On May 14, 2010, when the Space Shuttle Atlantis left for the International Space Station (ISS) on its 32nd and final flight, it carried some typical items on board: the Russian mini-research module (which provided a new docking port and storage space for the ISS), and a cargo carrier filled with spare parts for the space station, which will be used as needed after the shuttle stops flying.
But a number of smaller articles made the 11-day journey as well, one of which was the National Air and Space Museum's replica of John Mather's 2006 Nobel Prize for Physics. (Dr. Mather, of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, was awarded the prize jointly with George F. Smoot of the University of California at Berkeley "for their discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation.")
Today, the crew of STS-132 and Dr. Mather returned the Nobel Prize replica to the Museum. In early 2010, STS-132 Mission Specialist Piers Sellers contacted Dr. Mather at NASA Goddard asking to fly a copy of his Nobel Prize aboard Atlantis. Unfortunately, NASA's replica had been embedded in a four-foot-long plastic plant stand. Sellers took one look and joked, "Maybe we could put it on the Space Station as a hood ornament or something." And that's when he decided to contact Margaret Weitekamp, a curator in the Museum's Space History Division, who sent Sellers "a slightly more portable version."
Even though the request came during the height of the winter snow storms that shut down Washington, D.C. for a week, Weitekamp and other Museum staff were able to hand-deliver the replica to NASA Headquarters within 24 hours of the request.
NASA then sent the medal by Federal Express to the Johnson Spaceflight Center in Houston, Texas. Weitekamp recalled that after Sellers opened the package, he emailed the Museum: "Hello everyone. I have received the Nobel Prize. (I have always wanted to say that.)"