A Piece of Sir Isaac Newton Went into Space — Sort of

Isaac Newton is responsible for all sorts of brilliant scientific achievements: discovering calculus, developing the three laws of motion, maintaining immaculately curled hair — the list goes on. But gravity is his biggest claim to eternal fame. In 2010 (368 years after his December 25, 1642 birth), astronauts paid an unlikely and touching tribute to the man that laid down the foundations that made space travel possible.

Field Trip to Space

"If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants," once said Isaac Newton. Surely he had to have known that one day he would become one of the giants. In May 2010, NASA astronaut Piers Sellers took a piece of the apple tree credited with helping Newton discover the laws of motion and delivered it to the International Space Station. During NASA's STS-132 shuttle mission, Sellers honored the pioneer who came up with the theory of gravity ... by leaving Earth's gravity. Talk about coming full-circle. Or should we say full-orbit?

While in the ISS, Sellers let a picture of Newton float free alongside the wood chip from the tree. "Sir Isaac absolutely loved it, I've got to tell you," Sellers joked to "We had him in the window and he got to watch his little wood chip float by and ponder the laws of gravitation and everything. I think it was a treat for him."

Wood You Believe It?

"I asked the Royal Society if I could fly something for them," Sellers said. "I thought they were going to give me something like a medal, or I don't know, a little telescope or something, but they sent me a piece of Isaac Newton's apple tree." Yes, literally: this shard of wood wasn't just a symbol of scientific myth. The apple story is true, and the piece of wood is the real deal. There is a notebook (that you can visit at the Royal Society) written by a contemporary and friend of Isaac Newton that details the legendary story of Newton watching an apple fall from a tree before developing his theory of gravity. Sure, the fruit probably didn't bonk him on the head, but you can give history a pass for spicing the story up a bit, right?

After the apple tumbled to the ground, Newton wondered if the same force that makes objects fall toward the Earth might also be responsible for keeping the moon in orbit around the planet. Spoiler alert: His hypothesis was correct. Fast forward a few hundred years, and he — er, a photo of him — got to experience it all firsthand. "I've taken this apple tree chip up here and a picture of Isaac Newton, and this'll give him something more to think about I think," Sellers said. "'cause it's floating around; it's not falling."

See Isaac Newton's Artifacts at the Royal Society

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. From 1703 to 1727, Isaac Newton was president of The Royal Society. 00:01

  2. A contemporary of Isaac Newton wrote stories about his life, including the famous tale of Newton watching the apple fall from the tree. 01:03

  3. A piece of wood from the tree that inspired Isaac Newton to theorize gravity went into space. 03:01

Written by Joanie Faletto July 17, 2015 / Updated: December 21, 2017