Monday, August 30, 2010

Space Animals Timeline


During my research this month, from both books and the NASA archives, I compiled an exhaustive list of all mentions of animals on space missions. I turned up more than anticipated, and far more than bargained for in terms of note-taking. Wow.

Of course, we are all most familiar with missions upon which humans were sent, but technically, these are also simply "biological packages" on board, and the goals are the same: keep the biological entity alive, and see how it reacts. Quite literally THOUSANDS of living creatures have been launched into space, and only a scant few hundred of those were human.

Life Sciences Studies
Some of the most interesting, and oddly, the least popularly known, were the three Biosatellites, carrying fruit flies, parasitic wasps, flour beetles and frog eggs, along with bacteria, amoebae, plants and fungi. Talk about upstaged by Apollo, but no one begrudges that! Their stories are quite interesting however, and I encourage everyone to go learn about:
The Orbiting Frog Otolith of 1970 and NASA Ames' Genesat of 2006 are also considered "biosatellites" –- though they were part of different programs. Each assessed the effects of space flight on living organisms, and all but BioSat 1 were successfully recovered at the end of their missions.

While I found many records of international collaboration, they were scattered and I could really only attempt a comprehensive view at the American space program's animals –- or at least the closest estimation. I haven't got access to a lot of the material from other countries, and/or they do not post informational history on their public servers.

But click and take a looksee... this list will blow your mind... =)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Space Animals Trivia


If you've been reading along this month, you should know most of the missions to which these facts refer!

In September 1968, the Soviet Union launched two horsfield tortoises, wine flies and meal worms in the Zond 5 space craft, which completed a circumlunar voyage (i.e. traveled around the Moon) and came safely back to Earth – making these the first living things to survive "deep space".

Russian Tortoise
Only the Apollo 13 crew flew further

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Russians launched missions that included passenger slots for at least 57 dogs. The number of animals that actually reached space is smaller, as several dogs went more than once. No monkeys or apes ever traveled into space more than once.

Russian spacedog Strelka's puppy, Pushinka, was presented to John and Jacqueline Kennedy as a gift in 1961. White house staff had her X-rayed to check for any devices before turning her over to the children to play with. Many of her descendants are alive today.

Widely newsworthy Enos the Chimp tested the Mercury craft for safety and stability in an orbit around the Earth, then John Glenn flew his orbit around the Earth. Glenn was invited to meet President Kennedy after his historic flight. Also present was an obviously unimpressed Caroline Kennedy, then aged 5, who looked up at John Glenn and demanded, "Where's the monkey?"

John Glenn never saw it coming
"Dad, tell the nice space man I'd rather meet the monkey."
(Well, technically, little miss... it was an ape.)

A biological payload record was set on April 17, 1998, when over two thousand creatures joined the seven-member crew of the Shuttle Columbia (STS-90) for a sixteen-day mission of intensive neurological testing (NEUROLAB).

On July 12, 2006, Bigelow Aerospace launched their Genesis I inflatable space module, containing experiments to be observed on camera. Mexican jumping beans (i.e. - seeds containing live moth larvae) and hissing cockroaches were aboard, making it the first private flight to launch animals into space. On June 28, 2007, Bigelow launched Genesis II, which also carried roaches, as well as harvester ants and scorpions.

Trivia Q of the day:
Anyone catch the Beagle tie-in to Archer (Scott Bakula) in the newest Star Trek flick? Go watch it again, pay particular attention to Engineer Scotty's lines when he is introduced ;)

Friday, August 27, 2010

All In The Family


In Russia, if had there been no space dogs, there would have been no orbiting Yuri. Meanwhile in America... no monkeys or apes? No Shepard or Glenn. It's that simple.

Many people are surprised to find that "space monkeys" preceded the official establishment of our space program by over a decade. In 1948, NASA didn’t exist yet, but launching macaques (Rhesus monkeys) past Earth's atmosphere with V2 rockets did. Cynomolgus and Squirrel Monkeys followed in the 1950s-60s. Each attempt measured vital signs of the monkeys in different positions, in order to examine biological effects of space travel, though few had happy endings.

Like the dogs, this is another one of those posts where I won't go too in-depth… there are entirely too many monkeys for a narrative, and there are already many pages out on the web that detail their stories. I'd be just another re-hashing spot. So, I'll stick with the Greatest Hits and simply pepper the post with links to further study for those who are interested in delving deeper.

Able and Miss Baker
Able and Miss Baker at 1959 Press Conference.
Click to see their LIFE MAGAZINE cover

1940s: In June 1949, American macaque Albert II became the first monkey to officially reach "space" when his rocket reached 134 km (83 miles) -- past the now-internationally recognized Kármán line of 100 km (62 miles).

1950s: In May 1959, the big stars in the news were Able and Miss Baker, the first two monkeys (rhesus and squirrel, respectively) to return safely to Earth, having actually survived space flight at an altitude of 579km (360 miles). In December of the same year, SAM the rhesus monkey was the next Mercury subject to capture headlines, though his flight only reached 53 miles.

Primates, unlike many other animals, can be trained to look as
if they are actually enjoying all this space-training nonsense!

Early 1960s: In January 1961, HAM the chimpanzee was the first ape in space, having been chosen as the best trainee among 40 potential astro-chimps. He was the first to be trained to operate levers inside the space craft, a crucial step that demonstrated the ability to perform tasks in weightlessness.

Just over 3 months later, Alan Shepard went into space, and he was none too happy about sharing the spotlight with an ape!

