HOUSTON—The international aerospace community was shocked Monday when the experimental new Phoebus 3 Space Shuttle rocketed into space prematurely, manned only with two bumbling NASA janitorial workers as pilot and crew.

As of press time, it is believed that an error in the prelaunch foodstuffs loading procedure is to blame. The mishap is believed to have sprung from the word “lunch” being mistaken for the liftoff command “launch.”

“According to onboard video footage of the incident, it appears that what we scientists call a “zany mix-up” may have occurred,” said Dr. Heilegge Danzino, chairperson of NASA’s special investigative committee.

According to Danzino, the footage shows the two janitors—known only as Barney and Junior—loading and checking the ship’s mealtime nutrient packets. Upon loading the first nutrient parcel, Barney called out to Junior, “Breakfast,” and received in turn the reply, “Check.” After the second parcel was loaded, Barney said “Lunch,” at which point the ship’s rocket boosters ignited.

In the ensuing chaos of liftoff, it is difficult to determine exactly what is taking place. However, Barney can clearly be heard booming out to Junior, “I said lunch, not launch!,” leading NASA researchers to the “zany mix-up” conclusion.

Other officials assert the mishap may have been the result of what aeronautics experts term “wacky antics.”

A battery of emergency competency examinations is currently being taken by all NASA janitorial and maintenance staff members to prevent further errors of this type.

Officials stress that the bungling duo is not in danger at present.

“Normally, we’d just radio up re-entry instructions to the capsule and have the whole thing back on the ground in a few hours,” said Corbin Bursar, a NASA flight control worker.

“But due to the particularly bumbling nature of these two, we’ve only been able to open a one-way radio channel with them, as they haven’t been able to figure out how to turn their helmet radios on.”

“Unable to communicate with them directly,” continued Bursar, “we are nonetheless observing them closely. But so far, they’ve primarily been hitting each other with rolled-up hats.”

Despite the wacky twosome’s lack of trouble so far, many officials still predict disaster.

“The excessively bumbling status of the two workers means I cannot rule out the possibility of unabated, non-stop hijinks,” NASA Director of Communications Halversom Franks said. “There is a very real threat that they may get more and more lost, spinning wildly through the airless recesses of the cosmos, having nutty, goofy misadventures along the way.”

NASA did not rule out that these wacky adventures would include visitations to dozens of distant planets made up of foam and plasterboard landscapes reminiscent of the sets of live-action Saturday morning television programs of the late 1970s.

Added Franks: “If they meet and befriend some sort of puppetlike alien sidekick who speaks only in honking sounds, they’re done for.”

Though the two janitors’ pictures have yet to be released to the public, one of them is said to look strikingly similar to actor Bob Denver. The other bears a striking resemblance to actor Chuck McCann, known for his comedic roles in television and the big screen, such as the hit films Cannonball Run and Cannonball Run II.

“It seems obvious now that these two were unfit for capsule flight prep duty,” said NASA spokesperson Bill Reid. “They are inarguably nutty, and also, if I may say so, they are far-out. Given their current location in outer space, I do not believe it would be unfair to describe them as Far-Out Space Nuts.”

Flowers and memorial donations may be sent to NASA in the name of the janitors’ families.