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Painted Ladies in Space

High schoolers ask: would metamorphosis aboard a space shuttle mission yield normal butterflies?

Of all the gravity-defying wings displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, the prettiest were forged by nature in outer space. Tiny when compared with the spread of the pioneering Wright brothers’ plane or the globe-circling Voyager, they emerged in orbit, and belong to a trio of diminutive painted lady butterflies.

Now perched in the "Where Next, Columbus?" gallery, which explores the potential for human travel to Mars, the first butterflies in space provided the final data points of a student-run experiment that flew aboard the space shuttle Columbia’s STS-93 mission in July 1999. They symbolize a renaissance of interest in microgravity research as we enter the era of the International Space Station.

Gravity keeps the Moon, the shuttle and the space station in orbit around Earth, and—despite loose talk of "zero gravity"—still exists during the weightlessness of spaceflight. In fact, gravity’s pull at the altitude typical of shuttle orbits is about 90 percent that on Earth’s surface. But an object in orbit travels at such speeds as to negate almost all of this tug by sustaining a free fall—not toward Earth but around it. Such a condition of persistent microgravity is nearly impossible to reproduce anywhere within the planet’s atmosphere.

So, from the Skylab program of the 1970s to the Russian Mir Space Station (which recently plunged into the South Pacific), to the International Space Station now being deployed—and on many of the shuttle flights in between—scientists have taken advantage of these orbiting microgravity laboratories, extending the privilege even to a group of high school students studying butterflies.

The butterflies’ incredible migration began in the fall of 1997 in a classroom in Albany, Georgia. There, a team from Dougherty County’s high schools—composed of 15 students from a program designed to encourage youth with learning or physical disabilities toward careers in science and technology—set out to determine if a lack of gravity would affect metamorphosis. Might Kafkaesque supernormal bugs result? Would shape or colors change or wings be stunted or weak? Would the caterpillars, which normally climb upward and use gravity to build their chrysalises downward, be disoriented and unable to adapt?

Aided by area scientists and dedicated teachers, the pupils designed over the course of a year a very compact experiment to monitor five painted lady caterpillars and five chrysalises of varying ages. The flight itself would last five days. Assuming the role of payload specialists, students such as Leon Douglas and Julie Blackburn took the critters home at night to better understand metamorphosis, and to iron out details of the experimental design.

Spending time with both the creatures and their container allowed students to notice something that otherwise might have been missed: that the alignment of the screws and holes in at least one place in the Lexan holding box allowed caterpillars to escape. The students also figured out how to anchor the chrysalises within the box: a steel crossbar, treated with a sticky substance, to which the chrysalises could be affixed. Technicians made the necessary changes, and the experiment went forward.

Although an amateur event, the pressure was big league. The young Georgians were overseeing one of two premiere experiments in a program called S*T*A*R*S, or Space Technology and Research Students. The program was started by SPACEHAB, Inc., a Houston, Texas-based company that builds, owns and operates the reusable pressurized modules that fit in the shuttle cargo bay. The double module used on the shuttle houses up to 10,000 pounds’ worth of microgravity and life science experiments per flight, including the student projects. While other student experiments have been launched into orbit, the S*T*A*R*S program takes advantage of the Internet by "Webcasting" nearly real-time images of the experiments to the student-researchers—and countless other students at schools around the world.

Before the scheduled launch, the Georgia students took a bus to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to see off their space-faring creatures. But moments before liftoff, a sensor warned of a hydrogen leak. It turned out to be a false alarm, but in the meantime, the launch was delayed. Bad weather scuttled the second countdown. Ready for myriad snafus, the students restocked the research habitat with new sets of specimens, synchronized for the appropriate stages in their 21- to 22-day life cycle. Finally, on a third attempt, the shuttle blasted off.

Prior microgravity experimentation made some degree of success likely. Popular views are of astronauts floating while catnapping, or working robotic arms. But NASA’s elite often manipulate specially designed test tubes, petri dishes and creature cages aboard the space shuttles for the sake of basic science and commercial research. On John Glenn’s famous 1998 return to space flight—which the students watched blast off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral in preparation for their experiment—the Senator helped conduct research on new space-age materials.

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