Geek Trivia: School of (moon) rock

Which university has a recognized alumni chapter on the moon?

In just a few short years, a child will be born into a world that no longer includes space shuttle flights, and NASA is hard at work making sure our descendants have plenty of collectible space shuttle kitsch to buy from future iterations of eBay. While Project Constellation is set to take over as NASA's manned spaceflight mainstay, the last few space shuttle missions will have the not-so-publicized side-mission of ferrying personal mementos and trinkets into orbit. After all, it's tradition.

There's something innately compelling about an object that has slipped the surly bonds of Earth and tasted orbital microgravity, which is why many shuttle missions have an Official Flight Kit (OFK)—a container of strictly non-essential items sent into space just for the sake of it. When the OFK returns, NASA gives or returns its contents to a lucky few who can say they own an object that's flown in the outer black. The OFK is part PR, part goodwill, and has only rarely found its way into the spotlight.

Even less well-known than the OFK is the Personal Preference Kit (PPK)—a small nylon bag of items packed at the discretion of each astronaut. Think of it as an orbital carry-on bag. The PPKs have a weight limit, offering each astronaut a pound or so of personal items such as photos, keepsakes, and even iPods.

The PPK dates back to the earliest days of manned U.S. spaceflight, and the various contents of several PPKs are the stuff of NASA legend. Whenever an astronaut sneaked a bit of illustrious contraband into orbit, the PPK was to blame.

One of the more famous—and famously ongoing—uses of the PPK is to further college rivalries. With astronauts being some of the most uber-educated people on the planet, collegiate memorabilia has made more than its fair share of orbital jaunts.

One particular Apollo crew took this adoration for an alma mater to extraterrestrial extremes, going so far as to establish a recognized university alumni chapter—complete with PPK-ferried paperwork—on the surface of the moon.

WHICH UNIVERSITY HAS A RECOGNIZED ALUMNI CHAPTER ON THE MOON?

Which university can boast a formally recognized alumni association chapter chartered on the surface of the moon?

If there was enough atmosphere to hear music on the moon, "Hail to the Victors" would be playing right now, as it's the University of Michigan's alumni association that has the world's only recognized lunar chapter. The crew of Apollo 15 chartered the chapter in question in 1971, and all of them had ties to the U of M.

Mission Commander David Scott spent a year at Michigan as an undergrad before transferring to West Point. Lunar Module Pilot James Irwin earned two master's degrees in engineering from Michigan in 1957, and Command Module Pilot Alfred Worden earned the same set of degrees in 1963.

Following their test drive of the first lunar rover, Scott and Irwin pulled a document from a Personal Preference Kit (PPK) that said the following:

"The Alumni Association of The University of Michigan. Charter Number One. This is to certify that The University of Michigan Club of The Moon is a duly constituted unit of the Alumni Association and entitled to all the rights and privileges under the Association's Constitution."

They then deposited this document on the lunar surface, where it presumably remains to this day. While, contrary to Michigan lore, the Apollo 15 crew did not plant a university flag on the moon, the future lunar alumni are free to correct this oversight.

The contents of Apollo 15's PPKs made headlines after the crew returned to Earth, though not for alumni-related reasons. The astronauts had also taken 400 U.S. stamps with them, hoping to create valuable items to sell to stamp collectors. In addition, they took a small commemorative statue called The Fallen Astronaut intended to commemorate those who died during spaceflight missions, with the understanding that the sculptor might sell replicas of the statue on Earth.

Once Congress found out that astronauts were using their PPKs for personal profit, it made a rather large show of banning all such practices in the future. So if you want an outer-space-certified souvenir these days, you'll need to make friends with an Official Flight Kit supervisor, send stuff into space yourself, or scour the existing Apollo-era collection of space trinkets. Such are the burdens of self-generated—and orbitally enhanced—Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the November 8 edition of Geek Trivia, "A CEO by any other name." TechRepublic member rob_cranfill disputed my geographic characterization of a Microsoft cofounder.

"In the initial question, you say, 'Bill Gates is undoubtedly the prime example of the college-dropout-turned-Silicon-Valley-titan.' And, of course, he is now a Silicon Valley titan, but that phrasing could be construed to imply he somehow built his power in [Silicon Valley], which, of course, is not the case. The proper phrase for Redmond is the Silicon Forest."

Ever since Pirates of Silicon Valley, Cap'n Bill has been a valley boy in my eyes. Still, I'll grant you the literal truth of the quibble.

This will be our last quibble for a while, dear readers, as this Trivia Geek is going on an extended leave. I've got some Classic Geek Trivia lined up for my absence, so enjoy the best reruns the Web has to offer. See you next year!

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.