Our 40 Favorite Stories of 2018

iStock.com/ViewApart
iStock.com/ViewApart

Like parents with their children, Mental Floss's editors and writers don't want to have to choose a “favorite” story during any given year. But also like parents with their children, we do tend to play favorites (sorry, kids—it’s true for your parents, too). Whether it’s a piece we wrote, a story we edited, or just something we read on the site and loved, our team agreed to share some of their favorite stories of the year (listed in chronological order). Just in case you missed them.

How Are Rooms Cleaned at an Ice Hotel?

Lucas Reilly is probably best known for his impeccably-researched long form stories, but he’s just as adept at offering a quick glimpse of a situation few have stopped to ponder: How does one tidy up the rooms of an ice hotel in Sweden? (Hint: Maids carry ice picks instead of feather dusters.) I like this story because it presents a totally alien situation, piques the reader’s curiosity, and then summarizes the logistics involved. Also: Having “manager of ice hotel” in your list of contacts is a very Mental Floss thing to do. —Jake Rossen, Senior Staff Writer

14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Hollywood Food Stylists

I just loved the details of how Hollywood food stylists accomplish their goals: mashed potatoes as ice cream (it doesn't melt under hot lights)! Ground-up Oreos to stand in for Pakistani dirt! Prosciutto slices when you need to mimic slivers of a human arm for Hannibal! It's all here! —Bess Lovejoy, Staff Editor

The Enigma of Edinburgh’s Miniature Coffins

Some of the coffins discovered in 1836
National Museums Scotland

I've long been fascinated by the 17 miniature coffins a group of rabbit-hunting boys found in Edinburgh in 1836. Were they connected to some sort of spellwork, like a Scottish version of voodoo dolls? Or an eerie homage to the Burke and Hare murders? I love how Allison Meier laid out the various bizarre theories and delved into the the scholarly analysis of what must be some of the stranger museum artifacts on display in the world. —BL

Bizarre as Hell: The Disappearance of the Yuba County Five

The disappearance of the Yuba County 5 was a tragedy for their families. But when I found mention of it deep in a Reddit thread over the holiday break of 2017, I knew we had to cover it. Young men driven into the forest for no apparent reason, only to meet their icy doom? It seemed like something out of Twin Peaks, or, as some have said, like an American Dyatlov Pass incident (a reference to the mysterious deaths of nine Soviet students in 1959 while camping). And even though I knew the whole story, Jake Rossen still spooked me retelling it. The sense of atmosphere and mystery he created here is, to me, far darker and more interesting than the average blood-soaked murder—perhaps because, when left to its own imaginings, the mind often creates something much worse than the truth. —BL

When The Day After Terrorized 100 Million Viewers With a Vision of Nuclear War

Several years ago, before we had ever worked together, Jake Rossen wrote a story for Mental Floss about the awesomely terrible little-kid-is-a-robot sitcom Small Wonder. Jake and I had never spoken, emailed, or in any other way communicated (we were both freelancers at the time), but I was determined to see him make some of my bizarre, half-formed story ideas come to life. When we both came aboard as staffers, I set about putting my devious plan into motion. And it worked (this is the part where Jake would add that he got the raw end of that deal). In addition to sharing a rather warped sense of humor and desperate love of Cobra Kai (seriously—go watch it), Jake has a knack for turning my random emails—“Stop the Insanity!” “John Wayne Bobbitt”—into fully fleshed out stories (no pun intended, John) that go beyond the surface or just some kitschy “hey, remember this?” kind of thing. His piece on The Day After—which scared the sh** out of me as a kid, and 100 million other people—is the perfect example of this. I’m still not sure why my parents let me and my siblings watch it. But I’m glad that Jake suggested a deep dive into how it came to be. —Jennifer M. Wood, Senior Editor

How Jeremy Bentham Finally Came to America, Nearly 200 Years After His Death

The back of a woman gazing at Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon
Mental Floss