In November of that same year, Enos the chimpanzee because the first ape to orbit Earth, followed closely by John Glenn, who handled the situation a bit more deftly by poking fun at both himself and the primate who "beat him to the punch and probably flew the craft better."

Late 1960s: France launched two pig-tailed macaque named Martine and Pierette on Vestas rocket in March of 1967. The US launched the macaque, Bonny, in 1969.

1970s: No monkey business.

Space Chimp Lives
1980s: The first Soviet monkeys to fly were placed aboard Kosmos-1514 in 1983, nearly 22 years after they had already flown humans Throughout the 80s and 90s, Russia sent 12 Rhesus monkeys into space on various other BION missions -- two of whom, Zhakonya and Zabiyaka, hold the "monkey endurance" record at 14 days in space -- and NASA included two on STS-51-B inside SpaceLab 3.

See the NASA archives for details of all the monkey’s and chimp’s stories. Don't miss the single most interesting (IMHO) document scanned into the archives, describing the Results of the Project Mercury Ballistic and Orbital Chimpanzee Flights, including craft specifications, task consoles, restraint systems, bio-instrumentation, flight plans, flight results, and medical monitoring.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010



"Work with animals is a source of suffering to us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We shouldn't have done it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog." - Oleg Gazenko, Russian Scientist and Laika's Trainer

The National Space Centre of the United Kingdom (Leicester, England) recently put a Russian Canine Pressure suit on display, one of the very few that has survived the era between 1950 – 1960 when the Soviets put dozens of dogs into space.

Vostok Program Canine Pressure Suit

The only other suit on display belonged to Laika the dog, and can be seen in Moscow's Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.

I've written about Laika before, her 1957 journey in Sputnik 2 (nicknamed Muttnik), and her stone memorial; however, I'm oddly reluctant to get too deeply into the stories of the Russian space dogs, or the lesser-known pair of Chinese space dogs (Xiao Bao and Shan Shan), launched in 1966. First, because there are just too many, and second -– I have an inexplicably dreadful emotional reaction to studying their records. I don't seem to get these feelings when reading about other space animals.

Many folks might think it's because these animals are "pets" – but so are cats, and the stories about cats don't bring tears to my eyes. I've never owned a dog in my entire life. They require dedicated care that I don't have time to adequately offer, and I would not want such a trusting, exuberantly-loving type of animal to feel neglected. So perhaps that's the reason I find dog experimentation hard to stomach: my mental image of a dog's personality.

Belka Strelka
Belka and Strelka

I am in no way attempting to vilify Roskosmos, either. One of their greatest accomplishments was the first recovery of animals from orbit in 1960, the dogs Belka and Strelka, proving crafts could "de-orbit" and bring biological packages home alive to Earth. That was a monumental step forward, and no organization would have allowed a human to try before other living creatures succeeded.

During the Vokshod program later in 1966, the Russians also broke a duration record, putting the dogs Veterok and Ugolyok in orbit for 22 days. This was the longest space flight by any creatures, and would not be surpassed until three humans went aboard Skylab 2 in 1974.

Sergei Korolev (founder of the Soviet space program) loved dogs and preferred his scientists work with them instead of primates, who he thought too excitable and prone to illness. Only females were trained, both for reasons of temperament and because the waste disposal systems were designed to fit female canine bodies.

Sergey Korolev
NASA Archives: Sergei Korolev with
an RD-1 rocket survivor (1954)

All space dogs trained by the Russian program are listed in order on the Wiki, complete with their names and flights. There are tons more resources if you Google around a bit, but this is a nice overview to get a quick impression of scale. The contribution of canines was enormous, and could not possibly be over-stated. To go in depth and truly appreciate what dogs taught us about how living creatures react to space, and really for any student of space exploration history, I recommend Space Dogs: Pioneers of Space Travel by Chris Dubbs.

Theirs is a riveting tale, but please know beforehand that along with some very heart-warming and heroic stories, some of these amazing animals suffered horrific accidents, and I had to put the book aside more than once. But, one cannot truly understand how man reached into space without understanding that we put our alleged "best friends" to the test first.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

NASA Consultants' Advice For Chile


Trapped Chile Miners: NASA asked to Help With Psychological Trauma

You would practically have to be living in an underground mine yourself if you haven't heard the news these past few days about the 33 trapped miners in Copiapó, Chile. While relieved tears and cheers met the news that they were alive 17 days after a structural collapse, Reuters reports that experts are estimating it will take 4 months to create a tunnel wide enough to lift the men safely out of the San Jose gold and copper mine.

I don't usually report "news", because there are plenty of outlets for that, but this particular story piqued my interest because it made me think of my own studies, and that of the Mars500. Of course, the Marsonauts and people like myself chose to be part of simulations where psychologists are watching closely for how humans behave in extreme or isolated environments.

A much higher danger factor accompanies mines as opposed to closed-facility quarantine, but I can still relate to what these humans face while they await rescue. At any given time, numerous space agencies (and historically, militaries) have dozens of such experiments underway.

Copiapó, Chile
Luckily, delivering food, oxygen, lights and other supplies to the men through boreholes can be readily accomplished, but they remain in constant danger of further collapses, and the potential effects of involuntary isolation has led Chilean officials to invite doctors and psychiatric professionals to lend their expertise.

The rules of confinement for four months to preserve mental health?
No radio silence, no bland food and above all, absolutely no competitive games.

