He missed a key word in the phone call he answered at Mission Control in Houston in the early hours of Thanksgiving 1991. Lead Flight Director Milt Heflin picked up the phone and was given a warning by his flight dynamics officer: Air Force trackers who monitor orbital traffic had determined an inactive satellite from Turkey could potentially collide with the space shuttle Atlantis in just 15 minutes; the crew on board were asleep and couldn't be warned—based on their current positioning, they were about to enter a communications blackout period. As Eric Berger writes for Ars Technica, Heflin had no options and was "livid." The Air Force generally gave 24 hours' notice in these cases, and if the satellite did indeed make contact, all lives could be lost. But there was that word Heflin missed, remember? Turkey.
It was not a potential disaster but a Thanksgiving prank dreamed up by a couple of Heflin's flight controllers "during an otherwise boring overnight shift, during a fairly routine shuttle mission to deploy several Air Force payloads," writes Berger. Heflin this month reflected on what happened next in a conversation with Berger. Knowing there was nothing he could do, he says he decided to use the bathroom. As he began to exit the room, one of the controllers urged him to look at the display that showed Atlantis' orbital track, saying the Turkish object has been included on it. "I don’t need to see the damn thing!" was his reply, and he left—without knowing that the "damn thing" was actually a turkey that had been coded to appear. They confessed upon his return—but then the joke spiraled beyond their control. (Read Berger's full story for what happened next.)