Last year, David Willetts hit a sour note when he unveiled his vision of improving science education in Great Britain. “The two best ways of getting young people into science” the Minister of State for Universities and Science said, “are space and dinosaurs. So that’s what I intend to focus on.”
Researchers, writers and science fans quickly jumped on the comment. And rightly so. Space and dinosaurs are popular, but they don’t appeal to everyone. Not every child dreams of becoming an astronomer or paleontologist. But my favorite response to the British official’s comments was the genesis of #spacedino on Twitter. If only spacedino were real, critics joked, we would have a perfect outreach tool. Who wouldn’t love dinosaurs in space? What I didn’t know at the time was that dinosaurs had already been beyond our planet.
The first dinosaur to venture into space was a species that greatly influenced our understanding of dinosaur lives, the hadrosaur Maiasaura peeblesorum. This 76-million-year-old “good mother lizard” cared for its young in large nesting colonies, and small bits of bone and eggshell found at a nesting site were carried by astronaut Loren Acton during his brief mission to SpaceLab 2 in 1985. This was a glamorous time for the dinosaur; Maiasaura was made Montana’s state dinosaur the same year.
Dinosaurs didn’t return to space until 1998. In January of that year, the shuttle Endeavor borrowed the skull of the small Triassic theropod Coelophysis from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History for its mission to the Mir space station. Like the remains of Maiasaura before it, the fossil skull was returned to earth after the mission was over.
I guess I was wrong about spacedino. The simple combination of space and dinosaurs isn’t very exciting at all. Dinosaurs on spacecraft amounts to nothing more than trivia. It was not as if the dinosaurs were going to be included in some kind of time capsule—like the Golden Record on the Voyager spacecraft—to teach whoever might eventually discover it about past life on our planet. Real space dinosaurs just can’t compete with their science fiction counterparts.