The Chicago Press Release Service and Canada's Globe and Mail described how their situation is rare and difficult to assess, even to the eminent experts on survival under extreme conditions -- many of whom base their opinions on International Space Station studies and Arctic or Antarctic polar camps, both isolated work environments that require intensive training and superior endurance.

"One kind of mixed advantage is that there are so many of them. Most isolated environments have a lot fewer people than that," said psychologist Peter Suedfeld, a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, who consults for the Canadian Space Agency and NASA.

Peter Suedfeld worked on such projects as NASA's Sex, Space and Environmental Adaptation, the Antarctic Division's Why Files (Psychos in Space), and serves as the CSA's Space Traveler's Psychologist.

"In isolation and confinement, even when you're very, very busy, one day blends into the next," said Jack Stuster, a California psychologist with a California-based research company that contracts with NASA and the U.S. military to study human performance in extreme environments. "It's nice to have important events to serve as milestones," he said, adding: "The real thing is that they have nothing to do. That is a problem."

As part of NASA's Risk Symposium (p15), Jack W. Stuster has studied winter-overs in Antarctica, island isolation anthropology, and studies of conditions on Earth that are analogous to space missions.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Packing For Mars


Mary Roach, whose wry wit was for years my favorite part of Reader's Digest columns (I've had her critique of automated customer service lines pinned to my refrigerator for years), has released her newest book: PACKING FOR MARS: The Curious Science of Life In The Void.

Irreverent, accessible, detailed, and sometimes slightly scandalous (she grilled both Russians and American 'nauts about their erotic habits in space, and at a recent SETIcon appearance, asked the once famously space-sick Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart to sign a barf bag), she presents the astronaut for what he or she, on average, truly is: a grossly underpaid civil servant who trains for 6 years to spend 8 days in space.

Packing For Mars by Mary Roach
Excerpt from her Introduction:
     "...To the rocket scientist, you are a problem. You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever deal with. Your fluctuating metabolism, your puny memory, your frame that comes in a million different configurations. You are unpredictable. You take weeks to fix. The engineer must worry about the water, oxygen and food you'll need in space, about how much fuel it will take to launch your shrimp cocktail. A solar cell or thruster nozzle is stable and undemanding. It does not panic or fall in love with the mission commander. Its structural elements don't break down without gravity, and it works just fine without sleep."
     "...To me, you are the best thing. The human being is the machine that makes the whole endeavor so endlessly intriguing. To take an organism whose every feature has evolved to keep it alive in a world with oxygen, gravity and water, to suspend that organism in the wasteland of space, is a preposterous but captivating undertaking."

Most of the book plays upon this theme, driving home how unsuited humans are for space travel, but I loved this book because she writes the same way I've always tried to blog: concentrating not on the over-celebrated myths, but upon the everyday human stories on how and why we put living creatures in space.

Roach's behind-the-scenes scrutiny took her through America, Russia, and Japan, comparing cultures and training programs, studies and simulations (including the studies at the Flight Analog Research Unit where I've worked!), solidly proving her non-squeamishness at crash tests and in Vomit Comit parabolas.

You get the idea she thinks astronauts are insane –- right alongside the idea that she wishes she was one. And she definitely has a penchant for getting retired astronauts to tell stories you will never hear on the Discovery Channel.

Here are just a few of her juicy chapter titles:
  • Life In A Box: The Perilous Psychology of Isolation & Confinement
  • Houston, We Have a Fungus
  • Next Gas: 200,000 Miles
  • Throwing Up and Down: The Astronaut's Secret Misery
  • You Go First: The Alarming Prospect of Life Without Gravity

Mars Humor
Yeah, the whole book is kinda like that...

Fifty years ago, test pilots brimming with bravado were the "right stuff" – but in the modern era, hot-shot types are very much the "wrong stuff." At a time when 13 people can occupy an orbiting set of tin cans, when empathy, adaptability, flexibility and being gender-sensitive and multi-lingual are far more valuable to space work, why do we still hunger after the illusion of "guts and swagger" ?

So, does the suicide contingency actually exist? Is it really the Russians who bring booze and porn to space stations... or is that just what the Americans like you to think? How hazardous are cultural clashes 250 miles up? Why are we so terrified of couples and/or sex in space? NASA considers its selection process elite, but might they be better off emulating the Japanese use of isolation chambers and origami tests to discern patience and accuracy under pressure?

She regrettably but typically offers abundant male opinions while minimizing the female experience inside space agencies, and makes perhaps the biggest critical overstatement ever seen in print (p144): "Dead people make NASA uncomfortable." However, I still recommend this great book because she credits all workers as being pieces of the larger puzzle and doesn't just throw a parade for those inside the space suits.

Everyone who supports space exploration is a gear or cog in the greater machine that will result in eventual off-world journeys. She strikes a fine balance between not over-shining the dubious "glamour" of being a space-traveler with promoting exploration in realistic terms:
"Yeah our money could be better spent on Earth. But would it? Since when has money saved by government redlining been spent on education and cancer research? It is always squandered. Let's squander some on Mars."

Yes, let's.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Wake-Up Call!


Wake-Up Call! And for once, I am not talking about Congress.

This is about a fun song contest being sponsored by NASA to choose the final wake-up music selections on the last two Shuttle flights. (Yesterday it was announced that STS-135 was approved and now only faces budget hurdles... so this may be for the last three shuttle flights. We'll know soon.)

Anyway, behind the music:
If you're one of those lucky people who has a true ear for music and passion for melodious creations, submit an original song by January 10, 2011 for screening by the NASA panel. Top entries will be posted on the website for public voting… so hey, even if you don’t win, lots of people will hear your work!

