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Spinning in Orbit

July 29, 2013

LAUNCH CONTROL: 5, 4, 3, 2, we have ignition sequence start, all engines running, we have a liftoff....

40 years ago today, astronauts Alan Bean, Jack Lousma, and Owen Garriott were spending their first full day aboard the Skylab space station. Over the next two months, they would observe the Sun and Earth, and study how their own bodies adapted to the space environment.

But they weren’t the only crew members who were being studied. So were two garden spiders, named Arabella and Anita. An experiment suggested by a high school student watched how the spiders made webs in the weightlessness of Earth orbit.

On the fourth day of the experiment, Garriott explained how Arabella was adapting to her new home:

GARRIOTT: The first day we let her out she didn’t come out at all. And the next day I had to more or less tap and shake the spider out of the little vial to get her to move around in the cage. And when she did come out she went through the normal reactions of legs flopping and bouncing from wall to wall for a few moments until she finally got over to the screen and hung on there. However, the very next day she had a rudimentary web formed, more or less from corner to corner, without the normal circular pattern at all. By the second day she had learned very rapidly, and starting from the corner-to-corner stringers she had then gone from stringer to stringer and formed a more or less normal radial pattern. So it seems that she learned very rapidly in zero-g....

Neither spider survived the time in orbit. But their webs provided new clues about how organisms adapt to living in space.

We’ll talk about more critters in space tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013

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