True stories about animals fascinate me. But it has to be a really great story. I’m not teary-eyed about a sweet kitten who jumps after a ball. And I’m not a fan of cat videos. But give me a true story of a wild animal who has come into contact with humans and amazed us—that gets me excited.
So when I heard about a spider that went to space, I had to investigate. The story began with a YouTube video competition. In October, 2011, YouTube and its partners asked 14-18 year old students from around the world to suggest a science experiment to send to the International Space Station (ISS). One of the two projects chosen was proposed by 18-year-old Amr Mohamed of Alexandria, Egypt. Amr wondered what would happen when a spider jumped in a microgravity environment.
Most spiders are passive hunters. They simple spin a web and wait for their food to come to them. Jumping spiders, however, actively hunt. When they spot food, they lay down a drag line silk, and then jump. What would happen when they had to jump in space? Without gravity, they’d float. Would they be able to hunt and eat?
To research the story I traveled, but not to the International Space Station. Instead, I went to Boulder, Colorado to meet Stefanie Countryman who works for BioServe Space Technologies, a center at the University of Colorado that specializes in creating space flight habitats that enable living organisms to exist as naturally as possible in an unnatural environment. Stefanie is in charge of all the live animal projects that are sent to the ISS. Bioserve had already sent up 14 spiders to space to study how they spun webs in microgravity.
Stefanie showed me the habitat they had used before and explained the problems. Keeping a spider alive in space is a huge problem. First, it needs food and water. The habitat had a chamber for water and several other chambers available. The obvious choice would be to fill the chambers with fruit flies and let them out for the spider to hunt. But time was a big factor. The spider would be on the space station for 100 days, and fruit flies only live about 40 days. The engineers and scientists decided to try to raise several generations of fruit flies. In chamber one, they put fruit fly eggs timed to hatch just as the spider reached the ISS. In chamber two, they put fruit fly food, and they hoped it would allow the fruit flies to mate, lay eggs and produce a second generation. In chamber three, which would be opened even later, they repeated the food and hoped for a third generation. Did it work?
There’s so much to tell you about this story! What kind of spider was sent? What did they name her and why? Did she survive in space?
Answering those questions is why I write biographies of individual animals. When a bird survives for over 65 years in the wild, like Wisdom, the Midway Albatross, I’m amazed. When Abayomi, an orphaned puma cub, survives on his own, I’m astounded. When a Nefertiti, a jumping spider faces the dark and cold of space, I find my own courage. I write about animals—a bird, a mammal and an arachnid—but I write to stir the human heart with hope that we, too, can survive and make a difference.
Darcy Pattison is the author of over 20 children’s books. Abayomi, the Brazilian Puma: The True Story of an Orphaned Cub was named a 2015 National Science Teacher’s Association Outstanding Science Trade Book. Wisdom, the Midway Albatross: Surviving the Japanese Tsunami and other Disasters for Over 60 Years was the first book in the animal biography series and it received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. For more, see MimsHouse.com