NASA song contest
The top two songs will be played during the STS-134 mission, scheduled to launch next February.

If, on the other hand, you're like me and once suffered through 10 years of piano lessons but still suck, fear not. NASA compiled a list of their "Top 40" wake-up songs from missions over the years, and you can vote for two to be played on STS-133, due to take off in just a few months.

Of course, I had to vote for the Star Trek theme song (which is almost winning)... and Metallica’s Enter Sandman (which definitely isn't).

If STS-135 makes it to the launch pad, I assume we will just contract the newest American Idol winner to swim alongside the ISS in an MMU and serenade the crew in multiple languages. I might even finally buy a TiVo for that.

For a wonderful backstory and full list of all flight music requested by astronauts back to the Gemini program, see NASA History Division's full Chronology of Wake-Up Calls.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

When the Cat's Away...


Despite being domesticated for nearly 10,000 years, felines aren't known for being particularly agreeable, trainable, amenable... or really anything other than liable to treat you like kitchen staff.

Cats are pretty much known for just being... cats. Yeah, they purr, but try getting one to fetch the newspaper or even pretend they like you when you aren't scratching their ears or holding a can opener.

In the 1940s-50s, the USSR and USA both considered cats, but neither nation launched any into weightlessness. They either had no analog value, or perhaps made for poor "space-imens". The photo of cats below is from the NASA archives, and I am not sure what's up with the breadboxes, but it was probably to prevent this from happening. (Do not click if you are a serious cat-lover; this is probably the most appalling micro-gravity video ever made.)

France flew the first 3 rats in space, Hector in 1961 and presumably two of his progeny in 1962. The following year, the French Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches en Médecine Aérospatiale (CERMA) actually started out with 10 stray cats, with a tom named Félix being chosen as the first astro-kitty following "training" (whatever that entailed. Would you want to deal with a cat in a centrifuge?!).

In some legends that rather dance to the beat of conspiracy theory, Félix escaped the confines of the craft or was decommissioned for some unknown reason, and replaced by a female feline dubbed Félicette.

On October 18, 1963, one of these cats blasted off in a capsule atop a Véronique AGI sounding rocket, from the Hammaguir test range in the Sahara desert of Algeria. He or she traveled 130 miles into space for 15 minutes, and throughout the trip, cranial electrodes transmitted neurological data back to Earth.

French Space Cats Felix and Felicette
A second test was conducted on October 24, but the flight cat is unknown. It's possible the first flight held Félix and the second actually held Félicette, but the French are oddly mum about the whole thing. Popular belief holds that the first cat was recovered safely, but the second cat died before the rescue team could find its parachuted pod.

In a particular press photo, one can see a tabby cat with implanted headgear; years later, a few French colonies (Comoro Islands, Niger and Chad) created postage stamps with pictures of a black and white cat. Note that on one of these, the crew of Apollo 11 appears alongside Laika the Russian Dog and one of the French cats! Most people agree that the tabby was Félix and the BxW was Félicette.

A particularly charming addition to the Cats In Space phenomena were the scientists afterward distributing "autographed" animal pictures, featuring loving missives from the kitties, along with paw prints. The later would same be done with hand-prints from space-faring chimpanzees.

NASA Kitty
Bonus: A terribly amusing history of the LOLcat Design... check it out!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

First Rock From The Sun


We interrupt the Animal Planet episodes to bring you breaking news: The U.S. Postal Service announced that two new stamps will commemorate both Project Mercury and the current mission to planet Mercury.

March 2011 is when NASA scheduled MESSENGER to reach Mercury. They launched the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry & Ranging craft in 2004. It is the first probe to visit Mercury since Mariner 10 in 1975, and the first intended to achieve actual orbit, in order to study the magnetic field, poles, chemical composition, geology, and exosphere of the planet closest to the Sun.

May 2011 will be the 50th anniversary of Alan B. Shepard, Jr.'s Freedom 7 mission aboard the Mercury-Redstone 3, whereby he became the second person, and the first American, to travel into space.

NASA Messenger Probe to Mercury
Titled First Spacecraft to Orbit Mercury and Alan Shepard: First American in Space, the stamps will be designed by former Air & Space magazine art director Phil Jordan and sci-fi artist Donato Giancola, then sold as a "se-tenant" (i.e. - an attached pair). These and 67 other stamps are planned for 2011.

In addition to flying the 1961 sub-orbital mission, Alan Shepard was also the fifth man to walk on the Moon, and will be the first American astronaut to be honored on a U.S. stamp. (Selection criteria requires an individual be deceased 5 years, and events of historical significance are limited to milestones in multiples of 50 years. Shepard died of leukemia in July of 1998, and although not the first to pass away, his is the first manned mission to reach the half-century mark. )

Astronaut Alan Shepard
My votes :)

Previous stamps have depicted the Mercury capsule (designed and printed in complete secrecy, just in case the program failed!), the first American spacewalk, first lunar landing, and a shuttle – but without actually naming any astronauts.

The National Postal Museum's "Stamps Take Flight" exhibit highlights the history of flight-related stamps, ranging from the first airmail delivery 150 years ago to lunar postmarks – such as the Apollo 15 Mail Pouch, postmarked on the Moon's surface with both ink (deliberately) and regolith (a little less deliberately)!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Eye of Newt, Leg of Frog


While perhaps not as hardy as the highly adaptable killifish, some of the most interesting experiments in space have involved fresh water amphibians.

