Spiders, Urine Recycler Aboard for Space Shuttle Launch

Anne Minard
for National Geographic News
November 14, 2008
ALSO SEE: Our photo-filled blog entries from the space shuttle launch >>

The space shuttle Endeavor is set to launch this evening with an odd assortment of cargo—including live spiders, butterflies, and new technology to turn urine into drinking water.

The shuttle was cleared for a Friday launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida earlier this week, despite a 30 percent chance that a cold front could stir up rain and thick clouds.

Besides seven astronauts, Endeavor's cargo includes two new sleeping chambers, a second toilet, and a water-purification system, all of which will let NASA double the occupancy of the International Space Station to six.

The new mission is the 124th space shuttle flight and the 27th to the International Space Station. The seven-member crew will spend 15 days performing basic maintenance on the station before returning to Earth.

The launch is set for 7:55 p.m. eastern standard time. Forecasters have put the odds of acceptable conditions at 70 percent on Friday and just 40 percent on Saturday, with a much better chance of success on Sunday.

(See a video of the space shuttle Atlantis launching in February 2008.)

Full Circle

This mission is "all about home improvements" at the International Space Station, said Endeavor commander Chris Ferguson in a statement.

That includes a state-of-the-art, urine-purification system to enhance the station's water-recycling abilities. Astronauts already recycle the steam from their showers, the water from their shaving and toothbrushing—even their sweat.

Mike Leinbach, shuttle-launch director, said the "truly closed-loop water system" is the most exciting cargo aboard Endeavor.

"Reusing water in orbit is an essential technology for the longer-term missions that lie ahead—those to the moon, the near Earth asteroids, and Mars," he wrote in an email on Thursday.

"The thought of drinking this water may turn some people off, but once it has been processed, tested, and proven 'clean,' fill my glass!"

But the flight's more mundane cargo will be appreciated, too. Said payload manager Joe Delai: "You know as your family grows, that second bathroom can become very handy. Well, our ISS family is growing and having a second toilet is a good thing."

Creepy Crawlies

Live cargo will also accompany the crew on this trip: young spiders and butterflies and the nectar and fruit flies on which they'll feed.

The creatures are part of two experiments involving hundreds of elementary and middle school students in Colorado.

For the first experiment, astronauts will observe the life cycle of painted lady butterflies in space, while students monitor the creatures in classrooms on Earth.

The second experiment will compare the ability of an orb-weaving spider to spin webs and catch food on Earth and in space.

Bioserve Space Technologies, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, will downlink videos and images of the spiders and butterflies from the space station to its partners: the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, Colorado, and the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

Eileen Patrick is a librarian at Rocky Mountain Elementary School in Westminster, Colorado, near Denver. As of Thursday, her butterfly larvae were incubating in her bathroom.

If they survive the weekend, she'll begin her experiment next week with the 30 or so fourth and fifth graders who attend her after-school science program.

"If you want to raise the next generation of scientists, you don't wait until they're halfway through college to engage them in science, to fire them up," she said. "Live animals are immediately fascinating and engaging to kids."

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