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Sea urchins

By Andrew Impey

Scientists have fired a plethora of strange creatures up into space in the quest for knowledge and enlightenment and today, almost all shuttle missions carry rats, mice, flies, and even jellyfish for scientific experiments. As early as 1949 the US launched its first monkey into space but it wasn’t until 1957 when the Russian dog named Laika became the first animal to orbit the Earth on board Sputnik II.

Since then a whole menagerie of creatures has gone supersonic including guinea pigs, frogs, snails, tortoise, spiders and cockroaches. In the 1990s sea urchins were aboard space shuttle Columbia for some top secret testing. If in a few years the army reveal their new ‘urchin’ cluster bomb we know who to blame.

Top marks must go to a chimp named Ham - firstly, for surviving life with such a stupid name (he’s a chimp not a pig!) but secondly, for demonstrating in 1961 the ability to perform tasks during spaceflight. The chimp had been trained to pull levers to receive rewards of banana pellets and avoid electric shocks - as if the stupid name wasn’t torture enough.

Bringing us right up to date – for the first time ever, animals are being exposed to both vacuum conditions and cosmic radiation. Tardigrades are related to arthropds and, when it comes to dehydration and radiation, they are one of the toughest animals on Earth. The tardigrades’ ability to withstand desiccation makes them a perfect choice when studying the effects of space travel. No point returning from your holidays on Mars looking like a shrivelled prune.

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08 Oct 2010
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