While periods of weightlessness are known to decrease bone, the amazing power of newts to regenerate lost limbs actually increases in micro-gravity! Isn't that fascinating? When a portion of a leg or tail is lost, they replace the structural cells far more quickly than they normally would on Earth. What would make one system increase productivity and another decrease?

Other absorbing studies have revolved around gravitoreceptors of frogs' vestibular apparatus. In English, that means we watched them get space sick along with the astronauts. Did you know you have otoliths in your inner ear that contribute to your body balance? Your friendly neighborhood frog's are nearly identical to yours, and studying his in space makes it easier for scientists to see how yours react.

Iberian Ribbed Newt

The Russians were the first to experiment with newts inside their Bion 7 Soviet Cosmos satellite in 1985. The Iberian ribbed newts, members of a Salamander sub-family, had portions of their limbs deliberately removed, to see if they retained regenerative powers; surprisingly, some developed their limbs again at nearly twice the speed!

Varied species were taken aboard the subsequent Bions 10 and 11, as well as the Mir Space Station, all in the 1990s; red-bellied news traveled on Space Shuttle Columbia in 1994, as well as ESA's Foton-M2 in 2005. They were also the first animals ever launched by Japan's space agency, inside the 1995 Space Flyer Unit.

That's an awful lot of under-appreciated orbiting newts! In each case, they were good "model organisms" for the study of microgravity, and have been tested in various stages of larval or adult development, for hormonal patterns and any abnormalities in reproductive activity. Happily, baby newts born in space adapt just fine to Earth gravity upon return.

Frogs in Space
In 1970, NASA conducted the OFO Experiment, or the "Orbiting Frog Otolith." Sounds like a punk rock band, doesn't it. (The name has even influenced a modern blog, Orbiting Frog, which is rather a fun science read.)

Two bullfrogs were launched into orbit so scientists could determine through neurophysiological tests how their otoliths reacted to weightlessness, lending clues to how vestibular organs function. Would they adapt? Once adapted, could they return to Earth and re-adapt to gravity?

The frogs were initially intended to be part of the early Apollo program, but later re-directed into a biology satellite that housed one of the more unique specimen containers. Good thing too. Given Shepard's antics with golf bolls, I cannot even imagine what Beavis-and-Buttheadian adventures we would have gotten up to with frogs on the moon.

These weren't the first frogs in space, just the most humorously named. Like most space firsts, the title goes to the Russians, for flying Japanese Tree frogs in Vostok 3A in 1961. Another acronym accompanied six tree hoppers: the "Frogs in Space" (FRIS) aboard Mir, carried there by the first Japanese astronaut in 1990.

In these experiments, frogs floated freely about the station, and specialists noticed they took up a "parachuting" posture when drifting. I browsed around trying to find some video of this, but only happened across one disturbing video of a frantic frog kicking like crazy. Didn't look too tranquil to me, I say we keep the amphibs in the water...!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Critter Wish List


Before I return to examining the myriad of living creatures that have already gone into space, this whole theme got me thinking about animals I would like to see go into space... if we had all the time and money and room:

Woodpeckers. Given modern metallurgy, these ought to be way less trouble than the ones on Noah's Ark. Can't imagine what a loose one might get up to on the ISS, but I say we throw a few up there to find out. Actually, I'd love to see any bird in space. Would it be able to perch, fly and sing properly after adaptation? We've observed egg development and hatchlings, but so far no weightless attempt at "flight."

Animals in Space

Penguins. Flightless, waddle-whap lump of flap-doodling lovely. That would just be fun to watch.

Meerkats. Okay, technically they are mongooses... which reminds me that we should also bring along...

Snakes. Could they adhere to surfaces or would they float right off them unless wrap-coiled?

Any Marsupials. We have yet to send any marsupial mammal into space, and there are some great light-weight ones to choose from.

Bats. Hmmm, echolocation, anyone? Would it be thrown off? One particular bat tried to hitchhike to the ISS, but that didn't turn out so well.

Octopi. Any animal with three hearts, well, that would be incredible to study in LEO. We wouldn't exactly have to worry about bone loss, since they have no bones. And maybe one of them can predict when we will finally make it to Mars.

Otters. Would they be able to do that death-by-cuteness somersaulty thing in micro-gravity?

Pigs. Self-explanatory.

Of course, most of these are just fantasy, particularly for any animals over a few pounds. We'll never know, for instance, how elephants or tigers will react to micro-gravity. By the time we invent the technology necessary for propulsion, or even a craft large enough, such species will very likely be extinct.

Crews don't normally have time or room for any animals who require a great deal of upkeep. Laws governing day care centers for Homo sapien young are nothing compared to the NASA standards for animal housing, as well as the regulations set forth by the Public Health Services Policy Act and the Animal Welfare Act.

Live payloads also provide a challenge for ground crews. We've all seen instances where launches have been scrubbed over and over again due to weather or other launch-window factors. Imagine having biological packages scheduled for a Shuttle mission where you had to care for, load, (launch scrubbed), unload... care for, load, (launch scrubbed), unload... care for, load, (launch scrubbed), unload... yikes.

If you were headed to the space station, which pet would you take?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Laura's Mission Patch


On display now at Johnson Space Center's Rocket Park are various creative works (moonscapes, rocket designs, space program emblems, etc.) from a southern Texan summer camp, sponsored by the University of Houston at Clear Lake Children's Art Program.

