As the final minutes ticked down toward Atlantis' launch on its STS-122 mission on Feb. 7, 2008, it may have been more appropriate for NASA's launch director to state, "gentlemen, start your space shuttle main engines." After all, the orbiter was taking three NASCAR starter flags with it on its flight into space.
Three green starter flags were packed on the shuttle in celebration of the agency's 50th anniversary and the 50th year of NASCAR's Daytona 500 race. Atlantis deliver the European science laboratory, Columbus, to the International Space Station.
After an 11-day flight, the flags were returned to Earth. One was presented to Ryan Newman, the winner of the 2008 Daytona 500. The second was placed on public display at the Florida racetrack, and the third was kept by NASA as a special commemorative piece.
"Just one of Atlantis' main gear tires, on which the NASCAR flags landed, could carry the load of the entire starting line-up of a NASCAR race — 40 race cars — all hitting the pavement at 250 miles per hour," Pearlman said.