The last ever space shuttle launch from the Kennedy Space Center is scheduled to take place today. An estimated 500,000-750,000 crowd will be flocking to the Space Coast, Florida, to watch Atlantis take-off. The shuttle will undertake a 12-day mission that will bring an end to a 30-year program. Atlantis will fly to the International Space Station with a year’s worth of supplies.
Four veteran astronauts will be aboard Atlantis for the grand finale, but it’s thanks to the many insects and animals flown into space from the 1940’s onwards that have made human space flight possible.
NASA explains the significance of testing space flights with insects and animals which have included mice, rats, ants and 15 flasks of fruit flies:
“Before humans actually went into space, one of the prevailing theories of the perils of space flight was that humans might not be able to survive long periods of weightlessness. For several years, there had been a serious debate among scientists about the effects of prolonged weightlessness. American and Russian scientists utilized animals – mainly monkeys, chimps and dogs – in order to test each country’s ability to launch a living organism into space and bring it back alive and unharmed.
Fruit flies and humans share many human disease genes, cellular processes, brain cell development, and behaviors. For example, fruit flies that are deprived of sleep have reduced ability to learn. Fruit flies also can sense the direction of gravity.
Fruit flies reproduce quickly, in about two weeks, so scientists can observe genetic changes in the offspring of several generations in a short amount of time.
A current “bees in space” project is trying to determine if bees will pollinate crops. Currently pollination can be done by hand but it is ineffective. A trip to Mars may be ambitious but it is being considered. With current technology such an expedition will be a five year round trip, so growing food on-board will be essential.
Apart from insects many wacky non-essential items have made it into space, including Buzz Lightyear and a Star Wars Lightsaber.
Bon Voyage Atlantis!
P.S. If man ever lands on Mars, there may be a need for pest control. Check out Daniel’s post on Extraterrestrial Pest Control.