Can you fangirl over a skeleton? Well, I did this year. Jeremy Bentham is my favorite preserved dead philosopher, and not only because he's the only preserved dead philosopher in the world—or at least, the only one who left such specific instructions. For me, the joy of this story was to talk to the curators involved in displaying Bentham's auto-icon (as his articulated, stuffed skeleton topped with wax head is known) on both sides of the Atlantic. I could hear Luke Syson at The Met Breuer positively beaming delight down through the phone wires, and thought about how weird—but beautiful—it is that this corpse brings so much joy to people, including me. Part of that is because Bentham himself was so iconoclastic, and his attempt to make a political, or at least ethical, statement with his own body feels very modern. Not to mention wonderfully eccentric. —BL

5 Ways to Define a Sandwich, According to the Law

Michele Debczak always manages to answer questions I didn’t even know I had. Can I get paid to eat Nutella? What does Uranus smell like? Why do tumbleweeds tumble? But I’m especially thankful for this jewel: This was a huge debate in the Mental Floss office back in 2014, and I’m glad somebody finally put it to bed. —Lucas Reilly, Features Writer

The Typo That Helped End World War II

In our line of work, typos are a very, very bad thing. So when a typo mistakenly landed a cryptogamist (a person who studies algae) instead of a cryptogramist (a codebreaker) a job at Bletchley Park in 1939, it seemed like one big embarrassing mistake. But when Allied forces managed to salvage a bunch of critical—albeit waterlogged—documents from some German U-boats they had torpedoed, it turned out that having a cryptogamist on hand was just the thing they needed to salvage the documents. Once dried, the Bletchley codebreakers were able to use the information to crack German communication, which likely hastened the end of the war by two to four years, saving millions of lives in the process. And all because of a seemingly embarrassing typo! —JMW

The Canadian Village Where Sasquatches Are Said to Roam

British columbia coastline
iStock

As a child of British Columbia, sasquatches are close to my heart. In this piece, I particularly admired the primacy of indigenous knowledge: A lesser writer could easily paint the whole thing as "weird," or dismiss it due to lack of evidence, but Kat explores the role of the sasquatch as a member of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais community. The result is a much fuller account of what this creature means for the people of the Pacific Northwest than you usually see. She also paints a rich picture of the land where she reported—something that's all too rare in our mostly desk-bound days. —BL

25 Foreign Words with Hilarious Literal Meanings

I studied Vietnamese for about a year while living in Hanoi, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t learn anything during the animal lesson because I couldn’t get past the hilarious literal translations. For example, a crocodile is literally called an “ugly fish” and a skunk is a “stink fox," which is actually a pretty perfect naming system, in my opinion. This inspired me to research some of the amusing literal translations in other languages, and I wasn’t disappointed. My personal favorite is "paper vampire" for stapler in Afrikaans. —Emily Petsko, Staff Writer

The Wild, Wild Story of the 'Sex Guru' at the Center of Wild Wild Country

When Netflix dropped the docuseries Wild Wild Country in March, I was instantly hooked. A true crime series with a sex cult at the center? Sign me up! Though I binge-watched all six hours in one sitting, Emily Petsko managed to reveal even more about Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the man at the center of the documentary, offering an even deeper understanding about who he was and why he was compelled to do the things he did. If you haven’t seen the series or read the story, I won’t give too much away. But I will say that pairing a binge-watch with this article is one great way to spend a weekend. —JMW

9 The Shining References Buried in Pixar Films

Woody from 'Toy Story' on a background from 'The Shining'
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Woody Image: iStock. Background: IFC Midnight

One of the things people seem to love about Pixar films is how they speak to adults as much as they do kids. One possible reason to explain this could be Pixar mainstay Lee Unkrich’s love of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. As such, Unkrich—who has directed and/or co-directed a handful of films for the animation company, including Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3, Finding Nemo, and Coco—has hidden subtle nods to the iconic Stephen King adaptation (which, ironically, King doesn't like) into the Pixar world. Rebecca Pahle had some fun sharing some of them here. —JMW

