By Donal Griffin @donalgriffin88
The Space Shuttle Columbia was commissioned by NASA on July 26th 1972 for a series of Earth orbit missions. A little under 10 years later in 1981, it lifted off from the Kennedy Space Centre on its maiden flight. Named after the historic poetic name for the United States of America, Columbia returned safely to Edwards Air Force Base two days later having orbited the earth 37 times. With 27 successful missions under its belt the Columbia would have gone on to become an integral part of the International Space Station had fate not intervened.
Young children often dream of becoming astronauts. How deflating it then must be to realise that there is a greater probability of travelling to space not as an astronaut but as an animal. The Columbia carried various species of monkeys and hundreds of other animals into earth’s orbit on many different occasions. However, on June 5th 1991, the space shuttle found itself with a truly bizarre animal payload. Among the seven astronauts on board the shuttle, molecular biologist and payload specialist Millie Hughes-Fulford was tasked with ensuring the cargo for the SLS-1 flight were kept alive and well for mission critical experiments.
What was this prized cargo? Thousands of tiny (and well-travelled) jellyfish. Encased in flasks and surrounded by seawater, these Aurelia aurita ephyrae had the privilege of being the first Cnidarians in space. Distributed widely around the globe, these common jellyfish are known more generally as ‘moon jellyfish’…the irony is not lost on this jellyfish aficionado.
Just to be clear though, jellyfish are weird animals. They are alien to us in so many ways, if you don’t find them weird then it’s either because you have habituated to their weirdness, or you too are weird. However, there is one important aspect of their behaviour that is very similar to humans; they orient themselves according to gravity. When a jellyfish grows, it forms calcium sulphate crystals at the margins of its bell. These crystals are surrounded by a little cell pocket, coated in specialised hairs. When they move, the crystals roll down with gravity to the bottom of the pocket, moving the hairs, which in turn enables the jellies to sense up and down. Similarly, humans sense gravity and acceleration using otoliths in our inner ears that operate in the same way, informing us in which direction gravity is pulling. This flight was Columbia’s first Spacelab mission devoted to life sciences research and heralded a productive period of study into how the human body adapts to micro-gravity in Earth’s orbit.
However, if I am honest, how micro-gravity affects jellyfish and thus how it may affect astronauts, doesn’t excite me. What intrigues me about this research is the means, not the end. How utterly obscure and exciting to be designing an experiment here ‘on Earth’ which will ultimately be realised ‘not on Earth’. How outlandish that the common moon jellyfish would be central to these experiments. And how bizarre that now, for the first time in my life, with full understanding that it will never actually happen, I want to be an astronaut and travel to space to conduct jellyfish experiments. After a recent talk given at Queen’s University Belfast by NASA scientist Lynn Rothschild who began her career studying algae, maybe I shouldn’t despair just yet.
Unfortunately however, on February 1st 2003 after a prosperous career the Columbia disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana when re-entering earth’s atmosphere. A piece of insulation foam peeled off the shuttle and struck the wing of the aircraft. As a result all seven crew members of the Space Shuttle Columbia died.
Just a few days before the fateful crash, Dr. Laurel Clark, one of the seven crew (who started her career by obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology), sent an email from space to her family and friends on Earth.
“Hello from above our magnificent planet Earth. The perspective is truly awe-inspiring. This is a terrific mission and we are very busy doing science round the clock. Just getting a moment to type e-mail is precious so this will be short, and distributed to many who I know and love… I feel blessed to be here representing our country and carrying out the research of scientists around the world. All of the experiments have accomplished most of their goals despite the inevitable hiccups that occur when such a complicated undertaking is undertaken…”
Nearly 35 years since its first mission, the successes of the space shuttle Columbia and the words of Dr. Clark are still inspiring engineers, physicists, rocket scientists, astronauts, and in this case, marine biologists all around the world. A worthy mission in itself, wouldn’t you agree?