I'm always so pleased when JSC sponsors these sorts of attractions, inviting youngsters to learn about space exploration and space science. One particular young lady contacted me to share her mission patch with me, which I just love! She designed one of the few that listed her "Crew members" names around the edges… so realistic!

Laura at Johnson Space Center
Miss Laura at Johnson Space Center

I added 7-year-old Laura's photographs to my Johnson Space Center album in my Picasa galleries, definitely check out the great close-ups! I also interviewed Laura about her experiences:

Heather: What can you tell us about your experiences at camp this summer?
Laura: Our camp theme was "The Art of Space" and it was nice. We did a lot of fun space activities. One time we even painted a picture of the moon. I drew mine with the moon buggy.

The Art of Space
Heather: Tell us about the theme of your mission patch…
Laura: The patch shows the space station, a comet and the space shuttle. There is a big orange star in the background and some names of the people on the space shuttle go around the patch. The names are friends, pets, cousins and some people I met over summer vacation. I used a purple border because it is one of my favorite colors, and the 13 is the shuttle number.

Mission Patch
Heather: Are you an artist all the time, or was this just a summer camp assignment for you?
Laura: Art is one of my favorite hobbies that I do because I think it is a good way to express your feelings.

Wonderful! I hope you will continue to express yourself through your beautiful artistic creations, and thank you so much for being willing to share with my readers. Folks, if you are touristing around Houston this summer, be sure to go see these displays around the Saturn V rocket!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fish Story


Preparing to write about "fish in space" brings back a personal, early-childhood memory for me. SF newscasts sometimes covered the goings-on aboard Skylab, including a mention of the first mummichog minnows being cared for in the weightless environment by astronaut Owen Garriott, who I thought looked like a country singer.

I pictured a colorful aquarium aboard Skylab, but of course such a thing was impossible, so I was disappointed to hear about drab "bags" that enclosed the mummichogs. I asked my father: "How do the fish know the difference, if they're in water? Don't they float anyway?"

Johnson Space Center 1973
John Boyd at Johnson Space Center,
choosing two Astro-fish and 50 eggs for Skylab in 1973

My Dad is one of those people who doesn't modify his speech depending upon the age of the audience. As far back as I can recall, he always answered me as if I was an adult, and there were never any shortcuts or mythology in his responses.

He repeated my question, "Oh, can they feel anything particularly amiss, still being in water while being transported to micro-gravity?" Or something to that effect.

He explained that all creatures can feel the pressure of gravity, and would naturally be affected when there was suddenly no sense of "up" or "down." The same way humans re-orient themselves to any new environment, they would seek any familiar stimulus. In the case of the fish, I know now from NASA archives that they initially looped, then swam toward any source of light, thinking that is where they would find the "surface" (despite that water in space always tenses itself into a sphere).

I'm sure I understood precious little of it back in 1973 from a scientific or evolutionary point of view, but I understood they were seeking the sun, which was always the light "above" them. That made sense. We were all learning together back then, astronauts and little kids alike.

Space fish
The Amazing Mummichog
(Fundulus heteroclitus) – also known as killifish

Of course, we humans love to believe we are the most resilient animal who ever braved space, but we are slow to adapt in comparison to some of our fellow earthlings. Nearly four decades later, it might surprise many to know that the "hardiest" animals in space have proven to be these first diminutive aquanauts!

Cockroaches and Keith Richards have nothing on the tough mummichog minnow, which can cope with varying environments and even rapidly changing habitats that would easily kill other animals. While most fish are limited to particular ranges of salinity, mummichogs can survive in fresh water and all the way up to water with nearly half-a-pound of salt per pint. Yow!

Scientists have changed water temperatures, altered oxygen levels, diluted their blood chemistry, even polluted their tanks with toxic chemicals. Turns out these little guys are darned hard to confuse and even harder to kill, largely because they travel through fluctuating environments in the wild. Their systems always manufacture proteins that help them normalize within about 72 hours.

Fish in space
As an adult, I still wondered: are fish worth studying up there? What can marine animals teach us? Researching this concept with older eyes has been an amazing experience this week. I've read about 200 articles, and in terms of motion sickness, osteoporosis and inner-ear balance, here are some of the best Fish Stories:

The European agency conducted a "Space fish against osteoporosis" project (I love how they made it sound like the fish were in on it), whereby researchers cultivated fish embryos and studied the bone loss they experienced in weightlessness – about 1% per month, just like humans. Despite that one walks and one swims, they also noted "molecular and protein interactions" are identical in fish and humans, as are physiological bone-loading mechanisms regulated by gravity. Analysis of regeneration after they return to Earth is providing a model for developing therapies to increase bone density in osteoporosis patients.

A 3-litre tank holding 26 baby cichlids launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome aboard a Russian Foton-M3 craft. Scientists monitored the larval fish to examine the growth of their otoliths in microgravity, seeing if there were any fundamental changes in these small sensory organs that play a role in balance. Humans have similar otoliths, which are equally sensitive to gravity and acceleration; dysfunction in this delicate system can cause, balance disorders, vertigo or tinnitus.

Similar NASA studies on both fish and humans (I was part of one of those… and I can tell you that weightlessness, even in simulations, puts your inner ear and balance all out of whack!) led Richard Boyle, a biologist at the NASA Ames Research Center, to comment: "You can drop a fish's inner ear right into a human and it fits right in there."

