Less than a week ago, the last space shuttle rolled down the runway, an end of an era. However, research continues on the international space station. Insects have a long and storied space history. The very first animals in space were insects, Drosophila fruit flies launched on a V2 rocket on February 27, 1947.
In 1947, The United States was interested in eventually sending men into space but were concerned about the possible effects of radiation. In 1947, no one knew the extent of radiation in space, nor how much shielding might be needed to protect humans in space. Scientists turned to fruit flies which had long been used to study gene mutations caused by radiation. After making its way into space (briefly and barely) the capsule containing the fruit flies returned to earth by parachute and the fruit flies survived. The successful experiment demonstrated that the radiation in space was not enough to cause mutations to the fruit flies.
Soon, larger and more cuddly animals were sent into space followed by humans. However, many species of insects have been sent into space to study the effects of weightlessness and space travel on behavior and physiology of insects.
Insects traveled as part of the final 2 shuttle missions. STS-134 (Endeavour) carried 2 golden orb spiders (Spiders are Arachnids, not Insects; Both insects and spiders are Arthropods) along with a colony of fruit flies. The final space shuttle flight STS 135 Atlantis, returned to earth last week with the 2 orb spiders and remaining fruit flies.
The spiders were given names, “Gladys” and “Esmerelda” and were used to study effects of microgravity on spider behavior. The fruit flies remained nameless and served as food for the spiders. These brave insects made the ultimate sacrifice for “Science”.