Traumatic License: An Oral History of Action Park

It’s hard to believe that a place like Action Park actually existed, and it’s even harder to believe that it remained open for nearly two decades. I’m simultaneously relieved and a little disappointed that I never got to experience the “Cannonball Loop.” —EP

8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words

I’ve been trying to work Hellhörig into conversation ever since I read this piece, which—in addition to that delightfully German word—is full of other terms you’ll want to start using immediately. —Erin McCarthy, Editor-in-Chief

20 Character Actors Who Make Everything They’re in Better

When Scott Beggs pitched me this idea, I had just one question: Will Walton Goggins be included? He swore he was already at the top of the list, and I was sold. But I could have very well asked the same question about every actor he included here, each of whom really does elevate every project they’re in—even if it’s already great to begin with. Side note: It hardly seems coincidental that a handful of the actors in here have appeared in the television version of Fargo (or, in the case of Peter Stormare, the original film). Yes, that’s a total plug for Fargo. No, I have no affiliation with the series beyond loving it and always being amazed by the casts they manage to assemble. —JMW

The Quest to Break America's Most Mysterious Code—and Find $60 Million in Treasure

Buried treasure on top of a cipher and the declaration of independence.
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Image: iStock.

A lot has been written about Beale’s treasure, and people love debating whether it’s real or not. But what’s most real to me is that people can get so wrapped up in solving this mystery that they become utterly consumed by it. This isn’t so much a story about treasure; it’s a story about the people who hunt it—and how their passion transforms their lives, for better and worse. (Treasure hunters, by the way, are incredibly fun people to interview!) —LR

The Best Way to Wipe Your Butt, According to Experts

Wiping your butt seems like something you shouldn’t be able to mess up, but here’s a dirty little secret: You totally can. I love that we spoke to an expert who walked us through how it's done properly (wet wipes are a no-no!) and introduced us to the frankly horrifying Polished Anus Syndrome. —EM

12 Facts About Japanese Internment in the United States

While we tend to steer clear of modern-day politics in our everyday coverage, it’s always interesting to see how so many of our historical stories have a resonance in the world today. Scott Beggs’s excellent story about FDR’s Executive Order 9066, which sanctioned the removal of Japanese immigrants and Americans of Japanese heritage from their homes to be imprisoned in internment camps throughout the country, is a perfect example of that. And a great read—particularly when you consider that it happened in 1942, which is really not that long ago. —JMW

The 1925 Cave Rescue that Captivated the Nation

lantern in cave
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.

I loved the sense of tension and suspense that Lucas wrought from a simple question: Will the man trapped in the cave survive? He brought the long hours of stillness and tedium within the pitch-black cave to life, and gave readers a thread—like the weak flame of Collins's lamp—on which they could cling to hope. The contrast between those scenes and the crass, party-like atmosphere outside the cave captured a time in American history that held a mirror to today's sensationalizing of disasters. —Kat Long, Staff Editor

10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories

Though I rarely buy into fan theories, I love reading about them. And Kristin Hunt has really become our go-to writer for digging up some truly bizarre ones on everything from Mary Poppins to The Sopranos. As a rabid Sesame Street fan (yes, even as an adult—and I’ve got the socks to prove it), the idea that Count von Count occasionally gives into his vampiric need for human blood or that Oscar the Grouch’s trash can is actually a TARDIS gave me a lot to think, and laugh, about. (Yes, I’m also a Doctor Who nerd.) —JMW

Amazing Automata and Mechanical Musical Instruments

Librarians and archivists are my rock stars, so the whole video series we did at little-known local museums this year had me fangirling. But the highlight may have been in June, when we went to the Murtogh D. Guinness Collection at the Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey, and the conservator, Jere Ryder, opened up the deep storage. While the automata and musical instruments upstairs in the museum are sublime (think ornate and expensive), these not-quite-ready for primetime players, including a taxidermy cat playing a harp and meowing "kittens" playing cards, were so incredibly awkward and sweet I think I squealed. The place is definitely worth a trip to New Jersey, even if a child on a previous visit did scream "This is going to give me nightmares!" —BL