German researchers launched a rocket from Sweden carrying 72 cichlids, who were filmed during weightlessness. Would some in swim in swift circles? That's what fish do when they experience motion sickness – and the mechanisms involved are similar in both fish and humans. My favorite quote from the scientists: "Goldfish are a bit fat and messy, while the cichlid fish is a well-trained, sporty fish with muscles. "

The Right Stuff.

Monday, August 9, 2010



"Taking animals into space requires great planning. What will mice need on a Space Shuttle mission? Space mice have wire mesh cages so their toes can grip a rougher surface. This way, they won't be floating all of the time. Wood chips can't be used for bedding. They wouldn't stay in place. Gravity-fed water bottles won't work, so pressurized water containers are needed instead. Food bars are provided for the animals. A special waste containment system is used to clean cages."
- Laura Lewis, Johnson Space Center Animal Care and Use Committee

On August 31, 1950, the United States launched a mouse into space aboard a Vergeltungswaffe 2, or a V-2 rocket. An Aerobee rocket carried two more mice, Mildred and Albert (one of the few recorded instances of the test mice being named) in 1952, to test the effects of acceleration, weightlessness and deceleration.

Many more lab genus Mus rodentia followed throughout the 1950s, some of which were video-recorded inside their pressurized capsules.

Test Mouse
The Soviet Union in the Vostok 3A flights of 1961 launched mice, as did China in 1964-65 in their T-7A launch vehicles. Apollo 17 carried five pocket mice to the moon in 1972 (although one died on the circumlunar trip), and Skylab 3 also carried pocket mice. During the 1990s and our current decade, many different species of mice have been flown on Shuttle missions and ISS expeditions -- too many to count in a blog post (especially since they were rarely given names!), so perhaps I'll put together a timeline elsewhere on the domain.

Mice, more so than any other animals, appear to adapt extraordinarily quickly to micro-gravity. Within only a few minutes, they orient themselves and float calmly in their living spaces, eating and sniffing and grooming themselves, just as they would in normal gravity.

In February 2010, Iran became the latest nation to launch mice (as well as worms and turtles aboard a Kavoshgar 3 rocket) into space and return them alive to Earth.

Nicole Stott on the ISS with the Mice Drawer System (MDS)

Given their size, how much can we actually learn from these tiny mammals ? You'd be surprised… I continually am!

Even just a short browsing scan of past NASA rodent research, and the scope of the current Mice Drawer System (MDS) of the Italian Space Agency, show incredible amounts of information yielded in terms of bone mass, tissue and molecular studies; skeletal, cardiovascular, and immune system comparisons; knowledge gained in spaceflight for particular changes in endocrine, cardiopulmonary and circadian systems, and applicable evidence for how to better cope with muscle atrophying conditions, such as those caused by immobility, cancer, diabetes and renal failure.

The "Mouse Hotel" alone will continue to have a huge medical impact, as noted in their goals for "Space Applications" and "Earth Applications."

We owe a great deal to these little rodents – for if they had not fared so well on the first flights in the 1950s, nothing larger would have followed them!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Animals In Space


China, France, Iran, Japan, Russia (previously the USSR), and the United States have all launched animals beyond Earth's atmosphere, initially to answer the crucial question: is it possible to survive in space?

In launch manifests, these are generally referred to as "biological packages." Most people know about and have seen photographs of the famous dogs and chimpanzees who have flown, but most people might be surprised at the entire list.

Up into the modern day, many animals have been part of craft payload, to study the effects of micro-gravity on their biological processes. Here are all the members of the Kingdom Animalia who have left Earth and traveled into space:

Space Animals

Tardigrades (Water Bears)
Meal Worms
Nematodes (Round Worms)
Silk Worms
Harvester Ants
Fruit flies
Wine flies
Sea Urchins
Brine Shrimp
Mummichogs (killifish)
Danios (zebra fish)
Oyster Toadfish
Swordtail Fish
Guinea Pigs
Cynomolgus Monkeys
Squirrel Monkeys
Macaques (Rhesus Monkeys)

Space Animals

Aside from the living creatures, many different kinds of ova have also been flown, in order to study developmental effects: frog eggs, stick insect eggs, chicken embryos, quail eggs, gypsy moth eggs and butterfly larvae.

Overall launch records show activity, but no biological packages thus far, from the space agencies of Australia, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Israel, New Zealand, North Korea, Norway, Pakistan, Romania, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Syria, Taiwan and the United Kingdom.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Animal House


Last week, while trying to think of a scientific blog "theme" to keep myself busy in August, I was creating a moving-slideshow of all my wildlife photography. Then I had one of those forehead-slap moments... how about animals? I love animals. I'll sit for hours watching a hole in the ground, camera ready, waiting for a tarantula or a prairie dog to appear. I've gotten hazardously close to free-roaming bears and alligators during these ventures, and even some arguably "tame" tigers.

Coincidentally, that same day, the Houston Chronicle featured an article about April Evans, who says she has recently chosen to leave NASA because of their involvement in animal testing. This former ISS engineer recently ground her career to an abrupt halt when she learned of the space agency's plan to irradiate squirrel monkeys as part of an experiment to assess health risks from deep space radiation. Imagine how strongly you'd have to feel (or how guilty, in her words) about any issue to walk away during a recession like this one?

NASA, of course, counters animal rights activists by highlighting their conservative internal policies, namely the NASA Principles for the Ethical Care and Use of Animals, and pointing out the reality that radiation exposure is the greatest hurdle we face in successfully performing long-duration flight, such as that required to reach Mars. Experiments with primates have always been considered critical to safeguarding the health and lives of astronauts. Similar to the goals in testing flight analogs such as myself, NASA hopes to understand how radiation affects primate physiology and psychology, in order to develop counter-measures.

