U.S. Students to Continue Ants-in-Space Experiment

By John Roach
for National Geographic News
February 4, 2003
Student scientists from Syracuse, New York, say they plan to finish their ants-in-space experiment started aboard space shuttle Columbia in honor of the seven fallen astronauts and their commitment to scientific discovery.

"[The students] feel that their experiment should not be in vain, they want to finish their project," said Charlotte Archabald, the students' teacher at Fowler High School in Syracuse. "They feel that what happened with the shuttle was a tragedy, but they need to fix it at NASA and move on. Space needs to be explored, research needs to be done."

The shuttle carried 15 large harvester ants found normally in the western United States so that the students could learn how space's extremely low gravity affects their tunneling behavior. National Geographic News reported the experiment
last week, only days before Columbia was lost while returning to Earth.

The students at Fowler High School spent three years preparing for the ant's rocket ride and refuse to allow the tragedy to bring their experiment to an abrupt end.

"The kids have everything they need," said Eric Spina, associate dean of Syracuse University's L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science, who helped coordinate the student involvement with the Columbia mission.

The students were able to download data daily from an Internet link and have already reviewed much of it, which includes video and still photos of the ants' behavior. Their report is due at the end of the month.

According to preliminary results, the ants appeared to be more active than their Earth-bound brethren, which was unexpected. The students had expected the ants to become disoriented by their journey.

"Their hypothesis was that the ants would be disoriented and slower in space because of the lack of gravity," said Archabald. "Actually the opposite happened. The ants tunneled like crazy, like maniacs."

The project started in 2000 when Charlotte Archabald, the student's teacher, signed her school up for space supplier SPACEHAB's Space Technology and Research Students program, an educational initiative to involve students with space exploration and promote careers in the sciences.

The company worked with Congressman James Walsh from the 25th congressional district of New York to team up with Syracuse University, who in turn selected Fowler High School because of its vision to become a magnet school for students interested in math, science, and engineering.

The ants were originally slated to launch into space in May 2001, but the science mission was superseded by trips to the International Space Station and Hubble Space Telescope. It was postponed 19 times before finally taking off from Florida on January 16.

Completing Experiment

The students at Fowler High School were crushed upon learning about the Columbia tragedy Saturday but over the past few days their depression has turned into a steely resolve to complete their experiment with focus and clarity, said Spina.

"This is life," he said. "There are disappointing tragedies but as humans, as Americans, we must dust ourselves off and get back on that horse again and do even better."

Spina said that the results of the ant experiment are unlikely to have a dramatic effect on how humans think about space, but will be an important contribution to understanding the effect microgravity has on living things.

Lessons from Tragedy

Spina hopes that the loss of Columbia will not deter students from pursuing a career in the sciences, but will rather inspire them to keep working even in the face of tragedy.

"When operating at leading edge with complex systems, the systems will fail and the important thing to do is find out what went wrong, fix it, and get right back on and continue to push the envelope," he said.

The families of the seven astronauts aboard Columbia issued a statement Monday that also urged NASA and the nation not to give up on human spaceflight in the wake of the shuttle tragedy.

"Although we grieve deeply, as do the families of Apollo 1 and Challenger before us, the bold exploration of space must go on," their statement reads. "Once the root cause of this tragedy is found and corrected, the legacy of Columbia must carry on—for the benefit of our children and yours."

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