15 Essential Midnight Movies Every Film Fan Needs to See

Though movie theaters had a very good year in 2018, their so-called “comeback” was due in large part to major blockbusters like Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. Which makes me long for the days when even the smallest towns seemed to have a repertory theater, where midnight screenings of movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, El Topo, and The Warriors were a standard option on a Saturday night. Matthew Jackson wrote about some of the best of them here, and what made them perfect for late-night moviegoers. —JMW

The Tiny "Spite Triangle" That Marks a Century-Old Grudge Against New York City

A tiled triangle in the sidewalk that reads 'Property of the Hess estate which has never been dedicated for public purpose.'
Jason Eppink, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Over the years we’ve written about spite houses and spite fences, but Shaunacy Ferro’s exploration of a teeny tiny mosaic tile that sits in the ground in New York City’s West Village might be the ultimate middle finger—if only because it largely goes unnoticed, and will hopefully remain there forever. —JMW

13 Secrets of Crime Scene Cleaners

I love covering professions many people don't think much about, like the companies brought in to clean up after violent deaths. Deanna Cioppa focused both on the memorable details—like the training set-ups made out of sheet rock and pig's blood—and the emotional heart of the story, which I think is the immense satisfaction people get from doing this job. As one interviewee put it, "It's the beat of another human being's heart against yours, thanking you for helping them on the worst day of their lives." —BL

When Missing Kids Could Be Found on Milk Cartons

Any kid who ever ate a bowl of cereal in the 1980s probably remembers staring at the back of the milk carton and being confronted with the haunting faces of “missing” children. To a child, it was slightly alarming—and it’s a tactic that has long confounded me, mostly because I wondered just how effective it really was. The answer, it turns out, is: not very. But the genesis of the concept and how milk cartons came to be the vessel of choice for spreading the word about missing children makes for a wonderful read. —JMW

The Mysterious Bronze Objects That Have Baffled Archaeologists for Centuries

Any story about a mysterious artifact that confounds experts instantly has my attention. This piece doesn't give a definitive explanation for dodecahedrons—the intricate, 12-sided objects that have been dug up across northern Europe—but it does offer some plausible theories that don't involve extraterrestrials. —Michele Debczak, Senior Staff Writer

How Lewis Keseberg Was Branded the Killer Cannibal of the Donner Party

Portrait of Donner Party member Lewis Keseberg
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Most people are probably familiar with the horrific tale of the Donner Party, but this part of the story—in which Lewis Keseberg was accused of not just cannibalism, but of murder—I was not familiar with. Michele Debczak does a great job telling a story that's fascinating and tragic in equal measure, and a must read for those who love history. —EM

The Most Influential Parasite in History

Erin McCarthy talked to a boatload of malaria experts and pieced together this great feature detailing just how acutely malaria has changed the course of world history—it’s changed human evolution, it’s changed America’s government, and it’s now helping drive scientific research in directions that are beyond our wildest imaginations. This thoroughly reported piece is enlightening. —LR

The Time Congress Banned the Braille Edition of Playboy

Sometimes I just want to open up Jake Rossen’s brain so I can see where he gets all of his ideas. He always finds the most unusual and unbelievable stories to tell! Usually, they sound like the set-up to a weird joke. Take this one: "Did you hear about the time a politician who crusaded against an edition for Playboy made for blind people?" It sounds too wacky to be true. But, alas, here it is. —LR

12 Reasons We Love True Crime, According to the Experts

A television with a person in a hazmat suit pulling yellow tape that reads "police line do not cross."
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.com/Customdesigner (TV), iStock.com/D-Keine (crime scene)

Who among us hasn’t paused our binge-watch of Making a Murderer to wonder whether the current deluge of true crime content is healthy? Erin McCarthy’s breakdown of the psychology behind our addiction to morbid subject matter is both reassuring and informative. There’s nothing wrong with getting lost in a criminal narrative. There’s even a case for an evolutionary benefit to hearing these disturbing tales. —JR

