NASA Sent A Lightsaber Into Space
The first lightsaber prop from the original Star Wars movie was an actual gun. A flash gun. Which is to say, it was the attachment to a 1940s reporter-style camera, an attachment called a 3-cell flash gun, which sported a giant flash bulb for taking photos. The film's set designer, Roger Christian, found it in a London photography shop and bought it because this shoestring production was grabbing all kinds of random stuff to use as props.
By the time Return of the Jedi rolled around a few years later, they had triple the budget and a bunch of different lightsabers floating around. One prop, used as Luke's lightsaber in the film, would go on to retire in the cold storage of George Lucas' vault. But it would pop out for a little while in 2007, when NASA took it up into orbit as part of its STS-120 mission to the space station.
The shuttle Discovery carried a handful of nonessential symbolic items. It transported the signatures of 500,000 students (digitized onto a single disk, so they didn't take up too much volume at all). One astronaut brought sheet music to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. And then they brought this lightsaber prop, a tribute to science fiction inspiring reality.
They held a ceremony in which Lucasfilm handed the lightsaber over to NASA via a troop of costumed Stormtroopers as well as friendly droids, in defiance of all known canon. Because really, astronauts are a bunch of nerds who like playing with toys. The lightsaber reportedly wasn't even the first Star Wars–themed bit of merch to reach space, since previous astronauts had smuggled action figures aboard missions.
It was a lot of fun for everyone involved. Though, the whole thing might have been more about promoting Star Wars for the 30th anniversary than it really was about some symbolic statement on NASA's part. The Star Wars movies weren't exactly tributes to the wonders of space exploration, or of science in general. If anything, they were about rejecting science in favor of spiritualism. The lightsaber didn't offer the promise of future innovation but harkened back to bygone age—both in the story and in real life, since it made swordfights cool again. And it's a weapon, rather than (say) some part of a spaceship ... but then, it's hard to separate the space program from defense. Even the program for collecting those kids' signatures had been sponsored by Lockheed Martin.
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Top image: NASA