The difference, of course, was that I could assess all the risks, sign a form agreeing to the tests, and make the choice to participate. Animals cannot. Thus, the comments following the article contained predictable debates. The extremists on one end engaged in a flame war with the extremists on the other, but most people (myself included) sit on the fence.

Discussions about this divisive issue tend to be a degenerative lose-lose affair; here's just a taste of the few "clean" comments:

"Wack Job. Maybe PETA will feed her family."

"A principled and courageous woman. There should be other ways to assess the health risks of radiation other than killing primates."

"Admire her conviction, but if she wasn't directly involved with the radiation tests, why would she quit NASA? No big company and no gov't agency is w/o some unsavory or controversial aspects."

"Let her tell her story as she likes. The fact is she was about to get laid off and this was her way of getting some attention."

"I'm amazed at this lady's principle and guts. Very few people would do what she's done and whether you agree with her or not you have to respect her."

"I applaud Ms. Evans standing up for her own beliefs. Yet I have to ask, what else would you do? Give up space travel? What mystical alternative testing regime makes these radiation experiments unnecessary?"

"Personally I'm divided. I would much rather an animal 'suffer' than a human but at the same time I'd rather no one suffer. I wish there was some middle ground."

I could have written that last comment. Many people simply don't form a strong opinion over the idea of animal testing. We'd prefer it didn't exist, but aren't torn enough to quit a job or wave a picket sign, understanding the history of animals in medicine, toxicology, space flight, and the greater biological food chain.

Initially, this wasn't how I planned to kick off my theme about animals in relation to the space program, but I wanted to acknowledge the ethical debate that I know exists over this subject. I don't presume to know the answer. For the rest of the month, I'll be honoring the animals that have increased our scientific knowledge and paved the way for human pioneering.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Call Sign: Rezac


I'm always excited when I convince someone to overcome natural camera-shyness, because frankly, I'd do a "NASA Employee Spotlight" once a week if I could get away with it. Most folks are too modest, and longtime NASAman Ed Rezac is no different, but he was kind enough to share stories and photos!

Starting in 1976, Ed supported Space Shuttle era Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) development at ILC Dover and astronaut hardware development at ILC Space Systems in Houston. Then up into the 1980s, he was a Payload Integration Engineer at JSC & KSC, supporting NASA Life Science Space Lab payload development.

Feel like a slacker yet? I was getting ready for my senior prom around the time he became a Space Station Utilization Engineer at Grumman Aerospace, and had just earned my first college degree when he moved to the Center for Space & Advanced Technology at NASA Headquarters to manage the subcontract in support of Microgravity and Life Sciences in the early 90s.

Hubble Space Telescope Mockup
Standing in the High Fidelity Mechanical Simulator (HFMS, a full size mock-up of the Hubble Space Telescope's aft shroud) in Building 29 at the Goddard Space Flight center in Greenbelt, Maryland

For the last decade, he's been at Lockheed Martin as an EVA Systems Engineer, working with engineers, scientists and NASA astronauts to plan, train for, and execute servicing missions to maintain the Hubble Space Telescope.

I could spend about 18 blog posts pestering him with questions about any number of tasks he performed at any of these jobs, but for the sake of him actually being able to escape my evil clutches and get back to work, I'll just share a few episodes in line with my blog themes of simulations and ground testing.

Hence, my favorite photo sets:

NASA - Ed Rezac
Ed again, with what he lovingly calls his "Ron Burgundy moustache."
Sweet Lincoln's mullet! (click to embiggen)

Above is a shot of Ed in 1980, as a suited tester. Definitely click to see the larger version, and see all the details of this EMU.

You were probably sitting in a theatre somewhere, watching Caddyshack. Then maybe you went home and played your Atari 2600 or the new Andy Gibb album. Yeah, Ed was conducting actual certification runs of the pre-flight testing of astronaut Bob Crippen's gloves that were flown on STS-1 in April 1981!

When I emailed Ed to ask if I could use these wonderful pictures on my blog, he replied:
"I suspect that what you may find more interesting than the activities of 30 years ago are the more recent hardware design, procedure development, and crew activities conducted in preparation for the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) Servicing Mission. I was the HST Project's EVA Lead for two of the tasks completed during the last Hubble servicing; changing out the three Rate Sensing Units (RSUs) that contain the gyros that keep the telescope steady during viewing operations, and repair of the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) science instrument."

"Both tasks required design, development and testing of hardware; development of both nominal and contingency procedures; and instruction, training and on-orbit choreography development for the astronaut crew and ground personnel. I worked with the astronaut instructors at JSC to train the astronauts using 1-G simulators, VR, the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, and put in many hours "on the loops" at Mission Control for pre-mission simulations as well as actual flight console support."

Mike Good, John Grunsfeld, Ed Rezac, Mike Massimino, Andrew Feustel
L to R: Mike Good, John Grunsfeld, Ed, Mike Massimino & Drew Feustel.
The STS-125 spacewalkers in front of the mock-up HST aft shroud following a training session in Houston, TX.

I was going to do a "write-up" on all that, but it actually works better in Ed's own words, and all the amazing photographs truly speak for themselves. Click on any to move to a page where you can see the whole photo sets, Hubble mockups, astronauts and all!

Thanks so much for giving folks a view into your world, Ed... we love having looks behind the scenes at the real people who keep the space program running!