The 19th Century "Gang of Ghosts" That Terrorized Chicago's North Side

I love a good ghost story, and this one by Shaunacy Ferro—featuring a Chicago ghost gang, a man of the cloth, a lawsuit, and a hilariously angry New York newspaper that declared "Chicago is not old enough to have ghosts"—is a good one. —EM

The Bloody History of Fangoria

In many ways, I owe my career to Fangoria. The legendary horror movie magazine—which recently made a comeback—was a must-read for any serious horror movie fan back in the 1980s and 1990s. And while its covers made it clear that blood and guts were on the menu, its dedication to going behind the scenes of the movies they covered—to speak not just with the actors and directors, but the special effects and makeup teams and the many other artists who were essential in bringing these films to life—instilled in its readers a serious appreciation for the moviemaking process as a whole (which too few magazines do today). The magazine has gone through a few different iterations, and Jake Rossen took the time to speak with several of the people who were there and make it all happen. Also: Props to my brother for allowing me to dig into his full collection of mint-condition copies for a few photo ops. —JMW

14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Haunted House Actors

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, so it was fun to learn about what’s actually happening behind the scenes at a haunted house. I have newfound respect for these actors, who work extremely hard and wear themselves out scaring the crap out of their patrons (quite literally, as you’ll see in fact #8). —EP

The Most Dangerous Job: The Murder of America's First Bird Warden

Birds in the Everglades
iStock.com/NicolasMcComber

Not everyone knows this, but Lucas Reilly is an alchemist: You can give him a one-page scan of a book, or an old newspaper article, and he'll turn it into gold. This beautifully written story is ostensibly about a murder of a man in the Everglades, but what you feel most deeply (at least I did) is the murder of all the birds the man was sent to protect. All of Lucas's stories have these layers, which are always revealed at just the right moment. This one is also a sadly timely story given the rollback in protections for migratory birds, not to mention other species, and a reminder that humans are the most dangerous animal of all. —BL

Alone in the Dark: An Oral History of MTV's Fear

As a teen, there were few things I found scarier than MTV’s Fear—so I naturally loved this oral history about how the show came together (and, frankly, ended way before it should have). Some of the stories included in it are as scary as the show itself! —EM

Does a Realtor Have to Disclose That a House Is Supposedly Haunted?

If you asked me if I believe in ghosts, I’d probably say “no.” But, perhaps contradictorily, I somehow believe that houses can be haunted. And am pretty sure that I’ll be the person who one day buys one. Thanks to Michele Debczak, I now know which states must disclose if a house is “stigmatized” and have learned that a site called DiedInHouse.com exists, so am feeling much better about my chances of not moving into a Poltergeist situation. —JMW

Mary Frith, 17th-Century London's Smoking, Thieving, Foul-Mouthed "Roaring Girl"

It's easy to fall into the idea that women of the past were always obedient homemakers. Then comes along someone like Mary Frith, who in 1600s England was dressing in men's clothing, smoking, stealing, singing, having plays written about her, and generally doing whatever she pleased. I love how Meg Van Huygen resuscitates her story and tells it even with its complexity (some of her biography may be invented) and gaps. It's a reminder that history is messy, non-linear, and often so much more interesting than we've been taught. —BL

How the World's Only Feudal Lord Outclassed the Nazis to Save Her People

Dame Sibyl Hathaway
Housewife, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

I was lucky enough to visit Sark and interview Dame Sibyl’s great-grandson and current Seigneur, Michael Beaumont. I admit I’ve never interviewed a feudal lord before. He invited me into the Seigneurie, the feudal mansion, and we chatted in the same plush personal library that the Dame used. Afterward, the seigneur gave me a tour of the house and casually showed me the centuries-old, yellowing charters that granted Sark its fiefdom—all signed by long-dead monarchs! It was surreal to explore the building where Dame Sibyl confronted the Nazis. —LR

