspire to prevent the booster's liftoff. But believe it or not, there have been stranger things to pop up in NASA's launch history.

There was an astronaut who peed in his spacesuit before liftoff — a seemingly inauspicious start to what became the first American manned spaceflight. Bats and vultures have besieged space shuttles at the launch pad, not to mention lightning, which tried and failed to tackle NASA's mightiest rocket.

NASA is hoping for better weather — and luck — on Wednesday morning, when it has another four-hour window to try and launch the $445 million Ares I-X rocket. The rocket launch is NASA's first suborbital test of the new Ares I booster to launch astronauts to space aboard its shuttle successor, the Orion craft.

The launch was delayed several times due to weather and some unexpected oddities like a stubborn sock-like cover that forced engineers into a tug-of-war battle with the Ares I-X until it finally came free. At one point, when weather finally cleared, an errant cargo ship strayed into the danger zone on the Eastern Range, a patch of restricted waters on the Atlantic Ocean over which rocket launches fly.

The Ares I-X delays were frustrating to say the least. But here's a look at some of the weirder moments, many from recent missions, in NASA's manned launch history:

No potty breaks
The pinnacle of manned space oddities may be one of the first. On May 5, 1962, NASA astronaut Alan Shepard — one of the original seven Mercury spaceflyers — was ready to become the first American in space. Clad in a bright silver spacesuit, he climbed into his capsule Freedom 7 and engineers bolted the hatch shut behind him. The launch was delayed over and over, and then he had to pee.

Shepard, who died in 1998 at age 74, related the experience in the book "Moonshot," which he wrote with fellow Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton.

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'I've got to pee. I've been in here forever," Shepard radioed launch control. "The gantry is still right here, so why don't you guys let me out of here for a quick stretch?''

But the answer was no. Shepard ultimately opted to urinate in his shiny spacesuit, but asked launch control to switch the power off to his medical sensors first. Astronauts can now add adult diapers to their spacesuits to avoid similar embarrassing situations. There is a Russian tradition among cosmonauts, however, to intentionally pee on the bus taking them to the Soyuz launch pad that dates back to the first-ever human space launch by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who launched a month earlier than Shepard.

A doomed, stowaway bat
More recently, a small bat seemingly tried to stow away on the space shuttle Discovery when it launched into space last March.

Cameras and an inspection team spotted the bat clinging to the side of Discovery's 15-story external tank as it was being fueled with propellant — super-cold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Some experts thought the bat may have been frozen in place because of the cryogenic temperatures, but it changed position every now and then.

The bat was still hanging on for dear life when Discovery blasted off on March 15 of this year, and likely met its doom.

"Based on images and video, a wildlife expert who provides support to the center said the small creature was a free tail bat that likely had a broken left wing and some problem with its right shoulder or wrist," NASA officials said after the launch. "The animal likely perished quickly during Discovery's climb into orbit."

More bat weirdness: Riding aboard Discovery during the March launch was Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata on his second spaceflight. Another bat tried to stow away on his first shuttle launch in 1996, but flew away just before liftoff.

Lightning vs. Saturn V
There's good reasoning behind NASA's weather rules for launching spacecraft. No one wants to get hit by lightning, but that's what happened to the massive Saturn V rocket launching the Apollo 12 mission — the second manned moon landing — on Nov. 14, 1969. A bolt hit the rocket 36 seconds after liftoff, causing some tense moments.

"I don't know what happened here, we had everything in the world drop out," Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad radioed Mission Control. "I'm not sure we didn't get hit by lightning."

The bolt did not cause serious damage and Apollo 12 went on to make a successful, pinpoint landing on the moon near an old unmanned Surveyor probe.

An astronaut alligator?
Sometimes, NASA astronauts have to find a good luck charm and the crew of the shuttle Endeavour apparently picked a lazy alligator that crossed their path while they were headed to the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The reptile rendezvous occurred in June of this year, when astronauts were trying to launch on NASA's STS-127 mission to the International Space Station. After two false starts due to a gas leak, they were riding in NASA's silver Astrovan and spotted the alligator on the road in front of them. The toothy beast quickly became the crew's mascot, so taken were the spaceflyers by its abrupt appearance.

The alligator offered no extra luck, however. The seven Endeavour astronauts were ultimately delayed until July, when they flew a marathon delivery flight to the space station. NASA's Kennedy Space Center shares a boundary with the Merritt Island Wildlife Nature Refuge, which is a habitat for more than 310 species of birds, 25 species of mammals, 117 species of fish and 65 species of amphibians and reptiles.

Door defeats shuttle?
Actually no, but it was almost the case in November 2006, when a launch pad technician forgot to secure a door in the White Room leading to the space shuttle Endeavour just before launch.

NASA was worried the door, which is attached to the gantry structure of the launch pad, might swing wildly during liftoff and damage Endeavour as it blasted off. For a brief moment, launch controllers considered delaying the launch because of that risk. But engineers decided that the damage risk was not to Endeavour, but to the gantry structure near the door. It was deemed acceptable and Endeavour blasted off successfully.

After launch, a quality inspector told launch director Michael Leinbach that he was the one who forgot to lock the door down.

"It's a testament to the team that when we do know that we've made a mistake, we own up to it and we go out and we fix that," Leinbach said then. "And I guarantee you we will never see that issue again."

Vexing vultures
It seems that many of the weird space launch tales involve some sort of hapless animal. This one is no different. One problem NASA has tackled in recent years has been the proliferation of large turkey vultures around its Kennedy Space Center launch site.

In July 2005, a large vulture hit the space shuttle Discovery's external tank during liftoff and sadly met its demise. But the odd incident, which occurred on NASA's first shuttle flight since the tragic 2003 Columbia accident, was a wake up call since similar bird strikes could create tank foam debris that could damage a launching shuttle.

NASA hit the challenge hard. The space agency built a bird radar to scan for flocks that could fly through a shuttle's launch path and pose an impact risk. There are sound cannons in place to scare avian interlopers at the Shuttle Landing Facility near the launch site so returning astronauts won't hit any birds during landing (sparing the birds and preventing damage to the shuttle).

The agency also asks employees at the Kennedy Space Center to report any road kill at the space center that can attract large groups of the big turkey vultures.

But wild tales are by no means the norm for human spaceflight and NASA is hoping for a less eventful day of launch attempts for Ares I-X on Wednesday.

The rocket has a 60 percent chance of good weather, but NASA will be sure to watch the high upper level winds, cloudy weather and a static electricity risk called triboelectrification — which can interfere with the telemetry and electronics on Ares I-X — during the next attempt.