Atomic Fireballs in
Mission Control

Atomic Fireballs are icons in the Mission Control Center and were provided by the Orbit Flight Dynamics Officers for each Space Shuttle mission.

Fireballs have the distinction of being an honorary “consumable” that from time to time was addressed during pre-shift Flight Director briefings.

Fireballs were so important to Mission Operations that a Shuttle crew, to remain nameless, actually arranged to have a new box of Fireballs delivered to the MCC when quantities would not support a full mission duration.

Indeed, the responsibility of providing Fireballs to the Flight Control team is one of the many traditions in Manned Spaceflight that will hopefully outlive the Space Shuttle Program.

Nello Ferrara, the son of Salvatore Ferrara, created the famous Atomic FireBall in 1954. At this time in his life he had the idea to develop a spicy candy.

When the product was presented to the candy industry, the capacity at Ferrara Pan was limited to 200 cases per day. Within three weeks of sending samples to Ferrara Pan brokers, orders were rolling in at a rate of over 50,000 cases per day, far beyond the capacity Ferrara Pan could handle at that time.

The Atomic Fireball was developed using the hot panned candy process. This process involves building candy pieces from single grains of sugar and tossing them into revolving pans while adding flavor, color and other candy ingredients. This process continues until the pieces become the desired size.

The Atomic Fireball gained worldwide recognition shortly after the product was introduced. The round, spicy, hard candy that was once a dream, had become a success. An estimated 15 million fireballs are consumed per week by people all over the world and the number continues to grow.

(from the Lead FDO Console Handbook)

Fireballs have been provided by the FDOs for many years and the reasons we do this have been difficult to determine.

The earliest known formal delivery of Fireballs to the control center was May 4th, 1989 for STS-30. The delivery was made by the Orbit 1 FDO. After STS-30, it was adopted that the “Deploy TRAJ” continue to be responsible for providing a box of Fireballs each mission.

You see, back in those days, upper-stage deploy missions were the bread and butter of Shuttle missions. Mir and the International Space Station were something from Tomorrowland. We figured that we would always have a deploy TRAJ for the foreseeable future. In the rare scenario where a deploy was not performed (and let’s be honest, we’re not talking GAS cans, micro sats, CROs, ODERACS, or other such wimpy deployables, we talking large, massive IUSs or PAMs here!), then the co-lead FDO would continue the tradition.

But why the delivery you ask? Well, it turns out that a young lady in repro, named Karen (last name unknown), began distributing Fireballs around the STS-26 timeframe. Karen had a rather bubbly and effervescent personality and had red to orange hair (perhaps from eating too many Fireballs). Karen would, on occasion, give out Fireballs along with the reproduction orders that she delivered to the MCC.

The Fireballs were a big hit with the Flight Controllers who also used them as “attaboys” for their backroom support. It was also clearly evident that Fireballs helped considerably in “situational awareness” during the long hours between midnight and 7 AM.

Additionally, the Orbit FDO group lead (“Doc”) also brought over to console from time to time the very same Fireballs. But the supply of Fireballs was only through the good graces of Doc and Karen, the repro lady.

Sometime prior to STS-30, it was decided by the Orbit FDOs that an entire box of Fireballs be delivered for the mission.

Another MCC tradition was born!

Since then, not one Shuttle mission has gone without a box of Fireballs somewhere near the FDO console and available at no cost to all who support Shuttle missions. Over the years, Fireballs have been seen on every console in the control center and in every MPSR.

Fireballs have been added to various cups of coffee (sometimes on purpose) as well as ridden the P-Tube system (and sometimes survived).

On STS-64, astronaut Susan Helms took a single fireball into space to honor the tradition and the MCC Trench.

Fireballs for all mankind!

In the alternate history and space-based Apple+ television series “For All Mankind”, property master Jaime Mengual and set decorator Dianna Freas made sure a similar jar was located at the Flight Dynamics console on the Mission Control set.

In the first episode of the second season, Margo Madison (played by Wrenn Schmidt) can be seen helping herself to an Atomic Fireball while walking through the control room her the way to a meeting.  “Margo” had started in the MCC as a Flight Dynamics Officer, before being promoted to Flight Director, and then JSC Center Director in Season 2.  So, she definitely would have had some “Fireball Affinity”.  

In the images below, my friend Michael Okuda provided some “behind the scenes” photos of the Fireball containers down in The Trench on the “For All Mankind” MCC set.

Thanks Mike!



  1. Matty Kumar

    This is really cool! I didn’t realize that fireballs were in the MCC! I love atomic fireballs!

  2. Joel and Karen

    We love For All Mankind! That’s so cool they put so much detail into it.


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