The Story Behind Keith Richards's Most Famous Birthday Gift

I'm always looking for “flossy” music stories to run, and when a Rolling Stone gets to celebrate a birthday, wedding anniversary, and the anniversary of his most famous accessory all on the same day? I just couldn't resist. —Erika Berlin, Senior Editor

6 Explosive Fart Controversies

At Mental Floss, we sometimes write sweeping features about defeating Nazis. We sometimes write about fun facts and trivia, or useful how-tos that allow our readers to live smarter. And sometimes, we write about fart-based controversies. You can’t tell me this isn’t the best job in the world. —EM

Turn Your LEGO Bricks Into a Drone With the Flybrix Drone Kit

Flyxbrix/FatBrain
Flyxbrix/FatBrain

Now more than ever, it’s important to have a good hobby. Of course, a lot of people—maybe even you—have been obsessed with learning TikTok dances and baking sourdough bread for the last few months, but those hobbies can wear out their welcome pretty fast. So if you or someone you love is looking for something that’s a little more intellectually stimulating, you need to check out the Flybrix LEGO drone kit from Fat Brain Toys.

What is a Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit?

The Flybrix drone kit lets you build your own drones out of LEGO bricks and fly them around your house using your smartphone as a remote control (via Bluetooth). The kit itself comes with absolutely everything you need to start flying almost immediately, including a bag of 56-plus LEGO bricks, a LEGO figure pilot, eight quick-connect motors, eight propellers, a propeller wrench, a pre-programmed Flybrix flight board PCB, a USB data cord, a LiPo battery, and a USB LiPo battery charger. All you’ll have to do is download the Flybrix Configuration Software, the Bluetooth Flight Control App, and access online instructions and tutorials.

Experiment with your own designs.

The Flybrix LEGO drone kit is specifically designed to promote exploration and experimentation. All the components are tough and can totally withstand a few crash landings, so you can build and rebuild your own drones until you come up with the perfect design. Then you can do it all again. Try different motor arrangements, add your own LEGO bricks, experiment with different shapes—this kit is a wannabe engineer’s dream.

For the more advanced STEM learners out there, Flybrix lets you experiment with coding and block-based coding. It uses an arduino-based hackable circuit board, and the Flybrix app has advanced features that let you try your hand at software design.

Who is the Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit for?

Flybrix is a really fun way to introduce a number of core STEM concepts, which makes it ideal for kids—and technically, that’s who it was designed for. But because engineering and coding can get a little complicated, the recommended age for independent experimentation is 13 and up. However, kids younger than 13 can certainly work on Flybrix drones with the help of their parents. In fact, it actually makes a fantastic family hobby.

Ready to start building your own LEGO drones? Click here to order your Flybrix kit today for $198.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

17 Odd Things We've Sent to Space for Some Reason

There's a Starman waiting in the sky.
There's a Starman waiting in the sky.

Artifacts, personal and pop cultural totems, and even the dead have made the journey from our planet to the outer reaches of the heavens. We've covered some odd items that have gone to space before; here are 16 more unusual things that took a trip to the cosmos.

1. Human remains

Thanks to Celestis, a company that specializes in booking “memorial spaceflights,” and an agreement with private rocket company SpaceX, the remains of several people who have died have been launched into the great beyond (for a couple of hours, at least). Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's remains were on the inaugural Celestis flight in 1997; his remains took flight again in 2012 with the remains of actor James Doohan, who played Scotty. Astronaut Gordon Cooper’s ashes were also on that flight.

2. A toy dinosaur

In 2020, astronauts aboard SpaceX’s first crewed missions packed an unusual travel companion: a plush dinosaur. During the historic flight, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were accompanied by “Tremor,” a sparkly Apatosaurus. The crews’ sons chose the toy, which acted as a zero-g indicator.

3. Actual dinosaurs

In 1985, astronaut Loren Acton brought small bits of bone and eggshell from the duck-billed dinosaur Maiasaura peeblesorum along on a mission on SpaceLab 2. Thirteen years later, the skull of a meat-eating Coelophysis from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History was a passenger on a trip to the Mir space station.

4. A car

Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster, with Earth in background
Nothing clears the head like a long drive through the stars.

