Space, the Final Smuggling Frontier

In a glimpse of a gloriously rule-breaking future, contraband has boldly gone where more is sure to follow.


On Christmas day, we learned that the ashes of James Doohan, the actor who played Scotty in the original Star Trek series and several movies, were surreptitiously brought to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2008. For fans of the classic science fiction franchise, it was a fitting extraterrestrial resting place for the man who played a beloved character. For those with dreams of a free life beyond Earth's gravity, though, it was also a hint that the roguish spirit of Han Solo and Malcolm Reynolds has already taken root in humanity's ventures into space.

"Now it can be revealed that in death the actor who played the starship's chief engineer has travelled nearly 1.7 billion miles through space, orbiting Earth more than 70,000 times, after his ashes were hidden secretly on the International Space Station," the Times of London reported on December 25. "'It was completely clandestine,' said Richard Garriott, a video game entrepreneur who smuggled James Doohan's ashes on to the ISS in 2008 during a 12-day mission as a private astronaut."

Garriott, who stashed a laminated card containing some of Doohan's ashes in the ISS's Columbus module at the request of the actor's son, Chris, makes another appearance in space smuggling lore. The video game entrepreneur, who paid a reported $30 million to fly in a Soyuz capsule to the ISS, passed along gossip he'd picked up about cosmonauts transporting unapproved items into space.

"One of the historically common methods of taking a few extra personal items on board was on Soyuz, when you would be driving out to the launch pad where—starting with Gagarin—he stopped to unzip his space suit to urinate on the back tire of the bus," Garriott told Chris Carberry, author of the 2019 book, Alcohol in Space: Past, Present and Future. "As it turns out, it was also an opportunity to push something inside your spacesuit at the last minute."

We're talking about Russian cosmonauts here but, surprisingly, the illicit orbital beverage of choice wasn't vodka. "Cognac became the preferred drink for cosmonauts," noted Carberry in his book. "And they devised clever and elaborate methods for smuggling this contraband on board space missions."

Not only did the cosmonauts shove flasks of cognac into their space suits, but they also hollowed out books and hid bottles inside. Since weight is strictly regulated on space flights, some enterprising types starved themselves in the final week before launch to offset the mass of the contraband. They apparently offset a lot of mass.

"The occurrences of alcohol smuggling were so frequent that subsequent crews would often find bottles hidden in space suits, behind panels, and in other locations," Carberry observes of the various Soviet/Russian space station missions.

The U.S. space program has also enjoyed incidents of illicit transport into space dating back to the earliest days of manned missions. In orbit in 1962, Wally Schirra discovered an unapproved gift in his capsule, courtesy of fellow astronaut Gordon Cooper. "A trimmed-down Tareyton pack held four cigarettes, but that was not the only bit of contraband to go into the little hiding place, because there was also a miniature bottle of scotch whiskey," according to Colin Burgess's 2016 book, Sigma 7: The Six Mercury Orbits of Walter M. Schirra, Jr.

Unsurprisingly, given the unappealing quality of most space rations, food features in the history of extraterrestrial contraband. Don Arabian, head of the test division at the Manned Spacecraft Center, reportedly "lost the will to live" after spending three days eating the food given to Apollo astronauts. A proposal to let space travelers drink sherry in orbit as a morale-booster was, unfortunately, shut down for public relations reasons. But astronauts had already dabbled with their own solutions to unpalatable fare. According to the National Air and Space Museum:

The (sanctioned) Gemini meal packages included a freeze-dried entree, vegetable, drink and dessert, protected with a 4-ply, laminated film coating. [Astronaut John] Young, it seemed, wasn't interested in the freeze-dried option, so he brought something else on board. As he admitted to Life, 'I hid a sandwich in my spacesuit.'

According to Young, his contraband corned-beef sandwich was thanks to astronaut Wally Schirra, who had it prepared at a restaurant in Cocoa Beach before Gemini 3 launched.

The smuggled sandwich caper actually caused a congressional fuss, prompting (probably empty) assurances from NASA that it would never occur again. A replica of the forbidden meal is preserved at the Grissom Memorial Museum in Mitchell, Indiana (Gus Grissom accompanied Young on the mission).

Admittedly, none of these incidents rise, so far, to the rule-breaking standards set by fictional smugglers in the likes of Star Wars and Firefly. We have yet to see the equivalent of the hidden compartments installed by Han Solo and Chewbacca in the Millennium Falcon, or by Malcolm Reynolds and Zoe Washburne in the Serenity. And professional smuggling remains a matter for fiction, though there must be terrestrial practitioners contemplating out-of-this-world opportunities. But we're in early days for space travel and smuggling efforts will have to grow along with the ventures across a new frontier.

What we are seeing in abundance is the human eagerness to defy rules in order to have access to forbidden goods. Manned space missions might remain limited in number, government-dominated, and heavily regulated, but people have already found the will and the means to smuggle contraband past the authorities. Can you imagine what space travel will look like when competing private companies regularly carry thousands of passengers who want what they want no matter the whims of the powers that be?

So, hoist a drink—legal or otherwise—to Richard Garriott, rule-breaking space traveler. He not only found an appropriate resting place for an actor who portrayed a popular science fiction character, he also boldly went where extraterrestrial smugglers have already gone, and those of the future are sure to follow.