In 2018, Elon Musk took off roading to a whole new level. SpaceX launched a red Tesla Roadster into space as part of the Falcon Heavy rocket’s test flight. “Starman,” a mannequin clad in a spacesuit, sits in the car’s driver’s seat. You can track Starman’s cosmic journey here.

5. Salmonella

Lots of strange things have been brought to space in the name of science—including salmonella. Two shuttle flights to the International Space Station (ISS) contained samples of salmonella to determine how the bacteria would react to low gravity, and the findings were kind of scary. When the salmonella returned to Earth after being in orbit for 12 days on the space shuttle Atlantis, the bacteria became even more virulent. In the first study to examine the effect of space flight on the virulence of a pathogen, the bacteria that had taken a space trip was three times as likely to kill the lab mice as the salmonella that was kept on Earth in as close to similar conditions as possible.

6. Tardigrades

Tardigrades, a.k.a. water bears, became the first animals to survive exposure in outer space. The eight-legged creatures typically spend their days on a moist piece of moss or enjoy feasting on bacteria or plant life at the bottom of a lake, but they survived being frozen at -328°F or heated to more than 300 degrees on their trip to space. The water bears, which typically don’t grow more than 1 millimeter in length, were dehydrated and exposed in space for 10 days by a group of European researchers. Back on Earth and rehydrated, 68 percent of the tardigrades that were shielded from the radiation survived. A handful with no radiation protection not only came back to life, but later produced viable offspring. Excitedly, an “amateur tardigrade enthusiast” theorized the water bears must be extraterrestrial in origin if they can handle such conditions, but that claim has boringly been denied by the Swedish and German scientists, who made up for it by naming their experiment "Tardigrades in space," or TARDIS.

7. Sperm

Without gravity, samples of animal sperm don’t work the way they should. Putting bull sperm in orbit made the tiny cells move faster than usual. Meanwhile, in sea urchin sperm that flew on NASA missions, the process of phosphorylation screeched to a halt when the enzyme known as protein phosphatase didn’t do its job. In 1979, two female rats that went to space became pregnant but didn't carry the fetuses to term, and the males’ testes shrank along with their sperm count. Fortunately (or unfortunately), one creature has been able to reproduce far from our planet: the cockroach.

8. See-through fish (medaka)

Since the medaka’s organs are clearly visible because of its transparent skin, this species of fish was the obvious choice for scientists to test the effects of microgravity on marine life—and to help determine why astronauts suffer from a decrease in bone density while in orbit. Bones naturally break down and rebuild, and osteoclasts help break down bones while they're under construction, as it were. In space, the process gets wonky, which is why astronauts endure two-hour high-intensity exercise routines and take vitamin D supplements. With the medaka’s help, scientists discovered the time-consuming space exercise could be avoided, and by finding the mechanism in bone metabolism, it may lead to the development of an osteoporosis treatment.

9. Soft drinks

Special designed fizzy drinks cans taken aboard Space Shuttle Challenger in 1985
Even astronauts quenched their thirsts with a fizzy treat.
shankar s., Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 1984, Coca Cola decided it wanted to put the first carbonated beverage on a space shuttle. The company spent $250,000 developing a can that would work without gravity, keep the drink fizzy, and not spill all over the place—even changing some of their formula in the process. After NASA agreed, Pepsi responded by saying it felt left out. NASA then announced that any soft drink manufacturer could participate if they created a viable container. In 1985, four cans of Pepsi and four cans of Coke were on board the Challenger; the day shifters drank Coke, and the night owls consumed the Pepsi. Neither of the sodas were to their liking.

10. Pizza

Pizza Hut wasn’t satisfied with simply being the first company to advertise on a rocket in the year 2000, so one year later it paid the Russian space agency about $1 million to become the first company to deliver a pizza to someone in space. The pizza delivered to cosmonaut Yuri Usachov included a crispy crust, pizza sauce, cheese, and salami (because pepperoni grows moldy over a certain period of time). Extra salt and spices were also added to compensate for the deadening of taste buds from space travel, and it was delivered in a vacuum seal. Usachov gave the pizza a thumbs up.

11. A cheese wheel

A canister containing space cheese
Some truly out-of-this-world cheese.
Chris Thompson/SpaceX, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 2010, SpaceX placed a wheel of Le Brouere cheese on an uncrewed spaceship to honor the classic Monty Python’s Flying Circus cheese shop sketch. To add to the pop culture celebration, SpaceX sealed the cheese wheel in a metal cylinder bearing the image of the film poster from the 1984 Val Kilmer movie Top Secret!. It was claimed to the first cheese to travel to orbit on a commercial spacecraft.

12. A corned beef sandwich

Astronaut John Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich on board the Gemini 3 in 1965. The following exchange was recorded:

Gus Grissom: What is it?
Young: Corn beef sandwich
Grissom: Where did that come from?
Young: I brought it with me. Let’s see how it tastes. Smells, doesn’t it?

The entire incident lasted 30 seconds, with the sandwich only being consumed for 10 of those seconds, before being put back away inside Young’s flight suit.

While legend has it that Yuri Gagarin was accompanied by a homemade salami sandwich in 1961, the Russians had a specialized vacuum kit so they could clean up after eating to prevent any clogging of shuttle equipment. The Americans were just supposed to consume food from tubes, so Young was putting himself somewhat at risk for the five-hour mission. The astronaut got a stern talking to; he later landed on the Moon during the Apollo 16 mission.

13. Guns

Unlike astronauts, Soviet cosmonauts went into space locked and loaded, carrying a triple barrel TP-82 capable of 40 gauge shotgun rounds. The heavy duty weapon was deemed necessary after 1965, when cosmonauts landed on Earth and became stranded in the Ural Mountains. The isolated cosmonauts feared the local wolves and bears would attack them. In 2006, the TP-82s were replaced with a standard semi-automatic.

14. Buzz Lightyear

A Buzz Lightyear toy spent 467 days in space, orbiting the Earth on the ISS before having a ticker-tape parade in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom thrown in his honor. The toy’s namesake, Buzz Aldrin, was a special guest.

15. Amelia Earhart’s watch

Amelia Earhart was the first president of an international organization of licensed women pilots called The Ninety-Nines. One member of that group is astronaut Shannon Walker, who in October 2009 was presented with a watch, owned by current group director Joan Kerwin, that Earhart wore during her two trans-Atlantic flights to bring onboard the ISS. Earhart, of course, was the first female trans-Atlantic passenger in 1928, and flew from Newfoundland to Northern Ireland solo on May 20, 1932. She gave her watch to H. Gordon Selfridge Jr., who passed it along to Ninety-Nines charter member Fay Gillis Wells. Kerwin acquired the watch at an auction.

16. A treadmill named after Stephen Colbert

An astronaut using the COLBERT treadmill
European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers using the COLBERT.

Stephen Colbert, as he is wont to do, managed to crash an online contest. He garnered enough write-in votes and technically won the right to name a room at the space station after himself. Though NASA reserved their right to ignore write-in votes, the agency compromised by naming their second-ever model of treadmills after him, dubbing it the Combined Operational Load-Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT. The treadmill’s manufacturer nickel-plated the parts, and unlike a standard treadmill, there are elastic straps that fit around a runner’s shoulders and waist to keep them from careening across the space station. The announcement was made by astronaut Sunita Williams on an episode of The Colbert Report; Williams ran a marathon on the previous treadmill while living at the space station in 2007, jogging in place with the concurrent Boston Marathon.

17. An issue of Playboy Magazine

Some members of the backup crew of Apollo 12 included some Playboy spreads on the crew’s checklists, which were attached to Pete Conrad and Alan L. Bean’s wrists as they explored the lunar landscape. Astronaut Richard Gordon, who stayed in orbit around the Moon during the mission, also found a topless DeDe Lind calendar hidden in a locker, which was labeled “Map of a Heavenly Body.”